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Ronning a Novelty, Not a Short Story

Pro Hockey

Hockey: New King was once considered too small, at 5 feet 8, to last in the NHL, but that was 16 years ago.

March 23, 2002|JERRY CROWE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The good news for Cliff Ronning is that, after 15 seasons in the NHL, he no longer hears questions about whether he's too small to last.

The bad news is, now some wonder whether he's too old.

"It's a never-ending battle," said the 5-foot-8, 165-pound Ronning, a 36-year-old left wing acquired by the Kings last week in a trade with the Nashville Predators. "But I think it has helped me to make sure I'm always ready to play.

"It motivates me."

Among the most minuscule of the league's mighty mites, Ronning has been proving his doubters wrong since, as a ninth-round draft pick, he made his NHL debut with the St. Louis Blues in a playoff game 16 years ago.

On the night that he scored his first regular-season goal, against the Minnesota North Stars on Jan. 12, 1987, he scored two more for a hat trick.

In 1994, after helping the Vancouver Canucks reach the Stanley Cup finals, he played in the Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers despite a broken hand.

And although many had said he would never play in the NHL, Ronning played in his 1,000th game two weeks ago. Joe Sakic of the Colorado Avalanche also played in his 1,000th game that day, the two natives of the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, Canada, joining only 175 other players who have reached the milestone in the league's 84-year history.

All-Star center Jeremy Roenick of the Philadelphia Flyers, Ronning's teammate and roommate for two-plus seasons with the Phoenix Coyotes, calls him "probably one of the true freaks of nature that there are in sports today.

"How can you have a guy who is 5-6, 5-7 or whatever he is and dominate a hockey game like he does?" Roenick said in an interview with the Nashville Tennessean. "He's tremendously skilled and tremendously poised for being a little guy."

The Kings think so too.

Ronning's next goal or assist will give him his 11th 50-point season, and the Kings would love for it to come in today's Staples Center showdown against the Pacific Division-leading San Jose Sharks.

One reason they gave up defenseman Jere Karalahti and a 2003 draft pick for Ronning was the winger's statistics against some of the best teams in the Western Conference: 42 points in 42 games against the Avalanche, 50 in 64 against the Detroit Red Wings, 55 in 54 against the Sharks.

Oh, and this one too: 76 points in 101 playoff games.

"To be his size and play that long, you've got to have some character, and he's going to bring that to the team," new teammate Ian Laperriere said. "And once we get into the playoffs, he's going to be a big part of it, a big leader.

"It was a great trade."

Ronning, though, wasn't so sure. He looked like the new kid in school this week, uncomfortable and full of doubt as he adjusted to his new surroundings.

"Talking with him, no matter how long you've been in the league, you come to a new team and you've got the butterflies," Coach Andy Murray said. "I think it's like anybody changing jobs; your first day on the job is difficult."

The truth is, Ronning didn't want to change jobs.

He and his family--wife Ivana, son Ty and daughters Taryn and Kristin--were happily settled in Nashville. David Poile, the Predators' general manager, said that Ronning was in such great shape that he could probably play until he's 40. Coach Barry Trotz marveled that Ronning could "stickhandle in a phone booth."

Two seasons ago, Ronning scored 26 goals, only three short of his career high. This season, he led the Predators with 18 goals and 31 assists.

But with the fourth-year expansion team out of the playoff picture again this spring, the Predators decided they needed younger players.

Three days before Tuesday's trade deadline, King General Manager Dave Taylor won the bidding for Ronning, reportedly over five teams.

The trade stung Ronning, fueling his initial anxiety.

Once the shock wore off, however, he quickly warmed to the idea of playing for a contender. After almost four years in Nashville, where he was the Predators' leading scorer each season but he and his teammates were spectators come playoff time, he had forgotten what it was like to play meaningful games this time of year.

"Once I got settled here, I realized that the opportunities here are great, such as playing in the playoffs," said Ronning, who had never before played with any of his new teammates. "That's why you play the game. And once you have that opportunity, you get excited. I feel very fortunate to be here. But when it first happens, you don't see it that way....

"You know, coming in and meeting new guys is tough. Usually after so many years, you would know somebody you played with, but everyone [here] I played against. But they know me as a player and I know them.

"And what an opportunity. It's something in the back of my mind, playing against L.A. all those years, I always wanted to know what it would be like to play in such a great city. And now I get that chance."

Long story short: The Kings hope he makes the most of it.

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