Michael Ratchuk took a deep breath, then, without the faintest hint of hyperbole, began defining the context of his current situation.
"Basically, I'd have to say, every game from here on out is huge. From now until the end of this season, I consider every game to be the biggest game of my career," he explained, measuring each thought in deliberate fashion. "It's do-or-die time every time out, and the pressure keeps mounting. This is a new experience for me, but I'm really enjoying it."
A freshman defenseman at Michigan State University, Ratchuk offered this perspective last week, as the Spartans were making preparations for the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament. The team dominated Boston University on Friday, 5-1, then went on to defeat favored Notre Dame, 2-1, on Saturday to clinch the Midwest Regional.
Michael Ratchuk was drafted by the Flyers in the second round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. (Getty Images)
MSU now advances to the Frozen Four in St. Louis, where it will face the University of Maine in the semifinals on April 5. Should the Spartans emerge victorious, they will play the winner of Boston College/North Dakota University two days later for the national championship.
"It's just a thrill to be involved in something like this," said an elated Ratchuk, a second round draft selection (42nd overall) of the Flyers last summer. "Especially so early in my college career, to be in a position to win a national title; it's extremely gratifying and very exciting. It's everything I've ever worked for and a great learning experience at the same time."
Ratchuk made a smooth jump to the collegiate ranks this season, after spending two years in the U.S. National Developmental program. The 5'11'', 177-pound Buffalo native finished third among Spartan defenseman in scoring, en route to capturing the team's Outstanding Freshman award.
"Success is always a team effort, but Mike's contributions have been integral to our accomplishments this season," explained MSU head coach Rick Comley. "He stepped right in this season and has been a valuable asset, particularly with his offensive mindset.
Comley knows what Ratchuk is capable of. "As with any young player, Mike has a lot to learn, and a number of areas in which he needs to improve. But, he's off to a very fine start, and I'm sure the Flyers are very pleased with this progress thus far."
Following big brother's lead
Mike Ratchuk started skating at the age three in upstate New York.
"I grew up in the Buffalo area, which was great, especially in that it was a real hotbed of hockey activity," he said.
Ratchuk credits his hockey roots to his family.
"I come from a very athletic family, so I guess it was only natural for me to [get involved] in sports.
"I owe all of my success to my family," he explained. "My parents, for instilling in me a love for the game, work ethic and the sacrifices they made over the years."
Mike's older brother, Peter, was drafted by Colorado in 1996 (25th overall), but has been a journeyman in the NHL since.
"He's 10 years old than me, so I grew up watching him play and, basically, idolizing him. He taught me just about everything I know about hockey. We're extremely close, and he remains one of my biggest supporters."
In part of taking his game to the next level, Ratchuk hopes to emulate the skills of Anaheim Ducks defenseman Scott Niedermayer.
"He plays with such cool and smoothness," Ratchuk explained. "He has so much skill, but there is never any panic in his game. He always makes the right decision with the puck and just controls the game so well at both ends of the rink. That is the type of player I'd like to become."
Programmed for success
From an early age, Mike Ratchuk was primed to win. He was a member of the Buffalo Select Saints, who won the 2004 Midget AAA National Championships. At age fifteen, Ratchuk joined the U.S. Developmental Team Program for the 2004-05 Season. He spent two seasons in the program, and was then offered an invitation to join the team at one of the select tournaments at St. Cloud State University.
In his time with the U.S. Developmental Team, Ratchuk and the United States earned high accolades at the international level. Ratchuk was named as the top defenseman at Five Nations Tournament in Russia in 2006. His success with the team paid off, as the USA captured the gold at 2005 IIHF U-18 Championship in Sweden. The USA also won the 2004 Four Nations Cup in Rochester, New York. Ratchuk left the U.S. Developmental Team, with a total of 55 games played for the U-18 team in 2005-06, and 58 games played for the U-17 team in 2004-05.
Ratchuk knows the value of skills he learned with the IIHF.
"I can't say enough about the two years I spent in the developmental program," said Ratchuk. "I gained an amazing wealth of knowledge, playing in international tournaments, traveling, and just having access to such a great support system. The coaching staff was top-notch and incredibly supportive at all times."
Ratchuk admits that the whole experience of playing at the international level was more significant than one memory.
