Chad Ruhwedel laughed when he heard the question earlier this week in the Buffalo Sabres’ dressing room. He’s from San Diego, of all places, so he probably figured the topic was coming.
Did the Sabres’ newest defenseman surf much as a kid? Are you kidding?
“I used to go to the beach all the time, go bodyboarding with my buddies. All the time,” Ruhwedel said. “Absolutely. The beach was 10 minutes from my house, a couple quick exits on the highway. I used to go there pretty much every day in the summer – and often in the winter too.”
He had a good laugh at his punch line. There’s no regular surfing in Buffalo. And certainly not in, say, January.
But that’s how the 22-year-old grew up, cavorting in the Pacific in the shadow of the Mexican border. That’s not the normal upbringing for an NHL player.
Ruhwedel’s mother was a Chicago native and big Blackhawks fan and she offered to get him into skating around the time he was 5. Then came hockey and it all just clicked. It may seem odd, but California is starting to produce hockey players.
“They’re popping up rinks everywhere in California,” Ruhwedel said. “Youth programs are phenomenal and the coaching is incredible, just as good as it would be anywhere else. Guys are coming out from everywhere to help kids and a lot of young talent is coming out of there. It’s really exciting to see.”
While kids in Buffalo spend hours in places like the Northtown Center at Amherst, where the Sabres sometimes practice, Ruhwedel’s days were spent at places named San Diego Ice Arena or Isoplex Escondido. Or the rink in La Jolla’s University Town Center Mall.
“You don’t think there would be so many,” he said. “But there are like five rinks within 15 minutes of my house.”
It’s all an outgrowth of Wayne Gretzky’s glory days in the early 1990s with the Los Angeles Kings. And it’s only getting bigger in the wake of the Anaheim Ducks’ Stanley Cup title in 2007 and the Kings’ triumph last year.
As an example, Long Beach has produced two recent first-round picks: Ducks winger Emerson Etem (the kid who trashed Buffalo during the 2011 World Junior Championships) was one of four Californians drafted in 2010, and Nashville defenseman Jonathan Blum, a first-rounder in ’07, has become a regular for the Predators.
Ruhwedel left California after high school to play for the Sioux Falls Stampede of the United States Hockey League, a team once captained by Thomas Vanek. Then he was recruited to UMass Lowell by former Niagara coach Blaise MacDonald.
MacDonald resigned in 2011 but Lowell’s program eventually grew to where it made the school’s first Frozen Four just two weeks ago in Pittsburgh. And two days after an overtime loss to Yale in the semifinals, Ruhwedel had signed his NHL contract and was in Buffalo.
He has played six games, averaging 13:52 of ice time. He has eight shots on goal, no points and an even rating. His highest amount of ice time was 16:59 in last Friday’s loss to the New York Rangers, a game he finished as a plus-1 even though his team lost, 8-4. His lowest total was 11:15 on April 14 against Tampa Bay and that was only because he missed a few shifts after getting clipped by a stick on the chin.
“I’ve definitely had to adjust to the speed here,” he said. “I’ve had a couple semi-decent games, trying to work every day so my life gets a little easier. Going to the next level, you have to dumb things down some at the start, simplify things and go step by step. Focus on making good passes breaking out, make plays when you have to. Anything like jumping into the offense after that is just a bonus.
Ruhwedel has been quiet on the ice, quick with his passes and not prone to many mistakes. Even though he’s just 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, he’s got the skating skills to be able to go head-to-head in puck battles with bigger elite forwards such as Jaromir Jagr and Rick Nash and at least emerge with a standoff.
“That’s just the will of the player,” said interim coach Ron Rolston. “You see it all the time. It’s basically how much fight you have in you, the will to win puck battles and get himself in position. We’ve been very pleased with that part of his game. You can see the skating, some of the things he can do with the puck and his stick skills. His competitive nature is very good.”
That competitiveness helped Ruhwedel earn All-America honors at Lowell, which won its first Hockey East title. It helped him beat bigger schools that recruited him and some that hadn’t.
It’s the kind of will to win that goes back to those days of beach volleyball and hanging 10 on the waves of the Pacific.
“The Ducks and Kings winning Cups only helps out California guys,” he said. “It really shows that hockey is a great sport, something they’ll want to go after.”
The Sabres were off Wednesday. They’re scheduled to hold their final full practice today in First Niagara Center and play their season finale here Friday night against the New York Islanders.