Ryan Suter can’t run these days. He can’t jump either.
“Some days I can hardly walk,” the Minnesota Wild defenseman said about the effects of breaking his right leg and ankle in a game against the Dallas Stars on March 31.
But after missing the final four games of the regular season and the Wild’s loss to the Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference First Round, he can still play hockey. His surgically repaired foot holds up where it feels most at home.
“In a skate boot, it locks in the support,” Suter said. “It [stinks] but hopefully eventually I’ll be able to get that kind of motion back. I don’t think you can survive long if you can’t do explosive stuff.”
During the offseason, he was barely able to do anything.
“Basically all summer was rehab on my ankle,” the 33-year-old said. “I couldn’t walk on it until August, not without crutches. It was awful. It was a lot different than what I’m used to doing. It wasn’t fun at all.”
Instead of working out on ice in the offseason, he spent 90 minutes a day, six days a week in the pool at University of Wisconsin Health in Madison, Wisconsin. It was his only realistic way to stay in shape and rehab his ankle.
“I basically lived in the pool all summer long,” he said. “I’d go there every morning and some of the people were there just for exercise and others were rehabbing hip injuries. I was definitely the youngest one in the pool. It was fun because I got to meet almost all of those people. Life for some of them is tough. They don’t have it easy getting around.”
Neither did he, but he was driven to start the season with the Wild, not only because of his love of the game, but because he kept hearing from those involved in his care and rehab that he might not be there on opening night.
“That kind of motivated me,” he said. “I kind of wanted to prove those people wrong. In my mind, I was going to be ready and so far it’s worked out pretty good.”
Suter has been his usual picture of consistency this season, playing all 43 games. He has 27 points (four goals, 23 assists) and is on pace to match his NHL career-high of 51 points, which he scored both last season and in 2015-16.
And the Wild certainly aren’t going easy on him.
He’s averaging 26:23 of ice time this season, second in the NHL to Drew Doughty (26:36) of the Los Angeles Kings, and he has played 30 or more minutes three times, tied for the most in the League with Oscar Klefbom of the Edmonton Oilers and Doughty.
Last season, Suter played at least 30 minutes 10 times, behind only Doughty, who did it 13 times.
“Considering what he went through all summer long and four months in that cast and couldn’t walk until August, well, think of that,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau. “Think of his age and that he’s playing 30 or 32 minutes (many nights), his mental fortitude is as strong as any athlete’s that I’ve ever seen.
“He has farmer’s strength, too. He’s not a big, hulking guy but when you go into the corner with him, he’s got one hand on his stick and the other is [pushing you away] and because of his farmer’s strength, he’s getting the puck. He’s one of those guys that you might not notice him that much but if he had played in the ’70s on those Montreal Canadiens teams, he’d be in the Hall of Fame today.”
In 1,034 NHL games with the Nashville Predators and Wild, Suter has been beyond durable.
Since he signed a 13-year contract with the Wild as a free agent July 4, 2012, he has played more minutes (13,734) than any other NHL player and has the highest average ice time per game, 27:55.
Goalie Devan Dubnyk shook his head with amazement at Suter’s pain threshold.
“I don’t think anybody’s ever going to know how much it hurts him because he’s one of those guys who just thinks he should never be hurt and you’ll never hear about it,” Dubnyk said. “But I have to imagine it’s still hurting some and it’s impressive he’s able to go out there and log the minutes and grind his way through it. He’s one of those people who thinks he should never be hurt.”
Over the past seven seasons, Suter has missed nine regular-season games — four with his injury to end last season, and five in 2014-15: two with the mumps, two because of a suspension and one for rest ahead of the playoffs.
Suter said the ankle pain has not gone away, even with the second half of the season underway.
“Honestly, it’s started to feel a lot better these last two weeks or so, a huge step forward for me in the way it feels,” he said. “Hopefully it continues to go that way.”