Emotional Suter happy return is over
NASHVILLE -- In the end, maybe this most bittersweet of homecomings was cathartic for all involved.
Ryan Suter will without doubt be happy to put this game -- his first return visit to his longtime hockey home since signing a 13-year, $98-million deal with the Minnesota Wild last July 4 -- in his rearview mirror, even though he played well and the Wild ended up with a 2-1 shootout victory.
The soft-spoken Suter seemed genuinely hurt that the sold-out crowd booed him steadily throughout the night every time he was on the ice and/or touched the puck.
"I was just trying to get through it, trying to block it out. Actually, it's not fun being booed," Suter said after the game. "They went the whole game, too, which kind of surprised me. They'll probably have some sore throats tomorrow."
Then, as his media scrum was breaking up, he added, "I'm glad it's over."
Suter's longtime defense partner Shea Weber will certainly be happy to stop talking about Suter. He joked that he'd be happy to see Saturday's game pass as long as the Predators got their two points. But the single point was welcome in a back-and-forth contest that included an overtime power play for the Wild. As for the line of questioning, it had become especially tiresome for Weber because it underscores the impact Suter's departure has had on Weber's offensive game and the entire Predator offense, which continues to languish in 30th place in the NHL.
As for the Predators fans, who sold out Bridgestone Arena for the 25th straight time Saturday night, they got their chance to vent their collective spleens over what they obviously believe was an act of betrayal by Suter.
Those boos actually turned to great cheers in the third period when Suter was called for roughing, giving the Predators a power play during which they would tie the game at 1. The goal by David Legwand provided a nice piece of vindication, given that the Predators' power play has also suffered mightily since Suter's departure.
Although the Predators have established a tradition of producing video tributes to former players upon their return -- Jordin Tootoo and Steve Sullivan to name just two were so recognized -- there was no acknowledgment of Suter's time in Nashville beyond the booing.
Suter's departure certainly left a bad taste for many connected to the Predators organization but, in the end, it was likely a charitable decision by the Predators not to produce a Suter tribute given the fans' reaction.
"I thought it was a really good decision by our organization," head coach Barry Trotz said.
Still, Trotz didn't seem to mind the booing and suggested fans better get used to the routine because Suter and the Wild will be in the same division with the Predators when realignment takes effect next season.
"If the fans can keep that up for the next 14 years, that would be awesome," Trotz said.
In this year of the lockout, it has often been difficult to separate the human element of the game from the business of the game.
But a game like Saturday's reminds that, while it is and will always be a business, it is a business populated by flesh-and-blood human beings at every turn.
Suter admitted before the game that it was jarring to walk into this building and head straight to the visitors' room. Adding to the weirdness, the night before the game, he was out to dinner and ran into one of his old neighbors from the Nashville area.
"I'm excited. I mean, I get to come back here and play in front of the fans that I started playing in front of. Just kind of mixed emotions, honestly. Excited. Excited to be with this team. And also excited to see the fans and some of these guys on that team," Suter said.
But Suter, not overly verbose or one who seeks a lot of attention, acknowledged that having to dig into his own emotions about the life-changing decision he made in signing with the Wild made him more than a little uncomfortable.
"Yeah, really weird. Yeah, these questions are kind of making me sweat a little," he said.
Suter helped transform the Predators from a marginal expansion team to a perennial playoff contender, and he understood that his return was going to create some diverse reactions from the fans.
That said, he acknowledged that the constant booing left him disappointed.
"Yeah, I am. I spent seven years here. I had a great time here. I had a lot of respect for the fans, I mean, I still do. It's part of being a fan, I understand that. It's tough to take, but it is what it is," he said.
That he ended up playing a significant role in denying the Predators two badly needed points in the standings merely heightened the emotion of the night.
"Some fans understand. Obviously, some fans don't. That's their right. They can cheer or boo or do whatever," he said before the game. "I have a lot of great memories. This is all I knew. [I had] a lot of good years here and a lot of friends but, that's all part of it. I understand when guys move teams the fans cheer the team on, and you definitely understand.
"I put a lot of thought into it, and it was the right decision for me and for my family, and I'm happy to be where I am."
If the fan reaction was unnerving, it wasn't reflected in his play. The NHL's leader in average ice time played 28:59, which was more than any other skater for either team. He sent rookie Charlie Coyle in on a breakaway in the first period with a lovely stretch pass, and then set up Zach Parise, his signing partner this past summer, for the Wild's first goal on the power play midway through the second period.
During a power play in overtime, Suter never left the ice, nearly ending it before the shootout with a hard wrist shot that was snared by netminder Pekka Rinne. Suter joked that he should have remembered that glove hand.
At the end of the day, though, Suter's return quickly becomes more a footnote than a storyline. That is the nature of the NHL in this shortened season.
The Wild, who moved into a tie with the Predators with 26 points, packed their bags quickly after the game to return home to play Vancouver Sunday night.
The Predators, who took three of four points in a two-game home stand after waxing Edmonton 6-0 Friday, are suddenly dealing with a rash of injuries. They lost Patric Hornqvist to what is believed to be a shoulder injury Friday night and then Colin Wilson when he fell awkwardly into the boards Saturday.
The Predators are also headed out on a five-game road trip next week knowing that the road has not been kind to them this season. They are 0-5-1 in their past six games away from Nashville.
Still, Trotz said he thought his team showed considerable character in earning the single point Saturday.
Earlier, the coach talked about how moments like Saturday's much-anticipated tilt remind us of the special bond that fans and teams and players develop.
"When you have an emotional game, they're emotionally tied into it. That's what I love about our sport," Trotz said.
"I think every coach, every player will tell you, when it's an emotional game, at the end of the game, you feel like something happened."
Hard to argue that after this homecoming affair.