July 13, 2013

1994 Vancouver Canucks: Cliff Ronning: The Little Man That Could

The following is an excerpt from my unreleased book: Remembering The 1994 Vancouver Canucks. Please see below for the full table of contents.

Cliff Ronning was all about the numbers.

I'm not talking about his 18 seasons in the National Hockey League, for an impressive 1137 career games, just the 176th player in league history to play in 1000 games. I'm not referring to his scoring exploits which saw him score 89 goals and 197 points in his final season of junior. Nor am I talking his career 306 NHL goals, 563 assists or 869 points, all very solid numbers. I'm not even referring to his 126 career playoff games or his 89 career playoff points, 15 of which came in 1994 when he came within a whisker of winning the Stanley Cup.

No, the numbers that always defined Cliff Ronning were his height of 5'8" inches and size at 165 pounds.
His whole life Ronning faced detractors and experts who said many he would never make it in the NHL because he was too small. No matter how impressive his offensive numbers were in junior, international or minor pro hockey, teams just would not give him a chance.

The shifty centre believes the constant criticism actually helped him become the great NHL hockey player he became more so than hinder him.

"It did the opposite. If anything, I'd like to thank those people who said that. That's what kept me wanting to keep proving things," he said. "If no one said anything, I probably wouldn't have that feeling I have to keep proving myself."

Prove himself he did. He became one of the most entertaining and productive players in the NHL.

Ronning had hands soft enough to stickhandle in a phone booth. He also had great first-step speed, which he utilized in a variety of ways to help his teammates, most notably by turning on a dime while carrying the puck to buy him extra time. Ronning had a knack of finding the hole in the open ice and was effective at distracting a goalie by buzzing around the net. He was also tremendously poised, and despite his size, was never afraid to zip in and out of the high traffic areas. Ronning was particularly dangerous on the power play, where he loved to come off the wall and curl into the slot where he would either pass to the corners or slip in further to unleash his weak but accurate shot.

At the trading deadline in 1991, Ronning was returned home where he would play for his boyhood idols the Vancouver Canucks. Joined by Sergio Momesso, Robert Dirk and Geoff Courtnall in that trade, the transaction is widely remembered as one of the best in Canucks history.

In Vancouver, Ronning immediately was given the opportunity to succeed. He would become a point per game player, always near the top of the Canucks scoring list.

The 1993-94 regular season was a disappointment for both Ronning and the Canucks. Both seemed to take a step backwards, even though the team had been knocking on the door as one of the league's top championship contenders. Ronning slipped to 68 points, still third best on the team, but he was unhappy with the regular season.

Both the Canucks and in particular Ronning rectified their poor regular season showing in the playoffs. The team went on their unexpected playoff run, finishing just one goal shy in game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. Ronning's 5 goals and 15 points during that post season may have been overshadowed by the likes of Bure, Trevor Linden, and Greg Adams, but Ronning was a significant contributor to that magical post season run.

The hometown hero added boyhood spunk to his already established reputation as a playoff warrior. John Davidson, colour man on the MSG/ESPN television broadcasts, was so impressed that he called Ronning "one of the top three forwards in the finals, perhaps Vancouver's best." In a match up that featured the likes of Bure, Linden, Mark Messier, Adam Graves and Alexei Kovalev, that is an impressive compliment.

It was a compliment he truly deserved. He really might have been Vancouver’s best forward that series. Pavel Bure was not Pavel Bure. Trevor Linden, decimated with the rib injury, was quiet until game 7. Greg Adams and Geoff Courtnall popped a couple of memorable goals, but it was little Cliff Ronning who I remember coming up big on the most consistent basis that series.

Cliff Ronning went on to a long and memorable career including many stops after Vancouver. But 1994 will always be the highlight of his career.

“I was really playing for all the people that were born and raised (there), that always wanted to play for their hometown; there was a lot of them – and I felt I was a big part of that. It was just exciting, because maybe I looked at it a little bit differently, being born in Vancouver … we had a great team, a great team.”

There is definitely a hint of bitterness in those words.

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