A man of few words who works behind the scenes for the Wranglers, Kevin Rutter has managed to speak volumes this season through his enthusiastic actions and perpetually positive attitude.
“He’s probably the biggest hit in our locker room. He’s the most popular guy on the team,” Las Vegas captain Geoff Paukovich said. “Anyone who comes into the room wants to meet Kev. He’s a rock star.”
The 23-year-old Rutter, a volunteer assistant equipment manager who has Down syndrome, has given the reeling Wranglers (12-31-6, 30 points) reason to smile throughout an otherwise miserable season in the standings.
“It’s always a joy when you come to the rink and see his face,” forward Robbie Smith said. “It’s just a big boost of energy for us, seeing him smiling all the time around the dressing room.
“When you’re struggling, it’s nice to have someone there you can look at and just brighten your day.”
When he’s not helping equipment manager Jeff Maxwell do laundry, fold towels, stock coolers, and run errands, Rutter can be found showing off some dance moves and doing pregame pushups in an effort to inspire the squad.
“He’s got some good dance moves actually. I’m not gonna lie to you,” Smith said. “He gets us going. We consider him a teammate.”
Assistant coach Aaron Power said Rutter’s sunny outlook is infectious.
“He’s always smiling and full of energy, and it rubs off on people,” he said. “He just makes you smile. He’s happy, he works hard and we’re glad he can come here and enjoy himself. The boys love him.”
The feeling is mutual.
“This has been an awesome experience for him,” said Trudy Rutter, Kevin’s mother. “He adores everybody there, and he’s very proud of what he does there.
“It gives him something to look forward to.”
Kevin and his mother were at the Wranglers’ offices at Orleans Arena in September picking up tickets for a group from the Down Syndrome Organization of Southern Nevada when Maxwell asked if he’d be interested in helping him.
“Kevin was all for it,” said Trudy, the DSOSN treasurer. “I was just very excited that he was given the opportunity to do something outside of a sheltered workshop.”
Verbal communication is the biggest challenge for Kevin, a Shadow Ridge High School graduate who Trudy said has always struggled with his speech.
To bridge the communication gap, Maxwell said they use sign language and that Kevin — who mostly says “Yeah” and “Yeah, buddy” — also writes some things down.
“It’s definitely been a challenge, but a good challenge,” Maxwell said. “We make it work. Whether he writes it down or we sign it out, I figure out what he’s talking about.”
When asked what girls are, Rutter uses the universal sign language for crazy, but for chicks, he gives the thumbs-up sign.
“I didn’t teach him that, but a player to remain anonymous did,” the easygoing Maxwell said.
A Cincinnati native, Maxwell was a special education student who was diagnosed with ADHD in high school and whose best childhood friend has Down syndrome.
“When I was a kid, I was too ignorant to know the difference,” he said. “Now that I’m an adult, I’m too ignorant to care.”
Maxwell — whose mother, JoAnn, is a teacher and whose father, Mark, is a former teacher who helped start a community program for people with disabilities called “Starfire” — went to college for a year and a half to become a special ed teacher before leaving to pursue a career in hockey.
“My mom always thought I’d be good working with people with a disability, so this was kind of my way to do both,” he said.
Maxwell said Rutter is a good listener and conscientious worker who will start doing laundry unsupervised when he arrives at the rink.
He has a tendency to wander at times, though, and during a recent game against Ontario, he was discovered sitting in the visitor’s locker room after the first period, proudly wearing his Wranglers jersey while nodding at the Reign players.
“He was there to tell them ‘Boo,’” said Trudy, who said Kevin also gave them the thumbs-down sign.
Besides the Wranglers, Kevin is active in the Special Olympics — where he recently competed in bowling, bocce and swimming — and at the DSOSN, where he competes in “Buddy Bowlers,” is a member of the “Cool 21s” adult social group and was named its 2013 volunteer of the year.
“Oh my gosh. Everybody that he met knew about it. He was very, very excited and very, very proud,” Trudy said. “He volunteers for most everything.”
Trudy Rutter, 54, said having patience has been the biggest challenge in raising Kevin, the youngest of her four children with her husband Cam, 70.
“I’ve always said he should’ve been my first born because of all the things I’ve learned,” she said. “He is so accepting of anybody. He does not make judgments. And life is always good. Or most of the time.”
The 6-foot-8-inch Maxwell considers Kevin a friend and recently treated him to a surprise trip to the Stratosphere, where they ate pizza and went on the thrill rides atop the tower.
“He works hard for me, we always have a good time together and I knew he would appreciate it,” Maxwell said.
A Disneyland fanatic, Kevin was fired up to ride the rides.
“He was pulling me into the lines,” Maxwell said. “It was the fastest I’ve ever seen him move.”
In fact, Rutter was having so much fun — screaming “Oh yeah! Oh yeah!” and “Woohoo!” — that two Englishmen followed them to each ride.
“They said they had such a good time listening to him cheer,” Maxwell said.
Trudy said that was the first time Kevin did something fun like that with a friend, without a parent around.
“He loves stuff like that, and to do it with a buddy was awesome,” she said. “I wanted to let him be independent and just experience what any other 20-something does.”
When Kevin went home, where he lives with his parents, Trudy said he declared, “I’m moving in with Jeff.”
When she explained that Jeff already has roommates, Kevin said, “My own place then.”
“He was telling me that he wants to move out,” Trudy said. “Jeff has way more fun than we do.”
Armed with the proper skills and support, Trudy said Kevin could live on his own one day. Having people such as Maxwell placing high expectations on him can only help.
“I cannot say enough good things about Jeff. I wish we could clone him,” Trudy said. “He just expects Kevin to rise to the occasion, and that’s awesome, because so many people don’t.
“They tend to do for and Jeff does with.”
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at email@example.com or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33.