Jake Suter's decision to make a change to help his Midget team last season is paying dividends for the defenseman and the Owatonna Express in the early goings of the 2009-10 NAHL season.
After three road losses (two regulation, one shootout) to start the season, Owatonna skated into the Express lane and tore off eight wins in a row. The Express is tied with North Iowa atop the Central Division with 21 points (10-4-1).
The 6-foot, 190-pound Suter, meanwhile, has emerged as a player Express head coach Pat Cullen relies upon in all situations.
"We’ve had a very good start, and he's been one of the major contributors," Cullen said. "He's been a nice addition. He’s got a good feel for the game.”
It might surprise some followers of the sport to discover that Suter bucked a family tradition of playing defense until only a year ago, when his Madison (Wis.) Capitols Midget Major team was short of players on the blue line.
"We only had five D on the team, so I told my dad and uncle (his Capitols coaches) I'd try it," said Suter, a 1990 birth year who has six points (three goals, three assists) through 15 games. "I ended up being comfortable."
The words "Suter" and "defense" are synonymous, so it's fascinating that Jake played forward until his final season of Midget in the shadow of University of Wisconsin, where his father, uncle and cousin all played defense.
Jake's father, Gary, enjoyed a 17-year career as an NHL defenseman and won a Stanley Cup in Calgary (where Jake was born). His cousin, Ryan, the seventh overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, is a five-year veteran on the Nashville Predators blue line and is likely a 2010 U.S. Olympic team member. Jake's uncle, Bob, also played defense for a U.S. Olympic team - the 1980 Miracle on Ice squad.
Yet Jake grew up idolizing forwards his father played alongside such as Jeremy Roenick in Chicago ("I thought he was so cool, just an amazing personality," he said), and, in San Jose, Tony Granato ("His sons were my age and he was so kind.") and Mike Ricci ("Just a gritty guy, and a great guy. He'd make faces at all of the kids during practice to try to make us laugh.").
Jake's access to his family’s array of expertise has eased transition to more backward skating, but it never has been forced.
"My dad tends to wait for me to ask (for advice) rather than just give it to me all the time," Jake said. “I talk to him a lot after games, and he’ll offer suggestions if I ask.
"I skate a lot with Ryan during the spring and summer, and this past spring he gave me a ton of technical pointers, just little stuff like using your stick to poke the puck away, positioning."
Suter has thoroughly enjoyed his transition to the NAHL.
“It’s been great, and I’m loving it here,” he said. “The team is good; nothing can compare to winning. Coach and the community have made (the transition) easier.”
Cullen paired Suter with Owatonna veteran Nick Carson on defense.
"They work well together because both compete very hard and have a burning desire to be successful," Cullen said. "They feed off each other very well."
Take the name off the back of the jersey, however, and it’s possible no one would know of Jake's pedigree.
"He's fit in really well with his teammates," Cullen said. "He's very unselfish and just wants to get better. It's been an easy transition because he has all the qualities of a kid who wants to improve."
At this pace, Suter might find himself patrolling a Division I blue line in the next year or two.
“I’m waiting to see what will happen with college,” Suter said. “If I can go play D-I next year, I will, but I haven’t really thought about it much.”