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Tuesday, June 3

Updated: June 3, 9:00 AM ET

Rucchin finally getting his due

By George Johnson
Special to ESPN.com

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.

Steve Rucchin is tied for second on the Ducks with four goals during the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"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.

" 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. "
--Steve Rucchin

"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.





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