Wednesday, June 11, 2014

L.A. Kings Darryl Sutter opens up about his son with Down Syndrome

by Bruce Arthur from The Star:
The email came from a 25-year-old in New York; we’ll call him Brian. He enclosed a picture of his older brother, who we’ll call Henry. Henry is 27, and lives in Chicago. He has Down syndrome. In the picture he is looking off to the side but he is smiling, and Darryl Sutter’s arm is around him. Darryl is smiling, too.
Brian wasn’t looking for a story, and Henry doesn’t want to be famous, so their names have been changed. But Brian had just watched Sutter’s press conferences, with that plain Prairie voice and that unimpressed rubber face and the clipped short answers that are becoming famous. Brian saw people calling Sutter rude, or laughing, as if that was the measure of the man.
He knew it wasn’t, because his father once read an article that mentioned Sutter’s third child, Christopher, who has Down syndrome. The father read the piece aloud with Henry. Henry wrote Sutter a letter. Sutter was the coach of the San Jose Sharks.
Sutter wrote back by hand, on Sharks letterhead. When the Sharks came to Chicago, Brian and Henry and their father were invited to a morning skate, and Darryl met them in the stands. Not everyone knew how to speak to Henry. Darryl did.
“There’s something there between the two of them that there just isn’t with other adults,” says Brian. “Things my brother says, it just brings out the biggest smile on Darryl’s face. I’m a Blues fan, and one time (in 2012) Henry said, ‘Hey, remember when the Kings beat the Blues in the playoffs?’ And Darryl just laughed and laughed. It’s simple, but he understands.”
They exchanged more letters, over time. A letter Sutter wrote is still framed on Henry’s wall in Chicago, along with sticks, jerseys, gear from San Jose and Calgary and L.A. Henry wears a Kings jersey after every win.
“I’d rather just take care of my family in the locker room, and my family at home, and then people that I think should be taken care of,” says Sutter, in a near-empty hallway at Madison Square Garden, between Games 3 and 4 of the Stanley Cup final. “It makes them feel good. And that’s sort of what we’re supposed to do in our lifetime, is make people feel good. So when I get the opportunity to do that, I’ll do that.”
When Christopher was born, the doctors told Darryl and his wife Wanda that he would be deaf and blind. He had heart surgery at 14 days old. Sutter, one of the seven Sutter brothers, was the coach in Chicago; he would eventually step down to take better care of his infant son. When he coached in Calgary and San Jose, it was partly because there was either family or specialized care in place. And he made connections with other kids.
“I think it’s just important,” says Sutter quietly, no fuss. “I was raised in a big family, you know, we didn’t have much growing up. So we’ve always been really respectful of people — actually, it’s probably more family-related — that are in need of some help in some way.
“And we’ve always been sort of drawn to that or recognized that. It probably helped us a lot with Christopher, too. Because, you know, we were always such a tight, close, inner, private sort of family, but when Chris was born, in order to maximize what we could get out of Christopher we had to make it bigger. And with bigger comes people that you don’t know a lot of times.
“That’s part of kids, letting them take the next step. My mom still tells us about that, when we all left to go away to play hockey, we all left when we were 15 or 16, so we had to get on an old yellow school bus out in the country. It would stop at the farm. But she said she’d cry every night when that bus went by and wouldn’t stop at the gate. She’d cry because the boys wouldn’t get off the bus. She still says that.
“I tell him he leads the perfect life. He gets to be on the farm half the year, and he’s on the beach and a hockey game the other half. So he’s got the perfect life.”

Sutter gets an email or a text from a family in Calgary that has a boy with Down syndrome every day, every day. Henry sends him emails after wins especially. He runs into parents and children with Down syndrome on the street, and stops to chat. Sutter never talks about this stuff. He just does it.
“Because you feel almost responsible to do it,” he says. “You feel responsible, like you should do it. And that’s a good thing. It makes you feel good, too.
“Yeah, it does happen a lot. But at the same time, I make a point with my family to be a part of that always. And that’s sort of helped us because of my lifestyle, because you’re gone as a father. Basically, even when you’re home, you’re not really home. So that’s something that’s always kept us close and really connected us as a family, to be parts of other people’s lives in different ways.”
The world sees a man of few words, most of the time. They see a bit of a cartoon, because that’s what Sutter wants to show. But on this, he has a lot to say.
“I can stand and talk to Chris and know what he’s talking about, but you might not be able to,” says Sutter. “It’s the same thing when you talk to the other challenged children; you can pick up what they’re trying to do, right?
“You understand their emotions, because most special-needs kids, their emotions are what drives their life. They always have extreme emotions, either really happy, or really sad, really mad, something, eh? Strong. It’s because they have good hearts. Like Christopher has a great heart. If Christopher was here today, you’d all love him. You’d want to go do something with him. It’s just what he does. He can pick up how you’re feeling, it’s how he is. It’s an amazing thing. So that has had a big impact for me, us.”
Christopher appears on the Kings’ Jumbotron at every home game and dances, full of joy. He high-fives the media after wins. He learned how to play guitar, and plays some in church. He is 21. Sutter is very proud of him.
Sutter is asked whether he sees Chris in those other kids. He’s not sure, he says. Maybe. He says he never thought about it like that.
“That’s what we do,” Sutter says. “Why not? And you don’t have to be in the spotlight to do that. It’s almost better the other way.
“We all have that in us. That’s the secret to certain people. That’s part of our responsibility as parents and good people to do that. We all have that in us.”
He shakes hands, grabs some cough drops for a reporter whose throat keeps closing, says thanks. We all have that in us, and some of us let it out.

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