The title “middle man” is rarely, if ever, viewed as a desirable one. Fancier monikers utilized might be “broker” or “intermediary”, but really, that’s simply sugar-coating the fact that the “middle man” is a go-between.
Generally, it conjures up images of being slightly talented enough to ascend from the bottom rung, but not capable enough to attain the heights one likely desires. Welcome to the life of Steve Rucchin.
Thrust into a first-line role centering prodigious point-producers, and vaunted wingers, Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne for much of his time in an Anaheim Ducks jersey, Rucchin has rarely been credited for his contributions. Rather, he’s been victimized and labelled as a player whose contributions were predicated on the performance of the dynamic duo he had the luxury of centering. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Rucchin’s path to the NHL was a unique one, having been selected by Anaheim in the 1994 NHL Supplemental Draft out of the University of Western Ontario, and becoming one of the few to ever be selected from a Canadian university. His 735 games played are the most of any player selected in an NHL Supplemental Draft, and his longevity was a result of his ability to play the game, not who his wingers were.
With great power comes great responsibility
As a 23 year-old, Rucchin was slightly more mature than many rookies in the game today, however the task of entering, and competing at a high level in, the NHL was no doubt a daunting one. The tall order was made even taller once he was penciled in between Kariya and Selanne during the latter part of the 1995-96 season, after Anaheim acquired Selanne via trade, but if you had to identify a turning point in Rucchin’s career, there it is, in only his second NHL season.
Many will posit that Rucchin’s point totals are inflated thanks to his cushy gig as Kariya and Selanne’s running mate, however playing on an expansion team brings about unique challenges for players. For Rucchin, centering the top line meant playing against the opposition’s best defensive pairing each night, due in large part to the obvious lack of depth new franchises suffer from. So while he’ll never be viewed as an “elite” point-producer, and his career-high of 67 points will obviously illuminate that assertion, it’s unfair to simply dismiss his offensive contributions as product of playing with skilled wingers. Early in his career, he centered the only line opposing teams’ had to plan on shutting down and he still managed to average a shade under 60 points per season from 1996 to 2000.
Rucchin certainly found his name on the game sheet fairly regularly, but his most notable contributions are a product of playing a complete game and competing at both ends of the rink. There’s a tendency to anoint Kariya and Selanne as the only players who mattered on Anaheim’s number-one line, but the reason for their lofty point totals, aside from their obvious skill-sets, was Rucchin’s attention to detail. While the Ducks’ stars would play an up-tempo, free-wheeling game, Rucchin played a responsible, two-way game ensuring he was first on the backcheck, and his defensive abilities created many a chance for his gifted wingers.
When Kariya and Selanne weren’t flying down the wing and scoring goals, they were looking for dead areas in the slot in order to put pucks on net. The man that did the dirty work so they could have the puck on their sticks was Rucchin, who always made great use of his 6’2, 210 lbs. frame in the corners and along the boards. Beyond his gritty, two-way game with a dash of offensive prowess was an oft-overlooked, but no less valuable trait Rucchin brought to the table, his face-off ability. Winning an average of 53% of his draws in Anaheim allowed them to dictate the pace of play, and as a result, afforded Kariya and Selanne the opportunity to play at the fast pace in which they thrived.
Making a name for himself
The hallmarks of Rucchin’s game can’t be adequately recorded and converted into a numerical statistic, as he was the sandpaper on a line with two finesse stars. His big-bodied presence opened up space for his all-star wingers and presented them with all the time they needed to make a play, however he wasn’t just riding their coattails.
Where Rucchin’s true value to the team revealed itself, and where he shone, was on the penalty kill. He didn’t shine in the respect that he was a short-handed threat to score at all times (his career short-handed goals total is 7), but he did the little things like block shots, rag the puck and clog passing lanes. Those qualities may not seem like much, but they elongated his career because not only was he a dependable player who would chip in offensively, he was a player you could play in all situations.
Perhaps the only time Rucchin ever became a household name was during the 2003 playoffs, during which Anaheim began an unlikely run to the Stanley Cup finals by sweeping the defending champion Detroit Red Wings in the first round. Fittingly, it was Rucchin that potted the winner in game 4. The hockey gods have a soft spot for unsung players such as Rucchin and they tend to manifest this empathy for them come playoff time, when the unheralded step up and score big goals.
If you look at the players who have captained Anaheim over the years, you’ll see the likes of future hall-of-famers such as Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, as well as superstars Paul Kariya and Ryan Getzlaf. The name Steve Rucchin is glossed over with nary a second glance or thought, but he was an integral part of Anaheim’s franchise during their early expansion years. Moreover, he was instrumental in the development of Kariya, possessing everything Kariya lacked, namely size, grit and physical presence which made them, along with Selanne, such an unstoppable line. They were truly the sum of their parts.
The “middle man” rarely gets any shine and it’s only until you analyze exactly what their contributions are that you come to appreciate them. They tend to do everything people would rather not deal with. That is admirable, and that is Steve Rucchin, no longer the “middle man”, simply the “man in the middle” when you look back at one the most potent lines in Anaheim’s history.