"On the whole, it was just an opportunity that I am so glad I had. Not many players are so lucky, so I always tried to keep that in perspective and enjoyed getting the most out of it every step of the way."
From college to the draft
From the instant he stepped on the campus in East Lansing, Mike Ratchuk knew he was bound to be a Spartan.
"I first visited the campus with my dad, and was awestruck right away," Ratchuk remembered. "Something about it, well, it just told me that this was the place for me. It's a big campus, very beautiful and serene. I knew right away, my future was here."
That future included becoming a second round draft choice of the Flyers in 2006.
"We had three second round draft picks this year, and came away very happy with the results," explained Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren. "We used the second of the three, which was the 42nd overall selection, on Mike, who we were actually a bit surprised to see was still available."
The Flyers used a different approach in the 2006 draft than they were used to, with the goal of incorporating more players that fit the mold of the new rules adopted for the 2005-06 season.
"Drafting Mike actually was part of a mini-trend for us last year, a slight departure from our methods in the past," Holmgren explained. "We selected a smaller, speedy forward, Claude Giroux, with our first round pick. Mike is somewhat similar in size to Claude, and is also a player known for his skill, rather than size."
It was time to adapt to the new NHL, and the Flyers were ready for the change.
"The way the game is changing these days, those qualities are valued. We have some big players, big defensemen in our system. We felt that Mike's overall package was very impressive, and that he could be a player who could excel under the new rules, which place more of an emphasis on finesse and skill," said Holmgren.
"Mike is a very skilled offensive defenseman out of the U.S. developmental program. He's a bit on the smallish size, but is an outstanding skater and possesses excellent puck skills, vision and awareness. We have very high hopes for him and his ability to eventually develop into a quality player for us."
Over the summer, Ratchuk was invited to the U.S. National team's evaluation camp held for players that may end up on the World Junior Championship squad.
Mike used the camp as a way to learn more from former pros such as Phil Housley.
"There were only two or three spots up for grabs, so I went in knowing I would be a longshot," he explained. "I wasn't too disappointed that I didn't make the team for that reason, but it was great to soak in the atmosphere at the camp."
Despite not making the team, Ratchuk still got some valuable advise from Housley.
"He was the coach for my squad, and I think, in just a short period of time, I learned a great deal from him," Ratchuk said. "Just having the chance to listen to him was great. But, away from the rink, I had the opportunity to talk with him a bit about his experiences and his career. He was great in offering advice to me, telling me about some of the things he did right and wrong, and things like that. We're kind of similar in that we're both offensively-minded defensemen, so I think he took a special interest in that."
Concentrating on college…for now
Mike Ratchuk has played in the Spartans'''top six" rotation from the start of the season, with a variety of defensive partners. He also quickly settled into a role on the point in power play situations.
In total, Ratchuk finished third on the team among defensemen, (10th overall on the team) and first among all Spartan freshmen with 12 points (4 goals, 8 assists) and 28 penalty minutes in 38 games.
"Coach Comley has changed things up as the season has gone on, but that's been a plus, in that the entire unit has developed true chemistry. I feel comfortable playing alongside any of my teammates, and I feel that that's really helped me along. It's been a boost for my confidence, to have that level of comfortability."
"Mike has had some ups and downs, for sure," said Comley. "But he's shown a lot of improvement as the season has progressed."
Ratchuk is eager to find out what lies ahead, but doesn't get caught up in it just yet.
"I don't know exactly what the future holds, of course, but I feel I have the ability to play in the NHL," said Ratchuk. "My immediate future is here in East Lansing, so [joining the Flyers] is not something I try to spend too much time dwelling on right now."
As for his future with the Flyers, General Manager Paul Holmgren explains what the organization would like to see from Ratchuk.
"We'd like to see Mike gain some more muscle, and focus on suring up his defensive game. But, those things should come with a little more experience at the collegiate level," said Holmgren. "There's no need to rush a player in his position, because he has four years of potential developmental time."
Coach Comley agrees: "Mike is a great kid, very smart and has a wonderful personality," he explained. "He has a ton of ability and can go very far in this game. He certainly has the talent to make a career for himself in the pros, but still has to round out his game in certain respects. We expect Mike to be back with us here next season, and look forward to seeing him take the next steps in development as an impact defenseman at the NCAA level."