Rycroft Quite The Character
By Jerry Burke
Bob Plager has seen enough hockey in his lifetime to have a pretty good feel for a player's value to his team.
The veteran of 644 NHL games knows that every team must have it's star players. But according to Plager, now the St. Louis Blues' Director of Professional Scouting, those teams also must have a supporting cast. Players who might not garner the same amount of ice time or grab the same number of headlines, but players who are jsut as valuable to their teams as the stars themselves.
Those players are sometimes acknowledged for the size of their heart rather than the size of their bodies. They are sometimes not gifted with the greatest of offensive talent or blessed with overwhelming physical prowess. These are players who every night, every shift, and with every stride make the most of everything that they can coax out of their bodies.
They are often refered to as "character players".
In Worcester's Mark Rycroft, Plager sees just that kind of character emerging.
"He's a kid that has a big heart and he definetly isn't afraid to rok hard," says Plager. "He's got great work habits and when you talk to him you know that he's going to keep improving."
Rycroft left Denver University after last season in order to chase his dream of one day playing in the NHL. According to the Nanaimo, British Columbia native, he weighed the odds of playing one more year of college hockey versus the challenges of pro hockey.
"Before I signed with St. Louis, we (his family and the Blues) talked about which would serve me better, a fourth year of college or getting my start in the American Hockey League. We both agreed that I was ready both mentally and physically for the AHL, so I decided to give it a shot because of the Blues' reputationof developing their young players."
Rycroft signed a free-agent contract with the Blues on May 15th and immediatly began getting ready for training camp.
Plager was in the stands when St. Louis opened camp this year and acknowledges that the 5-foot-11, 197 pound Rycroft made some noise, both figuratively and literally, on the ice in his first professional camp.
"I think Mark's skating was something that might have been against him when he reported to camp, but he made things happen when he was out there," says Plager. "There would be scoring chances in front of the net or during a forecheck, you'd hear a bang against the boards and it would be him."
Nothing spectacular, but little things rarely go unnoticed by hockey hierarchies. Things that character players know are their bread and butter in their quest for a roster spot. No flash, no pizzazz. Just good honest hard work.
"I've always prided myself on being a hard worker and I really do believe that good things do happen when you work hard in this game," Rycroft said. "I think that if I'm ever going to realize my dream of playing in the NHL it will only come if I keep working hard. It's as simple as that."
Getting to this point in his career has been anything but simple for Rycroft. Being marked down as somewhat slight of stature by hockey standards always has provided him with ample ammunition when fighting for his hockey life.
"Absolutely!" says Rycroft. "I was never picked in the Western Hockey League Draft and the first time I was eligible for the NHL draft I was ranked somewhere in the eighth round and got passed over there too. I've used all those things in my career as fire. I just put it in the furnace and burn it to keep me going."
During his three-year career at Denver University, Rycroft developed a reputation as a clutch scorer. He netted 15 game-winning goals for the Pioneers, leading the team in that category each of those seasons.
"When it comes down to the big play I want to be the guy with the puck," Rycroft said. "There's no question that I enjoy the last minutes of a game. I think being out there in the position to score the winning goal in a game ia the ultimate feeling for a hockey player."
Plager says the former WCHA star has it in him to continue scoring those kind of goals.
"To me, he's a player that is going to score the big goals," Plager said. "He's a player that drives the net, goes to the net and is always working in the offensive end."
This season in WOrcester has seen Rycroft quickly adapt to the professional level and hint at what his future might hold. He already has scored over 20 goals and counts five game-winners among those tallies. He roared out of the box, picking up a hat trick in only his second AHL game, potting three as the IceCats visited Springfield. His contributions have helped his ait his team atop the New England Division of the AHL's eastern Conference.
Listening to Rycroft, though, he's quick to point out that he's not the only goal scorer in his family. Nor is he the only Rycroft to ever lace up the skates in the AHL. Better yet, he's not even the first Rycroft to record a hat trick in the city of Springfield. Those honors all belong to his dad, Al, who popped in three goals when his Syracuse Eagles visited the Massachusetts city in March 1975.
"It was in the same barn that I scored mine in so it was kind of exciting," beams Rycroft. "Anytime that you have a chance to share something with your father, and my dad is my ultimate idol, it's just an amazing feeling. To think that he was sitting in that same visitors locker room maybe 24 or 25 years earlier, doing just what I was doing, battling to make it to the NHL. It really leaves me with such a sense of pride and I'm sure it made him proud, too."
And if Mark Rycroft continues his hard work, there's no reason to think that some day his proud father will be able to say that his son plays for the St. Louis Blues of the NHL.
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