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Ramsay: odyssey on ice

Today is the 2,000th game as player or coach for the Lightning's associate coach.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 29, 2002


TAMPA -- Like turning around and discovering that the children you had -- what was it, just last year? -- have children of their own, Craig Ramsay's odyssey through the National Hockey League seems to have gone by all too quickly.

For the most part, Ramsay's 1,999 games as a player or coach going into tonight's Lightning game against the Rangers have been part job but mostly fun.

"It doesn't seem all that long," the Lightning associate coach said after practice at the St. Pete Times Forum. "Obviously it is. I've changed jobs a few times -- player, coach, eight years as assistant general manager, back to coaching again.

"That's a lot of different things in a lot of different places. It's tough to keep track of how many games you've done. I've coached Buffalo, Florida, Ottawa, Philly and here. Time passes fairly quickly."

Lightning coach John Tortorella said a 2,000-game career is beyond comprehension. "I can't imagine it," he said, cracking a smile. "Look at him; he looks like (an) old man."

But he can still play, though Tampa offers him fewer opportunities than Buffalo, Ottawa and so on, where pickup games abound. Craig's wife, Susan, loves the game; she had watched him play in juniors. Their three sons play, one for the Orlando Seals of the Atlantic Coast Hockey League. Their daughter, he said, "doesn't know anything about hockey and doesn't like hockey. I have no idea why." Summer is 15 and in school in Peterborough, Ontario, where just about all of her friends love hockey.

Ramsay has gone from pupil, listening as a Sabres youngster to coaches Joe Crozier and Floyd Smith, to teacher. Once in a while he wonders what goes through the minds of players less than half his 51 years as they listen to a gray-bearded man from another era.

"I suspect no younger player will have watched me play," Ramsay said. "Mostly what I end up doing is trying to show them things on the ice I can still do with a stick, just to get their attention. And you hope they'll read something about me somewhere and say, 'Hey, this guy did play this game and was pretty good at it.' "

Dan Boyle, the Lightning's best offensive defenseman, listens. "He knows a lot of the little things that can really make a player better," Boyle said. "And he can still move around out there."

But poking fun at this angular veteran of 14 seasons as a Sabres forward and two-time coach is part of the players' curriculum. "We know who he was and what he's done," left wing Fredrik Modin said, "but he's not 20 anymore, that's for sure. We get a couple of good jabs in on him every now and then but it's tough because he's so quick on the return."

Coaching hockey at this level is a business, like any other. "I take that seriously," Ramsay said. "But it's the little things that make a difference and those things are often done in a much more informal setting. Stick play, we work on on the ice. We play a little one-on-one. It's still good to get out there and have a few laughs."

For Ramsay, the toughest thing has been having to sell himself and his coaching concepts every time he moves from one team to another, and every time a young player shows up, expecting to be taught yet resisting it.

"In many cases you're telling a young player not to do the things they've been doing for a long time," he said. "They look at you and say, 'Whoa, wait a minute. Who are you? I've been doing this for a while and it works pretty good.' You have to tell them, 'No, at this level that won't work.' "

He retired as a player after the 1984-85 season after deciding he wanted to coach. It didn't take long for him to second-guess himself.

"Looking back at it, I guess I should've played a little longer," he said. "I loved Buffalo. It seemed like the time to try something else. I thought I could do more for the team by coaching and letting someone else come in and do my job. That was a mistake."

It took him two or three seasons, maybe more, he said, to stop saying, "I can do that," as he saw players perform. "There were times early on when I was kind of hoping that (the team) might come back and say, 'We really could use you playing. Then there were a bunch of injuries and I thought about doing it, but not for very long.

"I'd told (Sabres general manager) Scotty Bowman, 'Look, I've decided to (retire) and I want you to know I'm out. I'm not coming back,' even though in the back of my mind I thought I should change it."

Ramsay was only slightly prepared for the next phase of his life. He knew he had a job. He didn't quite realize what he was getting into. "There's more work to being a coach than a player," he said, "more time and certainly more aggravation."

Worse, having played his career with one team, he wasn't prepared for the capriciousness of coaching. "You wind up moving all over the place. (Ex-Florida coach) Roger Nielson and I had two great years with the Panthers, the best expansion franchise in history, and we got fired. The new general manager wanted a new coach. It's things like that that make you wonder, 'Why did I ever go into coaching?' "


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