Turning off the gravel range road upon reaching the Sutter family mailbox, the first thing you're greeted by are a pair of donkeys the kids gave Brent Sutter one Father's Day.
Winding your way up along a tree-lined driveway he had paved using bonus money from his first year in Chicago, you soon approach impeccably kept garden beds that soften the family homestead he longed to return to each of the last two winters.
After parking amidst the handful of cars driven by wife Connie, daughter Brooke and his two sons, you see a sturdy pickup truck with a suitcase in the passenger seat -- a clear indication which vehicle the well-traveled Flames coach uses.
It's Sunday morning and aside from a gentle breeze ruffling the trees, all is quiet, including a 10-year-old German Shepherd named Dakota, which is sleeping next to a cowboy boot-shaped planter on the farmhouse stoop.
Answering the door wearing a grin and internationally recognized farmwear consisting of jeans and a checkered shirt, Sutter welcomes you into the home he helped build.
Proudly introducing his 17-year-old daughter and her friend to his guest, he mixes up hot beverages as the two bashful teens scurry upstairs.
His oldest son, Merrick, 22, a business student at Mount Royal College, is home for the summer, as is 20-year-old Brandon, who just finished his first season with the Carolina Hurricanes. All is well.
Perched atop one of eight 160-acre parcels of lands he owns in the area just 15 minutes outside Red Deer, Sutter's 3,200-sq. ft. home marks the highest point in Red Deer County. Not only does it provide Sutter with the happiness he struggled to find 3,000 km away in New Jersey, it also offers up a breathtaking view from the south-facing deck. As impeccably kept as the inside of his modern country-style home, his backyard retreat has him surrounded by endless flowers, a hot tub, a fire pit and a pergola that shields him from a brilliant sunshine.
"I needed to get back here," said Sutter, looking out at a view that allows him to see Innisfail and Olds at night.
"It's the right thing for this time in my life. It wasn't working in New Jersey, and at this point in time and where I'm at with my kids, I needed to get back here. I didn't want to regret it when I'm 60. I came home to be with my family and the (Red Deer) Rebels, (the WHL team he owns), and I was perfectly content and happy. I hope now that you're out here, you can see why."
Aside from the handful of buildings on his property visible upon arrival, there's no sign of the massive farming operation two ranch hands run for Sutter a few hundred yards from his home. But if there's one thing that's clear when sitting down to talk to the 47-year-old about life, it's Brent Sutter is a farmer first -- a farmer who just so happened to be the most gifted hockey player in the game's most prolific family. And while his record with both the Rebels and the New Jersey Devils suggests he's every bit as talented a coach, farming is his passion. Never mind the fact he made a comfortable living for 18 years of an NHL career that saw him win two Stanley Cups and play for Team Canada throughout, breeding is his business.
Like most ranchers, conversation starts with rain concerns and is subsequently punctuated with terms most city boys can only pretend to understand.
"This year, we'll be calving out around 375 head of cows," said Sutter, after putting on a ball cap and a pair of boots to give a tour of the cow/calf operation he grew from the ground up.
"To be involved in this industry, you've got to know about cattle, how to drive machinery and upkeep it and mend fences. Growing up in Viking, we had cattle, pig, chickens ... and we were grain farmers. The seven boys, we used to butcher the chickens, sell cream from the dairy cows to the creamery, milk them morning and night ... We all had our chores to do on the farm. Now, Darryl has a very similar operation in Viking, and Brian has a similar place just outside of town.
"It's just a way of life."
As he walks through structures housing massive John Deere tractors with windows cleaner than in most homes, it's evident Sutter is a detail man. While walking, he finds himself subconsciously plucking the odd weed or clearing an errant pebble, demonstrating just how much of a perfectionist he is -- a trait that helps explains his coaching success.
"I know I'm kind of an oddball -- I'm pretty fussy how things are done," he laughed.
"I like things kept up and clean and maintenance on the machinery done. I'm a neat freak, and that's the way I am. Here, the Rebels office and everything I do -- I try to always keep things in order."
Same goes for Sutter the coach.
"I guess the way I am as a person translates into how I am as a coach," he admitted.
"If you've got a plan and structure in place, things run smoother and decisions are easy to make."
As he does behind the bench, the man whose family was blessed with a tremendous work ethic demands the same of all those around him, including his cows.
"We feed 'em and give 'em their water a half-mile away so they exercise and are more physically fit -- they calf easier then," explained Sutter who is expecting to get in the neighbourhood of $500 a head for the close to 400 calves his cows will produce between mid-January and March.
It's a far cry from the $900 he got before BSE devastated Alberta cattle farmers. To make matters worse, a relative drought this summer has limited the animals' food supply.
"The last couple years have been tough," said Sutter, about to embark on a haying season that gives him endless hours to clear his mind on tractors.
"Yet, you weather the storm. Everyone still eats beef."
Outside of two hockey nets next to one of the barns, one of the only signs of Sutter's double life as a hockey player or coach comes in the form of a poster commemorating the Rebels' Memorial Cup-winning season in 2001. It's located in a small office connected to a heated barn a few hundred metres from his house.
It is there Sutter has spent countless nights sleeping on a cot in the dead of winter, waking every hour or two to keep watch over birthing cows.
"Coming out tail-first is a bad thing," said Sutter, sitting at a tiny coffee table in his humble winter enclave complete with a kitchen, TV, VCR and DVD player so he could watch game film while coaching the Rebels.
"I'd be up until 2 or 3 watching and writing stuff down as I couldn't sleep anyway. You don't get much sleep in the barn in the middle of the winter, but everyone in the cow/calf business knows that. Through calving season, there's not much rest -- you really have to dig in for two or three months because that's your income, your bread and butter. This is not a hobby, this is a business for me. When I was here, that was my house away from the house -- I was just glad it wasn't the doghouse because I've been in there a few times."
His return to Alberta has his family happy even though he'll spend most of his time in a Calgary condo focused on the Flames, whom he joined weeks after the Devils let him out of his contract -- a move that had many out east crying foul.
Some called him a quitter.
"Even though all that's been said and written down there, they don't know," said Sutter, whose mother's quiet battle with cancer in Viking last year was one of the many reasons he longed to return to Alberta. "You're 3,000 miles away, and you're not even there to help with a sickness in your family. That's no one's fault, but you ask yourself, 'Is this the right thing to be doing?'
That's why I sat back and said, 'This isn't a good fit for me or my family.' The Devils knew what I was leaning towards."
So he moved home, got a call five days later from brother Darryl and is now overseeing the Flames in a move he vehemently denies was part of his master plan.
But it fit.
"When I told my daughter, she got a big smile on her face and said, 'Dad, I'm happy you're going to be home,' " beamed Sutter. "I know how she felt when I left. It was hard on her and hard on me. I was gone eight months a year -- in 16 months, I saw her 13 times and 23 days total. Is that right?"
At the end of the day, Alberta is where he belongs.
"This is home - where my roots are," Sutter said. "Until people see it, they don't know what I have here."
The last thing you see when you leave are the donkeys: Lightning and Shadow. The best of friends, they are there to keep coyotes away from the calves and prevent the two-dozen bulls from fighting.
Indeed with them and Brent around, the Sutter ranch is a peaceful place.