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HOCKEY PLUS

Middle Man

Unassuming Rucchin Thriving While Playing Between a Pair of All-Star Forwards

March 07, 2000|ELLIOTT TEAFORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Scouts found him while he was thinking more about graduate school than professional hockey. A coach then handed him the toughest job on the team. Others soon thrived while playing with him.

Steve Rucchin isn't the NHL's best center. In a season or two, he might not even be the Mighty Ducks' best center. He probably won't get selected to the all-star team. He might never win the Selke Trophy as the league's top defensive forward.

But Rucchin is the man who makes the Ducks' top line work. Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne get the credit; Rucchin gets the bumps and bruises.

Think it's easy playing with two world-class wingers? It's not, but nobody does it better than Rucchin. Besides, he's not going to complain. It's not his style.

Perhaps no NHL player appreciates where he is today more than Rucchin.

Ron Wilson, who first played Rucchin with Kariya and Selanne in 1996, once said the only thing holding Rucchin back was his lack of confidence. Pierre Page and Craig Hartsburg, Rucchin's other coaches with the Ducks, have made similar statements.

After almost six NHL seasons, Rucchin still seems to believe he's just a small-town guy from a Canadian university who got lucky.

"It is tough still," he said. "I'm getting close to 400 NHL games. I definitely think it's where I came from. It's hard for me to get a cocky attitude. [Other NHL players] have got more of a right to be here than I do.

"All I can do is try to work. I don't know if it limits me. I try to tell myself, 'Don't worry.' But it is the NHL, the best hockey players in the world."

Slowly but certainly, anyone who watches the Ducks play will come to realize Rucchin is every bit as valuable as one of those "best players in the world."

Rucchin has 14 goals and 27 assists in 56 games, well off his last season's totals of 23 goals and 39 assists. But Rucchin's game isn't only about scoring.

He must do so much more if the Ducks are to be successful. Much of his work goes unseen. It's dirty work, rough and tumble stuff well out of the limelight.

While Kariya and Selanne are racing toward the opposing net in search of goals, Rucchin hangs back, adopting a defensive stance. Rucchin must think about defense so his linemates won't have to.

Each time Rucchin enters the faceoff circle and defeats his counterpart, it means more puck possessions for Kariya and Selanne. He has won 55.4% of his faceoffs this season, so he's making his linemates happy.

When the puck goes into the corners, it's Rucchin's job to pry it free. When he does, it means more time with the puck for Kariya and Selanne.

Rucchin also must take a pounding while the Ducks are on the power play, standing in front of the opposing net and getting hacked and slashed while Kariya and Selanne work the puck around the perimeter in search of an opening.

"They are always focused on the offensive aspects of the game," Rucchin said. "It's just one of those things. [Goals and assists are] nothing I strive for. It's not a goal I've set for myself. It's more important for me to stop the puck from going in than scoring.

"I'm sure it sets me back offensively. There are times in games where I'll hang back to make sure I'm in good [defensive] position. I have to make sure to keep the other team off the scoreboard."

In many ways, Rucchin seems like a throwback.

For instance, never once has he complained about his linemates' enormous salaries. Rucchin is making $2.05 million this season, but it's peanuts when compared to Kariya's $10-million salary or Selanne's $5.45-million paycheck.

In order to understand the man, you must consider his roots. Rucchin hails from Thunder Bay, Canada. At one point, he quit junior hockey to concentrate on his school work. At Western Ontario, Rucchin gave hockey one more try and was selected to play for the university's team.

"I was fortunate to make the team," he said. "A lot of guys played junior hockey or hadn't been drafted or were late picks."

Rucchin excelled, but failed to attract significant attention. However, the Ducks had heard of the exploits of a certain 6-foot-3, 212-pound senior center.

"It was too late in the season to see him play, but I got copies of two tapes of his games from his coach that were on TV," said Jack Ferreira, the Ducks' director of hockey operations.

"I remember sitting in our office at the Pond with David [McNab, assistant general manager]. We looked at the tapes and we looked at each other. The coach wanted the tapes back. We said, 'Nobody's getting these tapes back.' I think David still has them somewhere in the office."

The Ducks, so desperate for talent in their second season, begged the NHL to change the order of the 1994 supplemental draft in hopes of nabbing Rucchin.

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