To an outsider, the ice at Skyreach Centre is just another mass of frozen water in a nondescript arena. To Brian Sutherby, it is home -- a reminder of the teams and players who made him fall in love with hockey.
Sutherby's quietly proficient rookie season with the Washington Capitals reached its apex here this afternoon, when for the first time in his life he skated at Skyreach Centre, where the Capitals practiced in preparation for Saturday's game. Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier turned the Edmonton Oilers into a dynasty back when the arena was called Northlands Coliseum, winning five Stanley Cups between 1984 and 1990.
"My dad had me going to games here when I was two years old, all through the glory years," Sutherby said. "It will be a dream come true to play here. I lived here for 21 years and played a lot of hockey around here, but I had never actually touched the ice before. It was pretty cool to finally skate here."
Sutherby, who played seven games for the Capitals last season before being returned to his junior team, estimates at least 50 family and friends will attend Saturday's game, and his father, grandmother, uncle, aunt and young cousins all watched today's practice.
"This is just an absolutely phenomenal feeling," said Sutherby's father, Barry, who looked on from the same section where he had season tickets for 10 years. "Brian and I spent a lot of hours here, and he said to me when he was 12 or 13, 'You know, dad, I never played at the Coliseum.' And I said, 'Keep working hard like you are, keep the dream alive and maybe in your first game here you'll be wearing an NHL jersey.' It's a dream come true, literally."
The timing of this trip is fitting, completing a week in which Sutherby has proven to the organization his ability to accept a larger role and his commitment to doing whatever it takes to win. It began on Sunday, when Sutherby took on Colorado's Adam Foote, a grizzled and chiseled veteran defenseman who is among the more dangerous fighters in the game.
"I gave [Foote] a little nudge with the stick and he didn't like it too much and then he dropped the gloves," said Sutherby, who routinely rushes to aid his teammates in physical confrontations. "I didn't really think about who I was fighting too much. It's just part of the game and part of my style. I just try to go out there and bang and crash and bring some energy, and sometimes [fighting] comes with the territory."
Sutherby excelled against the bigger and more experienced foe -- "I was more than a little scared for him," his father said -- landing several booming punches while displaying great upper-body strength to hold off Foote. That sequence, along with Sutherby's continued strong defensive efforts, helped the Capitals earn perhaps their biggest win of the season over the Avalanche and cemented his status as a center who could be counted on for toughness and sound overall play in the clutch.
"He fought a player that most young guys would show too much respect," said General Manager George McPhee, a willing fighter in his playing days. "That's one of the attributes you really like in Brian. Nothing intimidates him -- not an opposing team, not an opposing player and not an opposing goalie. Nothing bothers him, he's one of our best defensive players, and he plays hard and with an edge all the time."
Those qualities have also endeared Sutherby to first-year coach Bruce Cassidy. Cassidy has been giving him more key defensive assignments, switching him to wing in vital situations late in periods. He remains a trusted defensive player -- exuding maturity and hockey sense not often found in youngsters -- who could get even more ice time in the postseason.
"That's a lot of pressure to put on a 20-year-old kid, but we're going to need Brian Sutherby in the playoffs to protect leads," Cassidy said.
The final piece of Sutherby's evolution will be offense. A gifted scorer in his amateur career, Sutherby has two goals and nine points in 64 games this season while getting limited shifts, but the Capitals see him as a future team captain who can score goals while keeping other teams from scoring.
"We don't care about his points at all right now," said McPhee, who turned down Edmonton's offer of all-star defenseman Janne Niinimaa for Sutherby at last week's trade deadline. "We told him at the beginning of the year that your role is to be a reliable, fourth-line center: Play hard, give us some speed and don't get scored on. He's given us exactly what we hoped for."
Capitals Notes: Winger Jaromir Jagr (broken bone in wrist) practiced again today but told Cassidy he is still not comfortable enough stick-handling to play in a game. . . . Winger Kip Miller (hand) is scheduled to play Saturday night after missing seven games. . . . Winger Steve Konowalchuk did not practice today. He has a cut on his foot and was unable to get his skates on. If he can do so Saturday he will play; if not, he is unlikely to miss more than one game. . . . Defenseman Ken Klee will not be suspended for his hit from behind on Calgary's Jarome Iginla on Thursday night, sources said. . . . The Washington chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association has nominated defenseman Calle Johansson for the Bill Masterton Trophy, which is presented annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.