CALGARY – At some point amidst the chaos, desperation and emotion of the Calgary Flames’ battle to prolong their post-season Thursday, Chris Sutter will step up to do his part to help his father below.
After a packaged introduction on the Jumbotron, the coach’s ever-popular son will step into the aisle to start a series of intense dance moves that invariably spur Saddledome-dwellers to raise the decibel level in support of his beloved Flames.
It never fails.
Introduced simply as Chris Sutter Time, what follows is an inspirational salute to a team and father from a young man whose powerful connection to both stems from an early fight for his life.
“It was touch and go when he was born,” said Darryl Sutter of a rarely discussed episode that shaped his life in 1993. “Because of how powerful the amount of oxygen was that they had to give him, they thought he’d be deaf and blind.
“They moved him from where he was born to what was then the Lutheran General, which is the Children’s Hospital in Chicago. They took him right away because of basically the way his blue and red blood was mixing, and he had a flap in his heart. He was in the hospital for a long time.”
Several surgeries helped the young fighter with his hearing, the flap in his heart closed and his eyesight materialized through an emotional battle that also included a Down Syndrome diagnosis.
“The real part of it was, imagine how it is when doctors tell you as a father and a mother that you should give your child up,” said Darryl, pausing. “That’s what they told us. They said we should make him what’s called a ‘ward of the state.’
“You’ve got to remember, that was quite a while ago. When we were growing up, a lot of children with special needs weren’t raised by their family.
“I said, ‘You worry about making him healthy enough to get out of here, and I’ll worry about where he lives.’”
As a first-year coach of his beloved Blackhawks, the father of three had to balance preparing his team for the playoffs with spending as much time as he could with his wife, Wanda, and Chris.
“I’d go to the game and I’d just go stay all night in the hospital, in one of those neonatal things,” said Darryl, who wasn’t able to bring Chris home until after the playoffs.
“The nurse would let me put my finger inside the (tenting) and he’d hold my finger. I used to tell him that’s what kept us going. He still talks about that because I’ve talked to him lots about it whenever he’s sad, mad or happy. There’s that connection.”
It’s a bond neither will ever let go of.
“He is a great dad for me,” said Chris, now 29. “He always talks about me. He says to the players and everybody else, ‘My son, he’s a very good dancer.’
“The video he did on (World) Down Syndrome Day was my favourite.”
In that video, just before Chris’ birthday in March, the Flames players celebrated at practice with mismatched socks before Darryl told Flames TV host Brendan Parker: “Chris changed our lives forever. He is like our shining light every day, and we’re thankful for him.”
A popular fixture in every dressing room Dad has coached in, Chris’ infectious personality and support are such that he’ll wait at home after games for a full download with Dad.
“He has his own rating system and goes over it with me after the game,” smiled the Flames’ 63-year-old coach. “I bring home the game sheet or send it to him and he rates every single player from zero to two.
“Zero means not good enough, one means he was fine and two means he was great.
“We’ll go over the whole thing, it’s awesome.”
And just how amenable is Dad to his son’s dissecting?
“After games, he always gets grumpy and has attitude sometimes, and that’s all right,” said Chris, as straightforward as his pops. “He’s a good guy and is a very good coach who talks and talks with all the players. That’s how you have a great team.”
At several points in Thursday’s do-or-die Game 5 showdown with the Oilers, when the game-day production crew senses a need to rally the fans, they’ll turn to Chris to lift them with his inventive series of gyrations, vibrations and hip sways in his beloved Mikael Backlund jersey.
With his ever-supportive mom clapping along, Chris often opens with the Hulk Hogan-inspired hand to the ear, summoning sound that is music to his recalibrated ears.
One can only imagine the pride the stone-faced Flames coach feels whenever he gazes over to see his son stealing the hearts of a fan base he does so well to rev up.
“I used to look up because players would tap me, but I don’t need to look anymore – I’ve seen all his dance moves,” Darryl said, smiling, of a dancing tradition that started during his first go-around with the Flames in the early 2000s, when Chris was a young boy.
“(Late Flames president) Ken King was huge with that. He told Chris, ‘Your job is to get 20,000 people on their feet.’”
A job he takes seriously.
“I taught myself to dance, I don’t take lessons,” said Chris, who lights up when recalling the night in 2012 he slept with the Stanley Cup at the family’s farmhouse in Viking, Alta.
“I make all the dance moves up myself, and I love to make the people cheer.”
Having the confidence and personality to perform nightly in front of tens of thousands stems from the lifelong care and guidance Wanda and Darryl provided Chris.
Darryl’s zero tolerance for anything but peak effort from gifted athletes has plenty to do with seeing just how hard Chris has had to battle in his life.
“It used to be if you had Down Syndrome, you were considered at that IQ level, which is not true anymore — you can elevate or downgrade based on what you give those children,” said Darryl, who stepped away from coaching for two years and returned to the farm to focus on helping Chris.
“That was our whole goal, ‘We’re going to max out’ — we’re not going on what they say, but what we say, and get as much help for him as we could.
“Going home for two years was a big part of it. Huge, because then we could take him wherever he had to go and then be with him.
“He still had a lot of health issues, so that was another part of being home, being outside on the farm. It was huge for him and his development.
“He could get out and just let him rip.”
“He’s out there on his Gator, taking down numbers of hurt animals, helping in so many ways like stuffing them up the chute,” beamed the Jolly Rancher, who rarely talks about Chris without breaking into a grin. “You don’t worry about him. He’s safe and he knows what he’s doing.
“There aren’t many kids that can do what he can do.
“I can trust him.”
Chris knows that.
“I love the farm and I love the Flames so much,” said Chris. “And I love my dad.”