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Less than 24 hours after putting his first NHL point in the books, Blues rookie forward Mark Rycroft hit the books.

Still living out of a suitcase and calling a hotel room home, Rycroft popped open his laptop Sunday and planned to finish eight pages of his 20-page report due in one week. The report touches on the New York Stock Exchange and will move him closer to a degree in real estate/construction management.

Ah, the cushy, freewheeling life of a pro hockey player.

"So, I do homework to pass the time," said Rycroft, the lasting surprise from Blues training camp who had an assist in Saturday's 2-2 tie in Nashville. "Got to get this done sometime. Figured if I didn't do it now, I'd never finish my degree."

Rycroft has some heavy thoughts preoccupying his time. The paper assigned in pursuit of a degree from Denver University, was to discuss his experience visiting and touring Wall Street in late August. With about a week before his second training camp, Rycroft had tunnel vision - gather information, jot notes, prepare to write in case hockey demands attention. He's not the picture-taking sort, but he wouldn't have had time to snap any shots, either.

Not even from the site of the presentation he attended: On the 84th floor of World Trade Center No. 2.

The paper he planned to write changed while he was in Alaska working to land a job with the Blues. Now he is not only writing about his experience in New York City, but how the New York Stock Exchange and whole glittering, economic boulevard could be changed by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

He planned to finish the paper in Worcester, Mass., while playing for the minor-league IceCats. That, too, has changed. Rycroft came to St. Louis packed for one week. Enough clothes to get him through camp in Alaska. He has since had to buy a new pair of pants, a new shirt and a new pair of shoes.

Through each trim of the Blues' roster, Rycroft's energy, skill - and "don't underestimate his offensive skill," coach Joel Quenneville said - have kept him writing his paper with the big-league club.

For now. Rycroft, 23, is stuck between Stages 3 and 4 of a rookie's plight. He played well enough in his first professional season - 24 goals last season in Worcester - to earn an invite to Alaska. He passed Stage 2 by sticking through the preseason. He's on Stage 3 by earning a spot on the regular-season roster because of injuries and he's almost to 4: earning ice time. He'll know he's arrived when the Blues call and say, find a home.

"They haven't told me to get a place," said Rycroft, who is staying on the Blues' dime at a local hotel. Fellow youngsters Daniel Corso and Sergei Varlamov are there, too, but they've been told to house hunt. "I'm here making the most of my opportunity. I wake up and I just try to survive another day."

After a hiccup at its start - Rycroft was projected to go in the eighth round of the entry draft as a 19-year-old, and didn't - the flinty winger's career has been on warp. Discouraged by the draft and what he thought was a dim NHL future, he went to Denver University , in the Colorado Avalanche's backyard.

He was named the Pioneers captain as a junior. Blues scout Ralph Backstrom, a former coach at DU, already had his eyes on Rycroft. When Rycroft was a junior, scoring 17 goals and making 17 assists in 41 games, Backstrom suggested the Blues offer quickly, before others found out. The Blues interest "perked up others," Backstrom said, but the Blues won out and signed Rycroft in May 2000.

"I labeled him as what you see is what you get," Backstrom said. "He plays the game the way it's supposed to be played. First to the puck. First thing is always the team. I don't think you can deny this kid his grit. He's a little ahead of schedule for us."

Rycroft has ducked cuts with that grit. Following the lead of veterans Mike Keane and Dallas Drake and picking Tyson Nash for points, Rycroft has made an impact with his impact. He had 11 hits in the preseason - most of any Blues forward. He battles in the corner, takes bruises in front of the net and "loves playing that role," Rycroft said. "God only knows why."

Against Nashville, Rycroft got his first assist by scrumming at the boards and getting enough control of the puck to scoot it to Keith Tkachuk. The left winger then fired over to Pavol Demitra, who scored while Rycroft crashed the net. It was the third goal, including two in the preseason, that Rycroft has created - not by passing but by shoving the defense out of the shooter's way. That's his game.

And each game he's getting better, Quenneville said. Better enough to stay in St. Louis to write the other paper he has due so that he can complete his degree next summer - that remains to be seen. It's due Nov. 15. Nash will definitely be back from his knee and abdominal rehabilitation by then, and Scott Mellanby (broken jaw) could be, too. "I've talked to Nasher and he's said, 'Play every game like it's your last,'" Rycroft said. "I try to play every game like that and stay as long as I can. . . . I came here in a suitcase. So if I have to pick up and go, I can get packed up real quick."

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