In terms of duration, it was the longest victory in Sharks history. Game One of their Western Conference Quarterfinal series against Nashville last year lasted until 8:14 of the second overtime. That’s when Patrick Rissmiller beat Predators goaltender Tomas Vokoun with the winning goal. It was the end of a long night, so perhaps it was fitting that Rissmiller capped the decisive sequence.
If there’s anyone on the Sharks who comprehends the meaning of taking the long road, it’s Rissmiller. He played his college hockey at Holy Cross, which had produced just one National Hockey League player (goaltender Jim Stewart, who played one game for Boston in 1979-80). Rissmiller went undrafted after his senior year and went to San Jose’s training camp in 2002 as a tryout player. And now, five years later, this long shot was in Nashville scoring one of the biggest goals in franchise history.
“Now that I’m here, it might be easy to fall into a habit of taking it for granted,” Rissmiller said. “But I try not to. When you’re in the minors, there’s no glory, really. Busing. Three games in three nights. Stuff like that. I definitely appreciate being in the NHL.”
After his career at Holy Cross, Rissmiller spent the 2002-03 season in the minors, mostly with Cleveland in the American Hockey League, but he also skated for two games with Cincinnati in the ECHL. Then early in the 2003-04 season, he got the call to come to San Jose.
“I was in complete shock,” Rissmiller said of being promoted so soon. With Alexander Korolyuk, Wayne Primeau and Mark Smith out with injuries, Rissmiller played four games for the Sharks, then went back to Cleveland. He waited for the Sharks to call again. And waited. But the call never came that season. Unfortunately for Rissmiller, the disappointment crept into his game.
“I played okay for a little bit after I went back to Cleveland,” he said. “But then I got into a funk where I wasn’t playing very well. I wasn’t scoring goals. Wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing, what had gotten me to where I was at the time. It was a learning process. “I saw all these other guys getting called up, and of course, you get a little attitude. You ask yourself, ‘Why not me?’ But it was something that has helped me in the long run.”
Rissmiller spent the entire 2004-05 season in Cleveland, with the NHL not even being a possibility because of the lockout. The following season, Rissmiller started the year in Cleveland, again. He had to wait until March 2006 — 28 months after getting his first taste of the big time — before getting that second call. Call it patience. Call it faith. Whatever the case might have been, it had been rewarded.
“You see guys who’ve had the chance to come up, then come back in the minors and they get stuck there for a little while and give up on it,” defenseman Douglas Murray
, Rissmiller’s teammate in Cleveland and San Jose, said. “You’ve got to give him a lot of credit for sticking with it and then seizing the opportunity when he got the chance.”
The opportunity materialized because veteran left winger Scott Thornton was injured and the Sharks needed to promote a forward. “I remember it was just supposed to be a very short-term solution,” Coach Ron Wilson said of Rissmiller’s promotion. “He was doing okay in Cleveland. He still wasn’t doing some of these detail things, but when we brought him up, (Cleveland Coach) Roy Sommer talked to him.”
Sommer told Rissmiller the Sharks would probably be shifting him from center to left wing to take Thornton’s spot. That meant competing hard on the boards, getting pucks out of the defensive zone and finishing his checks.
“Roy said to him, ‘Don’t worry about scoring, because if you do those little things, you might stick,’” Wilson said. “He heard the same message when he got here, and he has been here ever since. “He struggled at times in our organization because his attention to detail wasn’t where it should be and he didn’t understand what you really have to do to play at this level,” Wilson continued. “But now to other people who haven’t made it yet, we use ‘Rizz’ as an example. This guy is in the NHL because he pays attention to detail. No other reason. He’s not here to score 40 goals. That’s not what it’s about.”
Rissmiller learned how to play defense and evolved into a regular penalty-killer.
“When he came up here, he did every thing he was asked to do,” Director Hockey of Operations Joe Will said. “He was a featured player in the AHL, an offensive guy, one of the better scorers in the league. His defensive game was okay. He always had the ability to do it. But when he came here, Ronnie said, ‘We’re not having you do the other things. You’re a defensive player.’ And he was very reliable. “He was smart enough to say, ‘Hey, this is my bread and butter. Coach told me to do this; I’m going to do it,’” he added. “And he hasn’t looked back. Some guys will do that for a while. Then they started cheating: ‘I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that.’”
Defense had never been a major part of Rissmiller’s game until he reached the NHL. “It’s ironic now,” he said. “Part of the problem in the minors was they were worried about my defensive game. I was an offensive guy in college and early on in the pros. I wasn’t taught a lot about the defensive part of the game. But it started happening in Cleveland. Then when I got called up, obviously I saw they had enough guys who can score. But if you’re not giving up goals, then the coach trusts you.”
In fact, Wilson had enough trust in Rissmiller to continue giving him a regular shift in the overtimes of that playoff game in Nashville even after he had committed a costly mistake late in regulation. Trailing the Sharks by one, Nashville pulled Vokoun for an extra attacker. Rissmiller had two chances to clear the puck from the defensive zone. Uncharacteristically, he failed to do it both times. Subsequently, Predators defenseman Shea Weber scored a goal with 51 seconds left to force overtime. Rissmiller’s spirit sagged like a hammock.
“It was a long first overtime,” he said. “I was definitely rattled. I was saying, ‘Please somebody score and bail me out.’”
As it turned out, Rissmiller took himself off the hook.
“I kept playing him in the first overtime, but you saw him coming to the bench with his head down, shaking his head,” Wilson said. “I could see a guy shaking his head if I didn’t put him on the ice. Then the guy is thinking, ‘I really did it to myself this time. I’ll never play again.’ “But there’s a message in the fact that you’re playing. The coach believes in you. But I had to tell him between the first and second overtime to get his head back in the game,” he added. “You made a mistake, but it doesn’t un-do all the good stuff you’ve done. Wake up. Let’s get going.”
Rissmiller was familiar with that theme after beating the discouragement and keeping the faith those many months in Cleveland. “I just had to pick up pieces and get on it with it,” he said.