Coming Home From the Stampede
It’s all a little confusing, but one thing that is crystal clear is that Byron Ritchie is thrilled to be coming home to play in the NHL after signing a free agent contract with the team he grew up watching as a kid playing minor hockey in North Delta.
“It's obviously very exciting. My family and friends are very excited and it's almost too good to be true to be playing in the National Hockey League in your hometown,” Ritchie says from the other side of the Rockies, where he’s lived and worked for the past couple of seasons. “Vancouver is home now and really I'm thrilled about it. It's a phenomenal city and it's an excellent hockey team. Looking through the NHL, there's no place I'd rather be.”
And the Canucks are happy to have the 30-year-old centre that was drafted by Hartford back in 1995 and has spent time in the NHL in Carolina, Florida and, most-recently, the Stampede city. But the Flames didn’t offer the veteran of 253 NHL games a contract, so Ritchie knew he’d be hunting for a new hockey home.
And on July 3rd he found the one he wanted when the Canucks came calling.
“When Vancouver gave me a call my heart started thumping a million miles a minute and I had to wait a couple of days after they called to get [the contract] done,” he says. “Those were nervous days, but once we got it done I was thrilled. You always want to play on a winning team. It's not fun to play on a team that doesn't win very many games or make the playoffs. I've been down that road in Florida.”
And it was while with the Panthers that Ritchie formed a friendship that will ease his transition when he walks through the door of the Canucks locker room. And let’s face it; he’ll have some fences to mend. An in-your-face, won’t back down from anyone approach to the game has made Ritchie’s one of those guys players hate to play against but love to have on their side. But the fact that he’s already a pal of Roberto Luongo should be endorsement enough for his new teammates to take a liking to him in a hurry.
“I played with Louie for two and a half years when I was in Florida so I got to know him real well. He's a great guy and obviously one of the best goalies in the world and he proved that this year in Vancouver. It's exciting to play with him again,” says Ritchie, whose Canuck connections don’t end with the star netminder. “I trained with Trevor Linden in the summers for a few years so I know him well and it won't take long to get to know the rest of the guys either.”
Two of the guys Ritchie’s looking forward to playing with are Matt Cooke and Alex Burrows. They all know each from the many meetings in the corners and after the whistles – and have plenty of lengthy discussions in the past while sitting in their respective penalty boxes.
Soon, though, they’ll put all of that behind them and band together as Canucks to get other players off their game.
“It's an emotional, intense game and I'm happy to be on their side so I don't have to be chasing them around or them chasing me around the ice,” he says, with a laugh. “It'll be fun to play with Cookie. He's a great player, he's an agitator as well and I'm just looking forward to being on their side.”
Ritchie’s also looking forward to having the chance to chip in a little more offensively than he ever has before at this level. His modest eight goal, 14 point season last year in Calgary was a career-year offensively for a guy who had been pigeon-holed as a checker who wasn’t expected to score. Yet, Ritchie twice had 50-plus goals during a standout junior career in Lethbridge and scored 102 goals and 253 points in 60 games in his final year of bantam.
With Alain Vigneault’s track record of rewarding strong play with increased ice-time and rolling with guys who are holding the hot hand, Byron Ritchie may find himself in more offensive situations than he has on other NHL teams. And, if that turns out to be the case, well, that’s just fine with him.
“I think in the past, the biggest thing was my confidence wasn't there when it came to the offensive side of the game. But last year for some reason I felt more confident, more comfortable carrying the puck, shooting the puck so I'm hoping to add even more offense than I did last year and continue getting better,” he says. “I've kind of done whatever it's taken to stay in the league. I feel this year when I had an opportunity to play, I proved I can still play a skill game, but definitely hard-working, grinding it out on the forecheck and solid defensively is more my game now.”
Having just returned from two months in Sweden (where his wife is from), Ritchie will begin winding down his time in Cowtown soon and figures he’ll move to the Lower Mainland by early August to give himself a chance to spend some time with family and friends before heading to training camp.
But, as fate would have it, the former Flame won’t have to wait long to head back to the city he’s currently calling home. The recently released NHL schedule revealed that Ritchie and the Canucks will skate into the Saddledome for their first road game and second game overall on Saturday October 6th.
“Isn't that fitting? That couldn't be any better,” he says, doing nothing to hide the anticipation of facing the Flames in a Canuck uniform for the first time.
Byron Ritchie has a few last weeks to tidy up some loose ends on the other side of the Rockies and then he’s coming home to take the next step in his hockey career. It’s taken him a while to make a dream come true – but at long last, he’s where he always wanted to be, back in Vancouver as a member of the Canucks.
Jeff Paterson is a Team 1040 broadcaster and a regular contributor to the Georgia Straight. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org