Ruutu's Found His Niche
Jarkko Ruutu owes his middle brother Mikko a mountain of gratitude.
It was poor Mikko who bore the brunt of Jarkko's childhood pestering. At his expense Jarkko teased, goaded, and tormented, and in the process, transformed a natural ability to irritate into a devastating hockey weapon.
"I had three younger brothers and I picked on the one in the middle," says Ruutu. "Then he [Mikko] passed it on to the youngest one [Tuomo]."
It's just the natural pecking order.
That ability to burrow under someone's skin, honed in the heat of an intense sibling rivalry, is one of Ruutu's most formidable skills.
General Manager Dave Nonis once described Ruutu's 'competitive nature' as "infectious." Mikko might say it's more like an infection.
"That's just who I am," says Ruutu. "I don't have to force anything."
Like Japanese soybeans and Napa Valley reds, it's an ability that's improved with age.
At 30, in his sixth NHL season, Ruutu seems to have mastered the fine balance between NHL agitator and reckless penalty-monger.
His ice time is up, he's playing on both the power play and the penalty kill, and has three goals and two assists playing alongside third-liners Richard Park and Ryan Kesler. Most importantly, he's averaging 1.2 penalty minutes per game - half his average through 2003-04.
"With the new rules, he's backed off a little bit," says Canuck associate coach Jack McIlhargey. "He's just starting to feel comfortable with his game and how he fit in."
"It's taken Jarkko a little time to find his niche, but he's found it."
Ruutu's one weakness since Vancouver drafted the raw 22 year-old with the 68th overall pick in 1998, has been his penchant for bad penalties.
"He's one of the best," says McIlhargey. "He gets guys pissed off at him, but it's a fine line. You have to be able to do that without taking penalties."
And that's where Ruutu's struggled. With his abrasive game, Ruutu's taken as many penalties as he's drawn. It limited him to only 185 games in his first five NHL seasons.
"With the style I play, I sometimes get picked out," explains Ruutu, who set a record with 215 penalty minutes in the Finnish Elite League last season. "When you have emotion involved, you get more calls than some other guys."
"A lot of it has to do with confidence. If you're not playing much, it's hard to feel where the 'line' is. There have been times when I've taken stupid penalties, but at the same time, I think maybe there's been too much talk of it."
Perhaps he's right. At 22, he was captain of HIFK Helsinki, a team that included names like Jokinen, Lydman, Rafalski and Timonen.
He's played on three Finnish national teams, including the squad that narrowly lost to Team Canada in the World Cup finals, and he racked-up 26 goals and 58 points in his AHL rookie year while managing a gaudy plus-33.
Ruutu's got more skill than most of the NHL gives him credit for.
"It comes down to a different role," says Ruutu. "I want to put more numbers up, but in the end, I have to take care of my business - that's playing defensively and the agitation and stuff."
"I don't want to pay too much attention to that [scoring], because it might take my mind off my other game, my strengths. I need to do those things first. The points come when they come."
And they should come more easily this season as Marc Crawford's shown increased confidence using Ruutu in a Tomas Holmstrom-esque capacity on the power play.
"I don't think there is a limit for him," says McIlhargey. "He can continue to improve. He's got good hands and I think he's got more offense he can give us."
That's not to say Ruutu's unhappy in his role.
"Actually, I like it that way. I want to be hated or loved; I don't want to be right in the middle."
"I think you have to be part of the game and create emotions, no matter if it's positive or negative. When people get involved emotionally, that's what makes it fun."
Judging by fan reaction, there's no question he's having fun. Ruutu's regularly booed in Calgary, and Canuck fans have taken to chanting his name.
"I think a lot of it is just playing hard and hitting guys. Obviously when you see guys are getting frustrated and rattled, you want to add a little fuel to the fire somehow, maybe yapping at them a little bit and stuff like that."
Despite his on-ice persona, teammates say Ruutu's one of the more popular Canucks in the dressing room.
"He's the same kind of guy," says fellow Fin, Sami Salo. "He's easy going and a fun guy to be around. He speaks just as loud off the ice. When you have him on your team, it's fun to be on the ice at the same time."
"You hate to play against a guy like him," Salo admits, "but he's good to have on your team."
"He's done an awesome job this year staying out of the box, while still playing the way he's always played."
It's the game he learned playing as a kid on the rinks of Helsinki. A game poor Mikko knows all too well.
With Christmas coming up, and a new contract in Jarkko's back pocket, maybe Mikko will get an extra something in his stocking. Hopefully for his sake, it won't bite, sting, or stink. Hopefully.