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Wounded Duck

Steve Rucchin once thought being injured in successive seasons was hard, then his older brother died

November 08, 2002|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

Steve Rucchin will be with us shortly. He is working through some issues.

The Mighty Ducks' morning skate is winding up, but Rucchin is hardly cooling down. He tosses his gloves to the ice and begins chopping at them with his stick.

Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!

He is laughing. The big lug of a center is enjoying a moment on the ice, something of a rarity the last two years.

"Rusty high-fived me," Rucchin explains. "I don't want the bad vibes from his gloves getting onto my gloves. I'm not taking any chances."

Defenseman Ruslan Salei is amused later.

"He didn't tell me about that," Salei says, knowing if there is anyone who needs to exorcise bad vibes it's Rucchin.

"We missed him a lot the last couple years," Salei says. "Hopefully, he can stay healthy this year. Everyone is just hoping he does. I think he's really a big part of our team.

"He said what about me again?"

Thwack!

*

There was no easy way for Rucchin to sum up the last two years. So he took a deep breath and launched into a story of pain, on the ice and off. Forming the words seemed a difficult task, more painful even than being shoved in the path of a whistling puck -- an experience Rucchin knows all too well.

The injuries, though, were the easy chapters.

An uncalled crosscheck by Ray Bourque sent Rucchin into the path of Teemu Selanne's slap shot. So ended Rucchin's 2000-01 season, his face battered, his mind foggy.

Another season, another collision with a puck. Rucchin dived to block a shot and suffered a broken ankle that later required insertion of a metal rod. That limited Rucchin to 38 games last season.

Pain enough for one man.

But then he would go to his family's home near Toronto and see his older brother Larry, a once robust man whose mere presence commanded attention. Steve watched as cancer ravaged his brother. Larry died in June, only a week after his daughter was born.

Months later, the hurt remains.

"Larry was pretty much what held our immediate family together," Rucchin said. "He was a big guy, really strong physically and unbelievably strong mentally. He would walk into the room and be the center of attention. It was tough to see him get beat down.

"There was a lot of quiet when I was there. There was not much small talk.... I felt bad eating around him. He was being fed through a tube."

This is leading to Rucchin's point. He needs to go through this to get back to his center.

"Every day I think about him," Rucchin said. "Not so much about him, more what he went through, what I witnessed him go through. That's what I think about every day. When it looks like I'm having a bad day or I think I'm having a bad day, I look at that and realized things aren't that bad."

Sometimes, all it takes is pounding a pair of gloves to find the joy again.

Thwack!

*

Some things are better.

"There was a period, where I absolutely dreaded finding a message on my phone, thinking it was going to be something else," Rucchin said.

Some things are a lot better.

"He's playing great hockey again, better than ever," right wing Mike Leclerc said.

Rucchin has been the Ducks' most consistent player, even if few outside Anaheim have noticed. But, then, that's normal for Rucchin, who was squeezed between Paul Kariya and Selanne for nearly five seasons.

Rucchin leads the team with 16 points, 12 on assists. None was better than the one Thursday. Rucchin flipped a perfect pass to Kariya, who had slipped behind the Boston Bruin defense. Typically, the pass was largely forgotten when Kariya scored after displaying an array of moves.

"He simply does everything for us, from faceoffs to playing defense to scoring goals," Kariya said. "Losing him was a huge reason why we played so poorly last year and the year before."

And the year before that.

During a stretch in the 1999-2000 season, Rucchin missed 11 games with an infected left ankle. The Ducks went 2-7-2 while he was out and missed the playoffs by five points.

"Every year he was overlooked ... a lot," Kariya said. "Teemu and I have talked that we don't think there was a better guy to play with us than Steve. He was perfect."

Rucchin shrugged.

"I guess, someone needs to do the dirty work," he said.

*

Rucchin was doing the dirty work in a game against Colorado in the 2000-01 season.

He was battling in front of the net with Bourque. Just as Selanne sent a blistering shot from the blue line, Bourque shoved Rucchin forward, into the puck. Rucchin suffered a broken nose and cheekbone and played only two more games that season, then spent the rest of the time in the haze of a concussion.

Rucchin was grinding again against Dallas last season. He hit the ice to block a shot in overtime and then limped to the bench. He sat out 44 games with the broken ankle.

"I said it a thousand times, there is nothing that could be done about the injuries in the past," Rucchin said. "It is definitely in the front of my mind that I've been hurt, but at the same time, they were both really fluky."

But convincing people that he's not fragile can be a painful task.

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