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Ritola happy to be back to playing hockey

by Mark Pukalo / Tampa Bay Lightning

Mattias Ritola’s 2010-11 season in Tampa Bay was like rush-hour traffic on I-275.

Start, stop, start, stop, frustration, step on the gas for a short time and then slam on the brakes.

Ritola experienced dizziness, a whirring sound in his ear periodically and the pain and pressure he felt on airplanes made it difficult to travel. He was diagnosed with the symptoms of Meniere’s Disease and Ritola was consistently day-to-day as a 23-year old.

"Unfortunately for him he missed some great opportunities,” Lightning Vice President and General Manager Steve Yzerman said. “There were games in which the coaches had plans to use him in a lot of situations and he missed out on those opportunities because of it.”

His development was delayed 12 months. This year, Yzerman said, should have been last year.

“It was tough not to know if you’re going to be able to practice or play every day,” Ritola said. “It was definitely harder mentally than physically.”

Ritola soldiered through it, playing 31 games with four goals and four assists, and he said he has been symptom-free since last February.

The 6-foot, 192-pound forward came into training camp healthy and won a spot on the roster, producing a pair of goals in preseason games.

“It feels good to wake up in the morning and come here,” Ritola said, after practice at Brandon. “It’s been a good eight months.”

Ritola got in his first action in the regular season Monday in the 6-5 shootout loss at Washington, playing 6:36 – including 44 seconds of penalty-killing time – with one shot on goal.

It was at Norfolk in February when Ritola began to feel better after several different treatments and it showed on the ice. Ritola finished with nine goals and 27 points in 17 games for the Admirals. He put up a goal and four assists in four American Hockey League playoff games, before being recalled to play one playoff game for the Lightning against Pittsburgh.

“That meant a lot to me,” Ritola said of his time in Norfolk. “You get your confidence back and the game is fun again.”

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Lightning coach Guy Boucher said it was big for Ritola not to just play well in Norfolk, but dominate as he did. Yzerman said Ritola took his game to another level in the AHL.

Now Ritola needs to translate that to the next level.

“What he went through sets you back,” Boucher said. “But I think the fact that he was with us most of the year, seeing what the NHL is all about, was also important for him. I think he feels a lot more at ease now.”

Ritola, who played for Sweden at the World Juniors once in 2005-06, was drafted in the fourth round by the Detroit Red Wings in 2005. He played most of three seasons with Grand Rapids of the AHL, increasing his goal totals from seven to 15 to 19 while Yzerman looked on as a Red Wings executive.

In 2007-08, Ritola got his first career NHL point in two games with Detroit and earned a Stanley Cup ring. His name did not go on the Cup because he did not play in the postseason.

Before last season, Yzerman claimed Ritola on waivers and he scored his first goal Oct. 30 at Phoenix. He scored two goals at Toronto March 14.

“The question now is figuring out his role in the NHL,” Boucher said. “He’s got the skills to play on the top two lines, but he doesn’t have the speed. He’s not a grinder-type player either. He’s caught in between, so a lot of those players take a little more time to figure out how to get a consistent job in the NHL.”

Ritola is determined to keep moving forward. There are no stop signs anymore.

“I just have to keep working hard and do the right things,” Ritola said. “That’s all I can do.”

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