10 March, 16:09

NHL 1-on-1: Mike Ribeiro: “There were more bad-asses in the league before”

By David Kerans

WASHINGTON (VR)-- Hockey fans should give thanks to Mike Ribeiro. Not because he is the most valuable player, or the highest scorer, or a Stanley Cup winner--he is none of the above. But because he is an artist.

The extraordinary physical demands of professional hockey militate against artistic play, as does the competitive tension in the league: coaches are attaching ever more attention to defensive systems and scrutinizing every player's performance in his own end of the rink. In a league marked by parity, coaches are risk averse, and they try to choreograph play on the ice as much as they can. Coaches still value puck skills and improvisation, to be sure. But they gravitate heavily towards top physical specimens, not to pure puckhandlers.

Ribs has game

With puck, has game      Photo credit: © Christian Petersen, AFP

Enter the unlikely specimen named Mike Ribeiro. “Well, he's a lot skinnier than I thought he was” remarked Washington Capitals coach Adam Oates when he had his first look at Ribeiro after the two both joined the team in the summer of 2012. Listed at 6'0” and 177 pounds (surely generous), Ribeiro has never played anything resembling a physical game, and the 34 year-old centerman is not about to start now. He's on the ice to move the puck, and has notched over 450 assists to go with 200 goals in a 14 year career.

Ribs cornered

But if they catch him in the corner...    Photo credit: © Rich Lam, AFP

For most observers, Ribeiro's trademark is his passing and his hands. He is very gifted with the puck, no doubt, and his hockey sense is also high-end, thanks to which he gets into good positions and creates scoring chances. Beyond that, he shows vision that not many can match, flinging passes and redirecting pucks to teammates or spaces only the most creative players would recognize. For all those gifts, however, what stands out the most to us is the almost unique suppleness of Ribeiro's ankles, which allows him to arc and edge on his skates much more craftily than defenders are accustomed to. In its own way, Ribeiro's skating poses defenses a challenge analogous to that of Carolina's Jeff Skinner, who is so renowned for splaying his feet and swiveling sideways to give himself extra space and make plays.

Ribs cut

Ready to roll sharply left...                                               Photo credit: © Ronald Martinez, AFP

Ribs cut 2

 

Separation created: a swerve around a D man in the 2013 playoffs

Photo credit: © Greg Fiume, AFP

“Six shades of sexy”

And of course, Ribeiro is a showman. He has notched some of the more famous razzle dazzle shootout goals. Much more impressive, to our eye, are some of the fancy moves he has pulled off in the heat of the action. How many players would dare draw their stick all the way around their back when setting themselves up for a scoring chance, let alone in overtime in the midst of a playoff race? It's his most famous goal, a gem Dallas Stars' color commentator Darryl Reaugh called “six shades of sexy”:

Flash might win you fans, and an occasional All-Star Game invitation, but teams need results. The knock on Ribeiro has always been his defensive play. His plus/minus rating has been in the black in only four of his 14 NHL seasons, which is bound to reinforce the perception of him as a one-way player. But Ribeiro's puck possession statistics have shown marked improvement since he reunited with Phoenix coach Dave Tippett, who coached Ribeiro earlier in Dallas.

This season, in 5-on-5 play with the score close or tied, Ribeiro's Corsi-for (relative number of shots attempted by Phoenix and opponents when Ribeiro is on the ice) is 52.5%, which is a hefty 4.4% above the Coyotes' team average. Only one Phoenix regular (defenseman David Schlemko) has been a more effective possession player than Ribeiro this year. It has been at least three years since Ribeiro has sported a Corsi-for above his team's average, so it seems he has turned an important corner. Along the way, he has been the Coyotes' leading scorer, with 43 points so far this season (level with Radim Vrbata and Keith Yandle).

Two shades of Tippett

But has Ribeiro won over coach Tippett? We sounded Tippett out before the game against the Capitals:

Download audio file

Kerans: Coach, a little broader view, Ribeiro--you've had him now for over 60 games now. Is it what you'd expect? Do you have some things you'd like to change a little bit, and can you do that?

Tippett: Well, I had him for a long time in Dallas, so I know a lot about him, it hasn't just been these 60 games. He's come, he's had some good streaks and some that's a little below par, but for the most part he's given us exactly what we thought we'd get from him. We were looking to add a skill center with our other two guys. We thought he complimented our group. He's come in, he's put up points for us, and he's been a good player for us.

Kerans: So you're pleased?

Tippett: Yeah, he's done a fine job.

Ribs collecting

                                                                            Photo credit: © Christian Petersen, AFP

But we should not assume Tippett is telling us the whole story. He benched Ribeiro for the remaining half of the game on February 28th after he argued with a referee and took a two minute unsportsmanlike conduct penalty plus a 10-minute misconduct tacked on. Tippett is working hard to squeeze all he can out of Phoenix's talent-short roster and catch the Dallas Stars for the final playoff slot in the Western Conference. He does not want any of his players taking any shortcuts or liberties, as became obvious after Phoenix coughed up a 2-0 lead with less than 10 minutes to play in Washington, losing 3-2. The first Capitals goal was more than Tippett could tolerate. Washington D Karl Alzner gathered a puck at the left point, and Ribeiro skated out to him with legs together, declining to go down and not getting a piece of Alzner's slapshot. Phoenix's top playmaking D Keith Yandle was inadvertently screening G Mike Smith, who never saw Alzner's shot as it zipped into the upper left corner. Tippett was beside himself in his post-game meeting with the press:

To win hockey games in this league you've got to pay the price to win.... In the critical times of the game, we don't pay the price to win.... The first goal they scored should never go in. Our defenseman's in front of it. The worst thing you can do is step out of the way. {Yandle should have made sure the shot hit him}.... We had two guys in the shot lane {Yandle and Ribeiro}, neither one of 'em got in the lane of the puck, and it goes in the net.

