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Rucchin finally getting his due

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Trade Steve Rucchin? Not long ago, they couldn't. Now, they wouldn't.

In fact, the only discreet inquiries being made about the rangy,
underappreciated, too-often-injured centreman at this time a year ago were
from inside the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim organization itself.

"I was asked questions by people above me, yes, about the number of games
he'd played the past two seasons before we signed Steve to the new
contract,'' acknowledges general manager Bryan Murray, standing up in the
seating area overseeing his team's skate the morning of Monday's pivotal
Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final at the Arrowhead Pond.

"There were some concerns. And that was understandable. After all, this is a
player who missed nearly two seasons due to injury. But the way I looked at
it, what had happened to him was fluke. He takes a puck and suffers a broken
leg. Another puck hits him, smashing the orbital bone around an eye. These
aren't chronic injuries. He isn't someone with a nagging groin pull or a
knee that's constantly acting up. That's your luck breaking down, not your body.

"And, in the end, I was told, 'Bryan, you're the general manager. You do what
you think is best for the team.' I knew what was best for the Anaheim Mighty
Ducks was getting this guy tied up contractually. If he became a free agent,
there'd be offers. A lot of offers.

"Steve Rucchin may not be as well known by fans as other guys around the
league located in more traditional hockey markets, but he's meant an awful
lot to this franchise.

"Besides, where in this league can you find 6-foot-2 centres who can really
play?''

It's only justice that Steve Rucchin is still here, still a Mighty Duck, and
able to experience, to savor, this unlikely playoff payoff. He's earned it.
In spades. For if Paul Kariya, dripping stardust, symbolizes the Ducks,
Rucchin, dripping flop sweat, may more accurately represent them.

He's the guy who came from nowhere, out of the supplemental draft, the prohibitive
underdog, the one lost among the theme parks, hiding in the swaying palm
trees, the quiet, unsung foot soldier, consistently excellent, who rarely
gets his due.

But Murray understood the dynamics at work. And so Rucchin
received a four-year, $11 million deal, despite having only played in 52 of
164 regular-season games the past two seasons.

There were people around the league muttering under their breath that maybe
all the Southern California sunshine had turned Murray's reasoning power to mush.

"It meant a lot, doing what they did,'' says Rucchin. "It's pretty tough to
say you're at the top of your game when you've basically missed two seasons
of hockey. But I have confidence in my abilities and obviously this
organization did, too. Signing me showed they still had faith in me.''

That faith has been repaid.

Rucchin stayed healthy this season. All season. For the first time in his
nine years as a pro, as a Duck. And by any judgment he was due. He'd
withstood a terrible, tragic 2002. He got hurt, again. His brother, Larry,
died of cancer. The Ducks were also-rans, again.

"The whole year was difficult,'' said Rucchin, softly. "Personally.
Professionally. You've got no choice but to perservere. But this year ... what a turnaround. I'd take 10 more just like it.''

"I'm absolutely thrilled for him,'' said Murray. "I got to know Steve a
little bit, talked to him a lot, last year. It was very, very difficult on
him. His brother dying. Being injured. I don't know how he held up through
it all. He's a very strong person, obviously. And a very strong player, too.
Scores points, takes care of his own end, wins faceoffs, can play with any
wingers you want.

"And he's a real competitive guy.''

An example? Well, during Game 4, Rucchin became involved in a jawing session
with Devils pesky centreman John Madden. The two beaked off all the way to
the bench and continued after they'd left the ice.

Clearly, the man's having the time of his professional life.

"Oh, I think I do appreciate it more because I've been here a lot of years,
my whole NHL career. And because we ran into some bumps along the way. If
you arrive in the NHL and win right off the bat, and keep winning, there's
no down times to use as a comparison. We had great support here in the early
years and then, well, people want to support a winner. That's only natural.
Only in Canada will fans continue to come out, regardless.

"It's pretty clear if you've been to a game at the Pond in these playoffs
how loud, how supportive Anaheim fans can be. The noise, the atmosphere, has
picked us up whenever we've needed it to.

"It's been a pretty unconventional road I've travelled, for sure. There've
been a lot of ups and downs these last nine years. But, well, here we are today. And I'm still around.''

Yes, still. It's been an amazing run, a stunning reversal of fortune for
Steve Rucchin. From the physical pain, the emotional grief, of a year ago, a
black period that couldn't help but leave him wondering about the cruel
frailities of mortality.

To the euphoria of today, the anticipation of what might be; only two wins
away from a certain kind of immortality.

George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.