A veteran of 14 pro campaigns, spanning seven NHL clubs, Andy Sutton has truly become an “expert” since retiring from the sport in 2012.
At age 45, Sutton is the President of Wholesale Sports Inc., the parent company of popular inline hockey brand, Alkali, apparel business Firstar, Tronx, and owns the North American distribution rights to equipment giant, Tackla.
Full Press recently caught up with the hockey entrepreneur who explained how a Kingston, ON native made his way to living on a homestead in Fallbrook, CA.
“When I retired, part of the reason I signed with the Ducks – at the time I told my agent to try to get me a job with either the Ducks or the Kings. I was nearing the end of my career and wanted to make the final stop in California,” Sutton explained.
The d-man inked a two-year deal with Anaheim, but was traded to Edmonton in the following July, and remained in the area.
“I ended up signing with the Ducks and spent some time in Orange County coming out of retirement. Moved around a little bit, now live with my wife and son on a homestead. We have about 100 fruit trees, a dozen or so vegetable gardens, chickens, three acres – we have goats, alpacas and all kinds of stuff.”
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With everything going on at home, Sutton somehow manages to spend many hours with business partner, Chris Malki in nearby Vista, where they run HockeyWest.com, the oldest wholesale hockey equipment distribution centre in the United States and e-commerce platform, HockeyTron.com.
However, Sutton is most proud of his latest acquisition, stick, and equipment manufacturer Verbero Hockey – a stand-alone company purchased this past December.
“I worked on re-branding Verbero, did some product development ads, added new features to some of their gear. Our Mercury V350 stick debuted in the past few weeks. It’s the lightest hockey stick ever brought to market. And our flagship product – Mercury V900 skate, is the only uni-bodied carbon fibre skate in the world. It’s an absolutely beautiful skate. I call it the Bugatti of skates. It’s almost so beautiful, you don’t want to use it. The underbelly of the Verbero brand is that its custom. We can customize apparel for teams in North America and worldwide.”
Studying environmental engineering while attending Michigan Tech on a hockey scholarship, product development was something that had always piqued Sutton’s interest.
“I always had an interest in really making things better than they were. Spending so much time in the game, I saw a lot of deficiencies in a lot of the gear, especially being a more physical player and a guy that blocked a lot of shots,” the former NHL defenseman told Full Press. “Coming out of the game about three years before I retired, I started developing some intellectual property in the protective space.”
Sutton’s 13-year NHL career almost never happened, if not for some hard work, and a change in position.
“I got a scholarship as a forward out of St.Mike’s (St. Michael’s MTHL), but I was a defenseman until I was 10 or 11. At that age, I was bigger than most guys, so the natural thing, I think at the time was to put your offensive guys up at forward. In my sophomore year at school, I was asked if I had any interest in going back to defense. In retrospect, it was by far the best thing I ever did. It was a struggle the first couple of years, but I won Defensive Player of the Year in the WCHA (Western Collegiate Hockey Association) in my senior season.”
“If you asked me after my junior season at Tech if I thought I was going to play pro hockey, I’d probably tell you I wasn’t. I almost accepted a job in the summer before my senior year with engineering interests in the US Navy. I decided to turn it down to give it one more shot. I trained really hard that summer, got myself ready for that senior season, not knowing what to expect.”
Undrafted, the robust blue-liner earned a pro contract with the Sharks in 1998.
“I went into to San Jose and took no prisoners. I played hard. I fought hard. I think they really appreciated the brand of hockey that I brought forward as a young person. I didn’t end up playing much in the minors, said Sutton. At the time they had absolutely all star cast of people there, Owen Nolan, Mike Ricci, Mike Vernon, some incredible players – Bernie Nicholls – just a star-studded cast. I got to spend two seasons there.”
Sutton went on to be selected in the 2000 Expansion Draft by the newly-minted Minnesota Wild. While he enjoyed his tenure with the Wild, he welcomed a trade to Atlanta shortly thereafter.
“I got to start that franchise (Wild), which was a really cool experience. However, they tried to turn me into a forward full-time – that’s where things changed for me. I went to the GM, Doug Risebrough, and told him I wanted to be a defenseman in the NHL. It’s what I would have to do to have longevity in the league. He was gracious enough to trade me relatively quickly to a team that agreed with my position. So I went to Atlanta, and went back on defense and stayed as a defenseman for the next 12-13 years.”
