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Ramsay ready for 'emotional' matchup with Winnipeg

by John Manasso
Craig Ramsay has been in the NHL for so long and worked for so many organizations, whether as a coach or a player, that numerous games have special meaning for him.

Add to that list Monday's game when Ramsay's Florida Panthers, where he is an assistant coach to Kevin Dineen, host the Winnipeg Jets.

Ramsay served as head coach of the Atlanta Thrashers last season and when that franchise relocated to Winnipeg in the offseason, Ramsay was not retained. On Monday, he will face a roster in which 18 of the 23 active players played for him last season and a lot of special relationships were forged.

"In all honesty, now, since I've bounced around from one team to another, I have a whole bunch of those teams where you have special meaning for the game and you have to try to set that aside," Ramsay said. "I'd like to say there's no extra emotion, but there is… There is emotion there, but I really try not to let it affect the way I do my job and what I have to accomplish.

"I'm focused on the fact that I'm really happy to be in Florida. I've been there before (1993 to '95). I'm being recycled. I like it there. It's a great place. We have really fun people to be around. I'm having a great time. That's my focus. It isn't about playing Winnipeg. It is about me and my job. I really hope that I get a chance to say hello or even spend a little bit of time with some of those players. They're great people. I have a lot of admiration for most of those people, the ones I know who are still there. I look forward to saying hello, giving them a nod and I wish them well. Obviously, not that night. I want them to be successful."


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One of the more respected and well-liked men in the NHL, Ramsay, 59, has been in the League for 41 seasons as a player, coach and executive. He came to Atlanta last season in large part to work for then-general manager Rick Dudley, with whom Ramsay has a long and close relationship.

The idea was to play an up-tempo style of hockey and for half a season it worked. Near the season's midway point in late December, Atlanta was one of the NHL's surprise stories and sat atop the Southeast Division. Ramsay and Dudley helped to turn Dustin Byfuglien from a forward into an All-Star defenseman and the League's leading goal-scorer at that position.

Ramsay named Andrew Ladd captain as Ladd enjoyed a career-best 29-goal season and he also was instrumental in the trade for forward Blake Wheeler and defenseman Mark Stuart, both of whom he coached as an assistant in Boston.

However, in the second half, goaltending woes, injuries and, to an extent, an inexplicable stretch of poor play led to the Thrashers missing out on the playoffs before the franchise was sold and moved. Ramsay said the series of events surrounding the franchise in the late spring were some of the strangest he has been around in his long career.

"I have to admit it was quite a bit of a shock when it started to transpire when I first heard that maybe we were going to be the team to go to Winnipeg," he said. "My wife and daughter got on the Internet to check out rentals, assuming we'd be part of the package, and we'd be heading north. It's, of course, their right to do whatever they want, but we were excited to be in Atlanta.

"We thought it was a great place. We really enjoyed where we lived there. The fact that we did have such a great first half, we saw a real future for everybody there and working with Rick I knew he would do the kinds of things, bringing in good players and quality people… You never expect something to happen like that where a team actually sells and moves and then you're really not part of it anymore. This is my 41st year in the league and so I've seen lots of funny things happen and this is just another one -- another one for the book."

So Ramsay landed in Florida with Dineen. Ramsay said as a player he and Dineen played against each other for only one season, but they got to know each other through hockey circles. He said Dineen initially called him as a friend during the sale of the Thrashers. Ramsay said he heard through the grapevine that others were interested in the possibility of hiring him, but one of the great oddities of the sale process was that no one seemed to know whom he had to ask for permission to interview for a job.

"Obviously, in the business you've got to ask permission to talk to me and it was an awkward situation because no one knew who they had to ask for permission," Ramsay said. "It was a crazy thing. The whole League, nobody knew. It was kind of goofy. I was hearing about people that wanted to talk to me, but they couldn't formally speak to me about anything.

"Kevin had to wait. We all had to wait. Once it opened up, it gave us an opportunity to revisit it and talk formally and it just developed. For me, it was wonderful. I have a son there and his wife, they're having a child in December. I'll have a grandchild, so for me it was kind of like going home."

On the Panthers' staff, Dineen handles the forwards, Gord Murphy the defense and Ramsay helps with the power play. He also jumps in individually to try to give players pointers here or there, molding at times raw talent as he has done in the past -- whether it be Dan Boyle or Johnny Boychuk -- into strong NHL players.

Ramsay said the Panthers are playing a bit of a hybrid of the "safe is death" system that he coached in Atlanta and that he and head coach John Tortorella employed in Tampa Bay to win a Stanley Cup. The Panthers, with a massive make-over in the offseason, are a bit of a surprise, currently fifth in the Eastern Conference and just two points out of first place in the Southeast Division entering Sunday's games.

"We're trying to play up tempo, we're trying to do that and we've had some really wonderful games," Ramsay said. "We've been very aggressive. The other night we had a defenseman, Jason Garrison, get his third goal… We're trying to get everybody involved in the offense.

"We have a ways to go because we're new -- new coaches, new players -- but we have a great group. When we skate, we're very hard to handle. It does remind me in some ways of what we tried to do in Atlanta, but Kevin and Gord Murphy have their imprint on it. It's mainly them and I'm just giving them some of my input. Whatever they need me to do."

As of Friday, Ramsay had yet to see much if any of his former teams' games this season. He heard about the Jets' wild 9-8 win over Philadelphia, but didn't know much of the details. He planned on watching video in preparation for the game.

Arguably the Jets' best player this season has been forward Alex Burmistrov (3 goals, 6 assists), the first-round pick of the Thrashers' in 2010. Burmistrov started as an 18-year-old rookie under Ramsay and has the skills to be a top two-way forward as the former Selke Trophy-winner Ramsay once was.

"We liked our team," Ramsay said of the Thrashers. "No doubt, Rick, myself, the other coaches, we liked the group. We liked where it was heading. We were excited about the possibilities about the future with that group of guys. They're a quality group of people and they can play, so we were excited about the ongoing opportunities and it's not there. So I'm not surprised when they play well because they've got a lot of talent and they've got a real good character group."

Three times in his career Ramsay has been a head coach, but no tenure has ever lasted more than one full season. In '86-'87 in Buffalo, he succeeded Scotty Bowman for 21 games when Bowman no longer wanted to be coach but was not retained the next season. In Philadelphia in 1999-00, when Roger Neilson took ill with cancer, Ramsay filled in first on an interim basis for his mentor and took the Flyers to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Given the job on a permanent basis, he was fired 28 games into the following season when he was 12-12-4.
He was asked to compare Atlanta to those situations.

"They're all different," he said. "I don't like them at the time, but you never know where it's going to lead and the Philadelphia incident ended up with me in Tampa where I had a great time. We won the Stanley Cup, so you try not to think about it too much and worry about it. You go on and do your business. I have a job to do here. I'm excited about this opportunity. Dale Tallon as the GM is a great fun person to be around with what I think is a clear and solid vision of where we can go with this hockey club. Kevin and Murph and (goaltending coach) Robbie Tallas, (video coach P.J Deluca), they're, real good people, good people to be around and I'm excited about that.

"The other thing's gone and over with and there's not much I can do about that, so why worry?"
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