MADISON, Wis. – To those outside the state of Wisconsin, Bob Suter was part of the famed 1980 U.S. Olympic Ice Hockey Team that upset the Soviet Union on its way to the gold medal in Lake Placid, New York. To the people in the state who followed his career or associated with him, he was so much more.
The Madison native was a state champion at East High School in 1975, a vital piece in the University of Wisconsin’s 1977 NCAA championship team and a key figure in the community who helped grow youth hockey from a grassroots level, teaching hundreds of kids about the game.
Suter, who died last Tuesday after suffering a heart attack at the age of 57 at the ice rink he co-owned in Middleton, Wisconsin, was beloved by many, as evident by the number of people who came to say their goodbyes. During visitation on Friday, some people waited up to four hours to pay their respects.
On Saturday, his funeral was held at the Alliant Energy Center, next door to the Dane County Coliseum where he played college hockey, because no Lutheran church could handle the massive turnout.
“With respect to all of my teammates, I don’t think anybody has done more for the game of hockey in terms of the youth level, high school level, the community level than Bobby Suter,” said Mike Eruzione, captain of the 1980 U.S. team. “He had such a passion and a love for the game. He took care of kids.”
The memorial was a fitting tribute to a man who played hockey like he lived his life: unselfishly.
“Bob was the ultimate teammate,” said University of Wisconsin men’s ice hockey coach Mike Eaves, who was on that 1977 team. “He could skate like the wind and was as hard of a competitor that I ever knew.”
To his teammates, Suter was nicknamed “Woody” because he was as resilient as a wood duck popping back up to the surface in any adverse conditions. To Eruzione, he was ‘Bam Bam,’ named after the “The Flintstones” cartoon character because he was always banging people around.
“He was a character,” Eruzione said, chuckling over a multitude of memories. “He was unique. We had so much fun playing with Bobby. He was always sticking his glove in your face at some point in practice. He was a great teammate. He was somebody that was loyal, somebody that everybody respected and love playing with.”
He was also tough, coming back from a broken ankle three months before the 1980 Games to be a glue guy on that team. Suter still holds the Wisconsin record for career penalties (177) and penalty minutes (377).
Suter never made it to the NHL, always saying there were other things he wanted to do besides play hockey. His main passion was the ice rink and a sporting goods store he owned, two outlets he used to help grow the game of hockey through the Madison Capitals youth program for boys and girls.
“Bob touched a lot of kids and gave them an opportunity to play hockey,” said Mark Johnson, who coaches the University of Wisconsin women’s hockey program and was Suter’s teammate with the Badgers and with the Miracle on Ice team. “He had such a passion for hockey.”
One player who went through one of those youth programs was Suter’s son, Ryan. He followed in his dad’s footsteps at Wisconsin (being coached by Eaves), to have a successful NHL career and two stints with Team USA, winning a silver medal at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games and finishing fourth at the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, in February. Ryan, a defenseman, plays for the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, the same organization for which his dad was a scout.
Suter also blazed a trail for his brother, Gary, who played for Wisconsin, became a two-time Olympian, earning a silver medal in 2002 and played as a defenseman in the NHL from 1985 to 2002. He was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2011.
Suter is the first player from the Miracle on Ice roster to die. The team’s famed coach, Herb Brooks, was killed in a car accident in 2003.
“For 35 years, our team has been blessed with so many good things,” Eruzione said. “Obviously the passing of Herb was very difficult, and now this is even harder. He’s one of 20 special players that was a part of something so amazing.”
Benjamin Worgull is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.