September 23, 2013

Middle Man: Steve Rucchin

Steve Rucchin's journey to the NHL was one of the most improbable stories in recent memory. He was a biology major who just happened to play on the school hockey team for fun. Next thing you know he was playing in the National Hockey League.

Steve was playing college hockey for the University of Western Mustangs when he was picked by Anaheim in the 1994 supplemental draft - a now-extinct draft that gave overlooked college kids a second chance. The Ducks obviously recognized his potential and Rucchin developed into a better than average NHL talent.

But it all came as much as a surprise to Rucchin as everybody else.

"I just played hockey for fun," said Rucchin. "I went to Western and had no aspirations about being a pro player."

Rucchin had skated away from competitive hockey at the age of 15 rather than pursue the possibility of playing junior. The lifestyle of junior hockey did not appeal to him. Instead he focussed on his school work, earning a degree in biology at University, all while playing hockey just for fun.

When the NHL did come calling, he wisely decided he had to give himself the opportunity to know for sure whether or not he could play at that level.

"I just thought I'd give it a chance, play in the minors for a few years, then get on with my life," Rucchin said. "Luckily for me, now this is my life."

Rucchin had good size (6-3, 210 pounds) and a sharp hockey sense, which allowed him to play on the same line as a superstar like Paul Kariya and Petr Sykora. Rucchin, one of the best faceoff men in the league, was able to play a physical game to create room for the small and speedy Kariya. But Rucchin was always an underrated player in that he had the strong understanding of the game to play with such a talent. He understood where to be and how to get him the puck. The two worked very well together.

"The bottom line was to earn the respect of my teammates and coaches. I just want to do what it takes to be a team player," Rucchin said. "That's what I wanted to accomplish."

Mission accomplished, and then some. The underrated - heck, he remained almost unknown for some time early in his NHL career - Rucchin centered Anaheim's top line for years as one of the most dependable players in the league. He was the perfect middle man.

"He's been a dominant factor in all situations. A true team leader," said coach Mike Babcock.

Rucchin's unexpected success story took some turns for the worst early in the new millenium. He missed large portions of two seasons because of injuries suffered in what can best be described as freak accidents.

“In some ways, I feel unlucky,” he said with honesty.

Rucchin missed 62 of Anaheim’s final 66 games in 2000-01 when he took a slap shot in the face. He was cutting across the centre of the ice when he was clipped from behind and as he was falling down, a slap shot deflected off a stick and the puck ended up shattering his nose and cheekbone.

Early in the next season he went down to block a shot and the puck hit his ankle, just below the shin guard. He suffered a stress fracture, which later needed surgery when doctors discovered it was not healing properly. He would end up missing half the season.

The only good thing about all the down time was Steve was able to visit with his brother Larry, a former pro hockey player in Italy and Germany who was battling colon cancer. Larry would lose the fight in 2002.

Watching his brother's battle with cancer helped keep Rucchin's injury woes in perspective. In his brother's memory he successfully returned to the NHL as a productive top line forward like he was in the late 1990s.

Rucchin did return from his injury plagued seasons and put up a couple of 20 goal seasons before leaving for New York and Atlanta. In Atlanta he suffered another serious injury that would ultimately force him off the ice.

"I injured the nerve in my eye. It's the kind of injury that often happens in car accidents, a sort of trauma to the head. The nerve affects the movement of your eye. If your eyes aren't working in co-ordination with each other, it makes things tough. It definitely affects me when I'm working out because of the stress on the body. It's tough to play a sport like hockey with its high speeds.

He played 735 games, with 171 goals and 489 points. He had 17 playoff points, including an overtime winner to send the Anaheim Mighty Ducks into the Stanley Cup final, and was a finalist for the Bill Masterton Trophy.

"There's not a day that goes by, even now, that I don't think about how fortunate I was," Rucchin said. "I think I was just at the right place at the right time, coming out of Western to go to Anaheim, a team in their second year in the league. There was opportunity there. I could have gone somewhere else and been buried in the minors outright.

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