Won't back down
Cliff Ronning was one of the few players whose hockey career came full circle.
Turn the calendar back to 1975 and a 10-year-old Ronning was just like thousands of young Vancouver Canucks fans today, emulating his favourite player in the driveway while scoring the Game 7 overtime Stanley Cup clinching goal.
Playing street hockey in his hometown of Burnaby, BC, Ronning’s player of choice was Canucks forward Thomas Gradin, who he thought was the smoothest skater in the history of hockey. He also believed the Canucks were the best team of all-time and it was on one of the many trips to the Pacific Coliseum with his dad that playing for Vancouver became the end goal.
Talk about the tail wagging the dog.
Getting to the National Hockey League had to happen before Ronning even had a shot at donning a Canucks sweater and that seemed like more of a pipe dream than anything considering Ronning’s 5-foot-8, 170-pound stature. He wasn’t big or intimidating. He didn’t strike fear in anything. But to his credit, he was determined.
“I was the type of player that the more they told me I was too small right from…well, I was always the smallest on my team since I was pee wee hockey or pee wee lacross, whatever sport I was playing, but the one thing that I remember is I always tried hard and I always gave it my best shot,” recalled Ronning.
“When people said I was too small, that kind of pushed me to work harder and spend extra time at the rink and for that, I really want to thank people for pushing me. I think if anything they really helped me perform at my best.”
That was evident as soon as Ronning entered the BCJHL. Fifty-two games and 150 points later and it was off to the WHL where the feisty forward produced an outlandish 333 points (158-175-333) in just 141 games over two seasons.
Sure, he was putting up numbers in junior, but he’s still too small to play in the NHL.
It’ll never happen.
It seemed like everyone doubted Ronning, except Ronning.
“Things definitely weren’t handed to me on a platter, I had to always work for it, but I didn’t mind working for it because then it makes it that much more special.”
June 9, 1984 was that special day as the St. Louis Blues selected him in the seventh round, 134th overall in the NHL Entry Draft. The bad news for Ronning was that despite putting his heart and soul into his early years in the big league, things weren’t panning out with the Blues. Average at best was how Ronning performed and before he knew it, he was being shipped out of town.
“At that point in time I think it was time for myself to go somewhere else to play,” admitted Ronning, who had 125 points in 180 games over four seasons in the Gateway City.
Ronning was traded on March 5, 1991. What a blessing that turned out to be.
Blues coach Brian Sutter broke the news that he had been dealt.
“I just remember when they said Vancouver, I looked over at Sergio and he had big smile on his face. He was probably happy for me, but just happy we were all going somewhere.”
The five-player deal between Vancouver and St. Louis had the Canucks acquire Ronning, Sergio Momesso, Robert Dirk, Geoff Courtnall and a fifth round draft pick in the 1992 Entry Draft (Brian Loney) in exchange for Dan Quinn and Garth Butcher.
“I was just so excited. Here’s three guys from BC going there and a big Italian that you know can play the game with emotion. I knew the history of Vancouver like the back of my hand being raised there, like how bad the fans wanted a team that can get out there and give everything they’ve got.”
Everything was coming together for Ronning in the tail end of just his fourth NHL season, but he soon realized that playing in front of hometown fans came with heightened expectations.
“I was nervous, very excited and then all of the sudden on the plane as I’m coming here, nervous. I knew that in those 11 games before the playoffs I had to show that I could play at this level or that could be it for me. I applied that pressure to myself and it helped me.”
Ronning finished the 1990-91 season with the Canucks, picking up 12 points in the final 11 games of the season before potting six goals and adding three assists in the playoffs as Vancouver gave Los Angeles all it could handle.
In Game 3 of the Smythe Division Semi-Finals, Ronning scored an overtime winner that made him a household name in Vancouver.
Trevor Linden carried the puck in the Kings zone before dishing to Pavel Bure on his left. Bure tapped a pass to Dana Murzyn and he ripped a shot that hit Kings keeper Kelly Hrudey’s left pad leaving a big rebound for Ronning, who was trailing the play.
One-on-one with Hrudey, Ronning gathered himself before waiting for the goaltender to commit and flop to the ice, he then backhanded a shot top shelf from an impossible angle. After scoring, Ronning took off down the ice in a flash before hoping on his stick and riding it through centre ice as a tribute to Tiger Williams.
“That was probably one of the best moments of my hockey career because here I’m finally playing in my hometown and I know how desperately the fans want to win here, and all of the sudden it’s me against the goalie and I made a pretty nice move then everything kind of went blank in my head, everything slowed down. I thought, I’d better do this, and sure enough I believe it went right upstairs.”
Confidence and fan fare grew after Ronning’s initial season and he didn’t disappoint in his second year with a career-high 71 points that paved the way for an impressive playoff run. The Canucks got out of the Smythe Division Semi-Finals, but couldn’t upend the Edmonton Oilers in the Division Finals.
The following year Ronning again bested himself with a career-high 85 points, but again the Canucks were unable to get out of the Smythe Division Finals, this time losing to Wayne Gretzky and the LA Kings.
Strike three never came about for the Canucks as they finally emerged from the Pacific Division in Ronning’s third season and that scrappy, feisty, small forward that was always told he wouldn’t make it in the NHL was a major reason Vancouver made it out of the Western Conference and into the Stanley Cup Final.
Ronning was at his best in helping the Canucks get to within a hair of the Holy Grail, he had 15 points in 24 games in the '94 run, but it was his sheer drive and determination that had Vancouver playing its best hockey in franchise history.
The second highest scoring NHLer to ever emerge from Burnaby wrapped up an 18-year career with the New York Islanders in 2003-04, following stops in Phoenix, Nashville, Los Angeles and Minnesota.
Ronning’s career numbers can’t be ignored: 306 goals and 563 assists for 869 points in 1,137 games, not including 86 points in 126 playoff games.
What there’s no number for or record of is Ronning’s sandpaper style of play, which Canucks fans will never forget.
“Let’s face it, I was never a real physical hockey player, but when the game got tough, especially in playoffs, I just loved to compete. Sometimes it would be like running into a wall and you’d fall down and have to get back up but the only way I knew growing up as a kid was that you had to be tough.”