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Ready to play, likely to sit

Lightning defenseman Darren Rumble has settled in a routine of being scratched.

TOM JONES
Published January 17, 2004

BRANDON - Darren Rumble, like the rest of the Lightning, spent 45 minutes Friday afternoon practicing for the next game.

That next game? For the Lightning, it is tonight. For Rumble, who knows? It probably won't be tonight. Or next week. Or the week after that.

Rumble is the Lightning's version of a bullpen catcher or a boxing sparring partner. He's a crash-test dummy. He gears up, prepares just like everyone else, sweats as much as anyone and when the real thing rolls around, he winds up nibbling on popcorn in the press box.

While most players wonder what line they're on, Rumble wonders if there will be a line on him. Literally. In hockey, when a player is scratched a roster is passed out with - how cruel is this? - a line scratched through his name.

In 43 games this season, Rumble's name has been scratched 37 and that doesn't include a game in the minors for conditioning. Yet each day, the 34-year-old defenseman shows up for work with a smile on his face and a fire in his belly.

"Hey, I want to play like anyone else," Rumble said. "But I also know what my role is here."

His role is to be the seventh defenseman on a team that plays six. Unless someone gets hurt, chances are Rumble won't play. If Dan Boyle hadn't suffered a concussion in December and missed four games, Rumble likely would have played once this season. As it is, he hasn't played since Dec.13.

"Still, I know I have to keep working hard every day and be prepared whenever I'm called upon," Rumble said. "When you're playing every game, you might back off a little in practice and just work on little things. But when you're not playing like I am, then the practices have to be like your games. You have to work extra hard just to stay in game shape."

The toughest part, Rumble said, is the mental aspect. He can't get down when not playing. Most important, he can't whine to teammates or complain to coaches. Teammates don't want to hear it and coaches refuse to hear it.

"Before we signed him, he knew what his role was going to be and we felt he is experienced and mature enough to accept that," coach John Tortorella said. "The best thing about having him as our seventh defenseman is we feel that he can overcome whatever rust he accumulates by not playing with his intelligence. I can play him with confidence even if he hasn't played in a while.

"I see it as a win-win situation."

The Lightning wins because it has the perfect seventh defenseman, a veteran who doesn't gripe and answers the call when needed. Rumble wins because Tampa Bay in January is a whole lot nicer than Russian winters.

Rumble, who played 19 games for the Lightning last season, was all set to go to Russia last summer. He signed a contract - for good money, he said - to play in the top Russian league. It would've meant leaving his wife and three young children behind for six months. But it would've been steady work. He had an escape clause in his contract: He could void it if he got an offer from an NHL team.

When the Lightning called and offered him $290,000 to be an extra player, Rumble couldn't refuse.

"I could still play and my family could be with me and this is a nice place to be in the winter," he said. "Plus, this is the NHL. I'd rather be the seventh guy here than playing full time in the (American Hockey League) or Russia."

Rumble, paired with Pavel Kubina, had what Tortorella called an outstanding training camp. Yet when the season started, he was the odd man out.

"Even though he doesn't play most games, you never hear him say one bad thing," Kubina said. "He's always joking. He keeps everyone up. He's always happy."

Some days, Rumble admits, he has to fake the smile through gritted teeth. He wants to play. But he doesn't regret his decision. He's not like that. His last regret was not buying a Hugo Boss suit he saw on sale for $300 at the Mall of America a few years ago.

"I know my role, but I also don't prepare like I'm never going to play," Rumble said. "Who knows what might happen tomorrow? Maybe I get in the lineup and never come out. That's how I have to prepare. I have to prepare like I'm going to play the next game."

Even though he probably won't.

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