“I had some ups and downs bouncing from the back and forth from defense to forward, but by the time I got to Atlanta, I felt very comfortable. Thrashers coach Bob Hartley really put my career on the map. He told me, “You can play the game. You haven’t really shown it yet. From your potential, I’m going to play you 30 minutes a night.” He played me a ton. Thankfully I played well with that extra ice time. That was really it for me. The rest was really history.”
Sutton cherished his time playing in Atlanta, even remaining in the area for a period after moving on in his career.
“It was a wonderful experience playing there. I actually lived there four years after I left that team. I loved it, and still have a soft spot for Atlanta in general. Being part of that team with Dany Heatley coming in as a young player, Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa, Kari Lehtonen as a rookie – (Keith) Tkachuk came in, Bobby Holik, Scott Mellanby – there were some absolute legends of the game that made up the team. We were always on the outside looking in when it came to playoff team when I was there, but when we made the playoffs for the first time, I think were a little stunned. We didn’t play nearly as well in the playoffs as we did in the regular season. The Rangers rolled us over in four. But it was a great thing for the franchise to make the playoffs. I think at the time, the Rangers had a $120 million in salary. We were outclassed. Michael Nylander had the puck the entire series. It was a pretty incredible experience.”
Interestingly, it was Sutton’s two-month stint in Ottawa that left an indelible impression on him, personally. A 2010 trade deadline swap from the Islanders brought him close to home making for a few of Sutton’s greatest hockey memories, and it was especially so for Senators’ fans.
“It was wonderful. My family was from Kingston. They pretty much came to every game when I was there. I was really excited. It was an absolutely unbelievable experience to play for such an amazing franchise. It was probably the best year of my career in New York (Islanders). Then to be picked by a team that was going to make the playoffs, and be close to home, I’d have to say it was the highlight of my career. I look back on that time so fondly. I really enjoyed being a Senator for a short time, Sutton noted. They offered me a two-year contract at the end of the year. I was an unrestricted free agent coming off a good year. I decided to test the waters. I thought if they were still interested come July 1, it would all be in consideration. Unfortunately, they weren’t still in play by the time free agency opened up. Probably a large part of me wished I did (sign with Ottawa).”
Sutton appeared in the club’s longest game, a triple-overtime Game Five, First Round thriller versus the Penguins, won by the Senators on a Matt Carkner goal.
“That was an incredible game. If you wonder why Pittsburgh did so well in the playoffs, every time I touched the puck, a guy would just finish their check and pound you. They just had such a great team. Every single player finished their check. Every player did the right thing. They were so hard to play against. Thankfully, we were able to win the game. However, it wasn’t enough to defeat them (in the series) with the likes of (Sidney) Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin the in end. They had such a strong team. They had (Kris) Letang as a young player, (Marc-Andre) Fleury in net.”
Though Sutton played only in 24 games with Ottawa, Senators’ fans will never forget his presence in Game Two of the series when he utilized all of his six-foot-six, 245-pound frame on an unsuspecting Penguins’ Jordan Leopold.
“The game was different back then. You could hit players differently than you can today. The series was intense. The playoffs are incredibly intense as you know. Things were escalating. I think I had knocked out six-seven guys cold during the season with clean body checks. The statement was that I had been quiet through the first couple of games. It was a couple of shifts later that I stepped up and tried to make an impact. There was no penalty on the play. I think it was kind of a big statement in the series, itself.”
The short postgame scrum is a permanent part of Senators’ lore.
Sutton gives his point of view.
“When we got off the ice there was a reporter who kind of took it upon himself to try to entrap me. Emotions were running high and he tried to get me to admit that it was an illegal hit. At that time he was trying to get me to say something, and I just kept barking back. I was trying to say that was he an expert? That’s kind of one of my signature moments in my career. Sadly that was the interaction I had. I wouldn’t change a thing today. It was a pretty raw and unscripted moment for sure.”
Sutton wouldn’t change a thing that occurred that April 16, 2010 evening, and wouldn’t change anything during his 687-game NHL career.
“It was a great career. This game has given me everything. Now I’m putting everything into Verbero. It’s become my main focus. We’re excited for hockey to get rolling again.”
Follow Murray Pam on Twitter @pammerhockey