He wasn’t big enough. He wasn’t fast enough. He wasn’t strong enough. Or so he was told.
And maybe they were right.
But what Mike Ribeiro may have lacked in physical attributes, he more than made up for in his will to make it to the NHL. Now, 1,000 games later, that strength is still driving him to capture hockey’s ultimate prize.
Not bad for the son of Portuguese immigrants, who grew up in Montreal where hockey was king, and the ins and outs of the game made much more sense than trying to complete his homework, all in French, when his parents weren’t able to help because of the language barrier.
“I was trying to just get through learning a new language by myself, do my homework by myself, but with hockey, I didn’t have to learn a language, I just had to learn x’s and o’s,” Ribeiro said. “Every time I went to practices, I was listening and really focusing on what I had to do. It was easier for me to understand than going to school and trying to learn a new language by myself.”
So hockey essentially became Ribeiro’s reading, writing and arithmetic, and like most boys growing up in the frozen Quebec winters, it was eat, sleep, hockey, repeat.
Ribeiro was never going to intimidate anyone with his size – he stands 6-feet tall and is 180 pounds today – and in the mid-to-late 90s, playing junior hockey against opponents who may have had a few inches and more than a few pounds on him was a concern, at least for those in charge.
“I didn’t have a lot of people believe in me,” Ribeiro said. “Even through the years, I always finished as the top scorer of the league or of my team, but I was never fast. I was never big, I was never strong, and so a lot of people doubted me because of it.”
Ribeiro knew he wasn’t all of those things, so he found a way to channel it into mental toughness that he says has guided him through every step of his career.
“I didn’t have all those qualities people told you that you needed to have, but I believed,” Ribeiro said. “I learned the game, and I knew how to play and I believed in myself. I think that was the biggest skill that I had.”
His numbers weren’t half bad, either. Ribeiro put up 32 goals and 89 points in 43 games in his final year of midget triple-A before skating two full seasons with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League from 1997 to 1999. All he did there was post 125 points in the first season, then followed that up with a 167-point performance in 69 games.
Those numbers were enough for the Montreal Canadiens, Ribeiro’s childhood team, to take notice and select him in the second round, 45th overall, of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft. Then, on Oct. 2, 1999, Ribeiro was on the ice at the Bell Centre, dressed in the bleu, blanc et rouge, with the Toronto Maple Leafs on the other side.
“I was just sitting on the bench with the jersey, and just thinking how I was sitting on my couch watching the games, and now I was sitting on the bench,” Ribeiro, whose grandparents lived in Toronto and were Leafs fans, said. “It was amazing, really, I was just nervous and overwhelmed and couldn’t believe it.”
A few weeks later, Ribeiro scored his first of 223 NHL goals in Toronto against the Maple Leafs. Ribeiro played 19 games for the Habs that season, and after a few more spent bouncing back and forth between the NHL and the minors developing his game, he broke out with a 20-goal, 65-point campaign in 2003-04.
Ribeiro was traded to Dallas in the fall of 2006 and began the 2006-07 season with the Stars, a place where he continued to grow as a player for six seasons, including a career-high 83 points in 2007-08. Ribeiro credits then-Stars Head Coach Dave Tippett for believing in him and giving him every opportunity to succeed in different situations on the ice.
“He just let me play,” Ribeiro said of Tippett. “It didn’t matter if I turned the puck over or I didn’t back check here and there, he just let me play. I had a chance to play with great players there, and then I had a coach that believed in me and that made a big difference; to come to the rink and just play a game, knowing that the coach believes in you.”
After six consecutive 53-plus point seasons in Dallas, Ribeiro moved onto Washington during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, recording 49 points in 48 games. Ribeiro then signed a multi-year deal in Arizona with the Coyotes to begin 2013-14, but was bought out of his contract after just one season, a time that Ribeiro admits was a career low for him.
“Through all my years, I always loved coming to the rink; but in Phoenix, you get up in the morning and it wasn’t a hobby for me anymore, it was like work,” Ribeiro said. “I had to get up and come to work, and I didn’t want to.”
Ribeiro posted 47 points that season, his lowest total in a decade. It looked like his time in the NHL had come to an end.. But then, Predators General Manager David Poile called. Ribeiro signed a one-year deal in the summer of 2014 and proceeded to set the Preds franchise record for assists by a center in one season with 47.
“I always thought that if I put my mind into it, I can do it. When the buyout and everything happened, I told myself, ‘If I have a chance, I’m going to do it right, and I’ll produce and be the player I can be,’ so my mind was set to do it,” Ribeiro said. “So when David and [Head Coach Peter Laviolette] asked if I was going to be able, I knew I could come here and help the team.”
Ribeiro inked a two-year extension last summer to remain in Nashville, and after picking up career assists 527 and 528 in his 1,000th game on Saturday, the 35-year-old, who will turn 36 this week, continues to produce.
For Ribeiro, the support he’s received in Nashville, from management, coaches, teammates and fans, has been just what he needed to settle back into his career and utilize his top attributes. For someone who grew up without anyone believing in him, he now has more support than ever.
“Everybody believes in me as a person and that makes a big difference for me,” Ribeiro said. “It makes me feel like people appreciate you, and they’re not there to put you down or not believe in you. That was a big thing last year, and this year I feel good vibes. When I feel good vibes from people, that makes me feel more comfortable to come to work and to do well. When people open their arms when you’re in crisis and they help you, you just want to give back.”
Part of that begins during warmups in what has become a ritual for Ribeiro. It’s a small thing, but for those on the other side of the glass, there’s no better feeling.
“I like to give pucks in warmups, especially for young kids,” Ribeiro said. “I think it’s a moment that kids will remember and if you give a puck to a kid, I’m guaranteeing you’re going to be his favorite player.”
There are at least three children who call Ribeiro their favorite player - Mikael, Noah and Viktoria. Along with his wife, Tammy, Ribeiro praises his children, who will be in attendance on Tuesday night against Washington, when their dad is honored as just the 300th player in NHL history to play in 1,000 games.
“It’s a milestone not a lot of people achieve and to have my kids old enough to understand what’s going to happen, I think makes it even more special,” Ribeiro said. “My family, my wife, my kids, that’s a lot of games; that’s a lot of years that they have to go through with dad not being around. They deserve a lot of credit.”
The journey in Nashville, and in the NHL, isn’t over yet for Ribeiro. And while the stylish centerman says he may like a career in the fashion industry – or perhaps just being a dad – when his time in the League eventually does come to a close, he’s still using his greatest attribute to prove the doubters wrong.
Not bad for a guy who wasn’t big enough. Or fast enough. Or strong enough.
“I’ve always believed in myself,” Ribeiro said. “I’ve always thought your mind is really the strongest thing you have. I still believe I can do it and help us win a Cup here.”