The World Championship may not be the most prestigious international competition that there is, but when it comes to representing his country, Tuomo Ruutu just doesn’t say no.
This spring’s event in Slovakia will mark Ruutu’s 10th major tournament for his native Finland. Since participating in the World Under-18 Championship in 2000, he’s worn his country’s colors in every year but two, skipping 2005 with an injury and 2009 when the Hurricanes made a run to the Eastern Conference Final. Also on his resume are three other World Championships, three World Junior Championships, a World Cup of Hockey and the 2010 Olympics.
“I always think it’s an honor when they ask you to play for your country,” he said. “I have fun doing it.”
That’s no surprise given the amount of success he’s had. Although he hasn’t won gold since 2000, he’s picked up three silver medals and five bronze medals along the way – one for each tournament he’s been a part of. He’s also done well on a personal level, scoring a total of 43 points (22g, 21a) in 66 games across all nine tournaments.
On the surface, all that makes Ruutu’s motivation to play yet another tournament somewhat surprising. For others, politics often play a role, with continued participation at the World Championships thought to be a consideration when making tough cuts for the Olympics. There’s also the chance to be able to represent one’s country when another opportunity may never arise.
Clearly, neither of those is true for Ruutu. Even coming off a physically-demanding season that featured its share of apparent bumps and bruises before ending in the most difficult way possible, there was never much of a choice to make.
He just wanted to play.
“It was too early to stop,” he said. “Five months without playing is too long to be thinking about next season. Being around the guys is one of the things you miss most, and it’s hard not being around your teammates for five months because I love my teammates.”
So far, Ruutu will be joined by Jeff Skinner (Canada) and defensive prospect Justin Kreuger (Germany) at the tournament. All three players are under contract for next season and are not married, which Ruutu acknowledged also plays a role.
“Everybody has their own reasons, and I understand it for guys that have kids because it’s a big commitment to have to go train for a few weeks and then play the tournament,” he said.
With invitations still being handed out and invited players still mulling over decisions, it’s possible that more in the Hurricanes organization could join the already-committed three, but it’s by no means a sure thing. Some of the other candidates are free agents this summer, which makes avoiding injury even more important.
For his part, Ruutu described himself as completely fit to play. Despite having had to step away from a few games down the stretch, he always returned and never missed a practice. He played all 82 contests for just the second time in his career and the first since his rookie season with Chicago in 2003-04, avoiding any major concerns such as the shoulder issues that plagued him last season, limiting him to just 54 contests.
“With the way I play, I’m never going to have a healthy season,” he said. “I’m lucky just to not need surgery.
“You have to have good luck. It’s unbelievable how some guys like Eric Staal can go 400 games in a row. I don’t think I’m going to be one of those iron men, but you never know.”
Thanks in large part to his health, Ruutu was able to post career highs in assists (38) and points (57). Still, with the disappointment of the Hurricanes’ last-day loss still fresh, he described his season as just “alright,” pointing to few stretches in which his point totals dipped.
He hopes that heading to the World Championship will help take his mind off of the way an otherwise successful season ended, if only for a few weeks.
“There’s nothing you can really do anymore or else you would have done it during the season,” he said. “I could’ve scored more goals or something like that.
“I’m going to remember this next year. At game 60, you might even try a little bit harder because you know it’s just as important as game 82.”