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It's still a wonderful life for Ramsay

Lightning associate coach has a soothing manner befitting a man who survived ulcers.

Published April 5, 2004

TAMPA - Craig Ramsay wants to make one thing clear, he did not die.

The Lightning's associate coach knows that is the story people sometimes tell when they discuss his 1993 illness that required three surgeries and resulted in the removal of his ulcerated stomach.

There was that moment when a nurse asked Ramsay, lying in a hospital bed in Buffalo, if he wanted to see a minister. But Ramsay said he just growled at her, "No, get out of here."

Then there was the time Ramsay said he overheard a doctor express amazement he was still alive.

"I heard one guy talking say, "I don't know how he's doing it,' " Ramsay recalled last week. "I had my eyes closed, but I was still awake. I said to myself, "That's not great.' "

But Ramsay said that at no time while his ulcers bled and he received, by his count, 33 units of blood products, did his heart stop.

"I was almost gone a couple of times," Ramsay said. "But I never saw any visions. I hung on."

Ramsay has done more than that.

Eleven years later, he is flourishing and has been a key element in the Lightning's development, running special teams and overseeing the defense.

Coach John Tortorella calls him a co-coach and "a settling influence for some of our guys" who might better respond to Ramsay's Lifesavers style than Tortorella's castor oil. Defenseman Jassen Cullimore called him "a good teacher" and "the one always cracking the jokes."

Ramsay, 53, a native of Weston, Ontario, said he doesn't much think about his illness. Amazing, really, when you think that after the removal of his stomach, doctors connected Ramsay's small intestine to his esophagus so he could eat.

But other than taking a once-weekly, nasal-spray dose of B12 (a vitamin generally absorbed in the stomach) and not being able to eat as much as he would like, Ramsay has no limitations. Ask him how he's doing and you always get the same response: "Wonderful."

Compared to what Ramsay has been through, he isn't kidding. It also is a purposeful answer.

"It was something I read during all that," Ramsay said. "The one thing you have control over every day when you get up is, mentally, how you're going to approach the day. What I try to do is bring something positive, and by saying that it does help me.

"You can start believing it even if you don't feel good and things aren't great. You can say it's a hell of a day and you have a great opportunity to make yourself feel better."

For Ramsay, there is nothing better than working in the game he loves. He said he appreciates the workload given him by Tortorella, the easy give and take with the staff and his new two-year contract.

Ramsay calls the playoffs "pretty exciting stuff." He thrives on the sense that "everything is so vital" and that "you go in there with the attitude that you're going to do whatever you can to win."

But if you want to see Ramsay's essence, watch him at practice. Cullimore says his gentle touch is appreciated and makes the odd times when he gets upset that much more effective.

Then there are stories from a 14-year career with the Sabres that included eight 20-goal seasons, a franchise record 27 short-handed goals, a spot in the 1976 All-Star Game and the 1985 Selke Trophy for best defensive forward.

Tortorella said that when he was a Sabres assistant and Ramsay was assistant general manager, he constantly picked Ramsay's brain.

"As a coach you're always trying to learn," Tortorella said. "He's played at this level and gone through so many types of situations. And he's an easy guy to talk to."

Armed with a drawer full of subtle jokes.

"He teases us," Cullimore said. "The other day during power-play practice some guys were having trouble making or receiving passes, just handling the puck. His comment was, "Do we need to get you a left-handed stick?' if the guy was right-handed. A very dry sense of humor, but if you get it, it's really good."

And so much nicer to talk about than the acid reflux Ramsay said he had since he was 14 and was a likely precursor for what was to come. The blood that gurgled up from Ramsay's ulcers into his mouth.

His second surgery, which removed his stomach. Or the third that repositioned and sealed a bile duct emitting fluid that was disintegrating his esophagus.

"I credit really being here with the exercise I've done on a regular basis," Ramsay said. "If not for that, I'm quite sure I wouldn't be here."

A story no one would want to tell.

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