|Philadelphia Phantoms defenseman Michael Ratchuk, the Flyers' second-round pick in 2006, was a member of the Michigan State Spartans
team that won the NCAA title in 2007.
Even before he hit the on-ramp to the fast lane, Philadelphia Phantoms rookie defenseman Michael Ratchuk
knew he had to ditch the best mode of transportation he’d ever owned.
So the moped was history. He left it right behind at Michigan State, where he went to school and where many students use them to get around the cavernous campus. When the car-less Ratchuk rolled into Philadelphia, he wasn’t going to do it on a motorized bike.
"I didn’t know if that would ruin the little reputation I have so far, driving around in a scooter,’’ he said.
Good call by the quick-learning newcomer. For now he’ll walk, take the subway or bum rides from his teammates. As long at Ratchuk keeps finding his way around the ice, the rest will take care of itself.
The Flyers’ second-round pick in the 2006 draft has jumped from Michigan State into the fray of the AHL playoffs for one of the leading Calder Cup contenders. He contributed one goal and two assists in three regular-season games and then dressed for four first-round playoff games vs. Albany, picking up the first assist on Ryan Potulny
’s game-winner in the five-overtime marathon April 24.
When Ratchuk left the Spartans to join Philadelphia, he did so with the idea that he’d practice a little, watch a lot and get used to the speed of the game. Instead, he has become a solid depth player for a team that could need all oars in the water for a deep playoff run.
"I went with the attitude I’d learn,’’ Ratchuk said of coming in. "Luckily, they’ve gotten me in. The first (playoff) game was pretty tough. The second game, I felt better. The guys are real good guys. They make the adjustment easy.’’
It’s not like Ratchuk, 20, doesn’t bring something to the table on his own. Last year, he was part of a Michigan State team that won the NCAA title. Yeah, that was a one-and-done type of pressure, but it at least taught him what it’s like to play with a sense of urgency.
"Everyone who plays hockey grew up watching seven-game playoffs,’’ he said of the pros. "That whole desperation part of it, I knew how it felt.’’
Ratchuk also brings another dash of playmaking ability to the Phantoms. He’s a fast, elusive creator who felt a strong pull to stay at school, but decided to leave after a sophomore season in which he produced six goals and 19 assists.
"As soon as our season ended, I was on the phone with my agent, (saying); ‘What’s the best thing to do?’’’ he said. "Everyone was saying, ‘You only go to college once.’ Plus, Michigan State, you couldn’t ask for a better place to go to school. But this (pro hockey) has been a dream since I was a kid.’’
It’s a dream that he’s seen play out in his very own family.
Ratchuk is the youngest of six children. Ten years before his draft year, in 1996, brother Peter was a first-round pick by the Avalanche. By almost every standard, Peter, also a defenseman, had a successful pro career. He skated in 32 NHL games and is still drawing a living from the sport, playing in Germany.
But expectations being what they are, Peter fell short of what his draft status might have predicted. A decade later, he’s tipping off his younger brother about the importance of perspective.
"I told Mike I wish he got drafted in the 10th round. When I got drafted so high, there were so many expectations on me,’’ Peter said. "I looked at the career picture when I started, rather than looking game-to-game. I could have let things bother me less, and focus on the little things I could control. A lot of young players are put into those situations, but only a few can master it.’’
Is his younger brother one of those?
"I definitely think he can. He’s been in high-pressure situations,’’ Peter said. "I think that’s an area I hope I can help.’’
That starts with a willing subject, and Michael has always appreciated the resource he has in Peter.
"Everyone who plays hockey grew up watching seven-game playoffs. That whole desperation part of it, I knew how it felt.’’ -- Michael Ratchuk on playing in the NCAA title game as a Spartan
"He’s always helped me out, any time I’ve needed help with anything. Even when I was still at school, he said make sure you don’t leave until you are ready. And when you do leave, make sure you realize it’s a business,’’ Michael said. "He said, once you come in there (the pros), it’s all up to you what you earn. You have to work and work and work, and don’t say a word, don’t complain.’’
So Ratchuk just goes along and laughs, most easily at himself. In his very first game, April 11 against Hershey, he was so nervous he couldn’t even get it right in the warmups.
"They have set drills,’’ Ratchuk said. “The story of my life, I messed up. Guys are looking at me like, ‘Who is this kid?’’’
They found out during the game, when Ratchuk got an assist. And then again two games later, when he scored his first pro goal and added another helper.
All of a sudden, Ratchuk started looking like a guy who could show up for games and practices riding a pogo stick, and his teammates wouldn’t care. Although, he can certainly afford something much nicer now.
Once his current business is settled, buying a car is high on his priority list. Big brother has promised to take him looking, and said he’ll tell Michael that just because he has a pro contract doesn’t mean his eyes should grow bigger than his wallet.
That doesn’t look like it will be a concern.
"I’ve looked at some stuff. It’s not like I’m a million-dollar guy looking at those (top-end) cars,’’ he said. "It’s kind of a big deal getting my first car. But it’s not the first thing on my mind right now.’’