--Phoenix coach Dave Tippett, after the 3-2 loss to Washington, March 8

Tippett

Tippett. Good coach. Comes with stern gene...                  Photo credit: © Christian Petersen, AFP

Frankly, this sounds too hard on Ribeiro. Leading scorers don't go down to block routine point shots unless they are stuck playing for John Tortorella. And the blunders on Washington's second goal, on the very next shift, looked far worse (newly acquired Martin Erat and D Zbynek Michalek both vacated the front of the net, leaving Washington's Brooks Laich wide open to convert a cross-ice pass and tie the game). We get the sense Ribeiro has some work to do before Dave Tippett will be entirely in his corner.

Meanwhile, those who meet Ribeiro are likely to be much more sympathetic. How many kids learning to play hockey appreciate seeing a slightly-built man holding his own in NHL arenas? It must give them joy and hope to see Ribeiro feathering passes right and left, shift after shift. We caught up with Mike after the Coyotes' midday practice, to probed him for thoughts on how the NHL has changed in his time, and more.

NHL 1-on-1: Mike Ribeiro

Download audio file

Kerans: I wonder, when did you start to follow pro hockey? How old were you when you were first paying attention?

Ribeiro: I guess it was a pretty young age. You know, growing up in Montreal, that’s what you used to do: go to school, and play hockey or sit in front of the TV and watch the games growing up. So, I guess since I was 5 or 6. I remember ’86 the Stanley Cup…

Kerans: So you can remember the Canada Cup in ’87? We’re you paying close attention?

Ribeiro: Yeah, I remember that. I remember ’86 too, when they won the Cup. I remember ’93 obviously.

Kerans: We’re from Voice of Russia here, so did you have any impressions of the Soviet team in ’87? Were you paying much attention to them? A lot of skaters, a lot of passers, maybe they made an impression on you? Or not much?

Ribeiro: No, not that much. I think I was probably too young.

Kerans: There were only a few games to watch there anyway, right?

Ribeiro: Yeah, I watched the games, but I was still too young to really pay a lot of attention.

Kerans: Were you playing a lot of other sports in the summertime when you were growing up?

Ribeiro: Yeah, I played baseball, soccer…

Kerans: What about tennis? With your hand-eye coordination, were you the man?

Ribeiro: Uh, tennis, no, I was not really a tennis player. Really more baseball and hockey.

Kerans: Your style is pretty different when you skate. You’ve got a lot of edging and arcing which I don’t see from other players, and I read once that you don’t really lace up as tight as others. And every other hockey player is going to say that’s a little bit bizarre. I’m wondering if maybe you had a pair of old leather skates you just didn’t want to get rid of, and so you got more ankle movement than anybody else? Or what is it? It’s not normal, right? You know as well as I do, it doesn’t look the same.

Ribeiro: No it’s pretty loose. I don’t know. It’s since I’ve, I guess I wasn’t strong enough to tie my skates when I was younger…

Kerans: I know the feeling.

Ribeiro: {laughs} Yeah!

Kerans: I talked to the Dallas (Stars) equipment manager, and he was talking about the new Russian Nichushkin, and I asked him about the blades he was wearing. And he says he’s got a little bit of a higher blade. So I said “Like Ribeiro would probably have, right?”, so as to make sure that your ankles don’t hit (the ice) when you’re really tight around a curve…

Ribeiro: Yeah…

Kerans: So you’ve got a little bit of a higher blade?

Ribeiro: Yeah, my blades are usually thicker and longer than most guys, I guess.

Kerans: What’s interesting about your skating is this arcing. And I said I didn’t really see anybody else like that, but in fact, Wayne Gretzky could do that, a lot. I haven’t seen every hockey player, there could be some others. Were you a Gretzky fan growing up?

Ribeiro: Yeah, I was a Gretz fan. I guess all Canadian boys, or most, were Gretzky fans. Then Mario {Lemieux}, you know, French guy…

Kerans: I’m going to guess you had another favorite: was it Sakic? Is it possible?

Ribeiro: Possible. Sakic played in Quebec, too, so you know it was close to home. But usually it was smaller players, with skill that I was watching…

Kerans: Peter Svoboda? He’s a defenseman…

Ribeiro: Yeah. More Mats Naslund.

Kerans: Oh, okay. But you’re built a little different from Mats.

Ribeiro: Yeah, a little bit…

Kerans: It’s like, his legs were bigger than me…

Ribeiro: {smiling} Yeah, I know, but he was smaller, and a good player back then for the Canadiens.

Naslund

I still have his card--and so does Ribeiro  

Photo credit: © VR

Kerans: Maybe you can tell me some interesting things about how the NHL has changed over time. So, is it possible you would be an even better player in the pre-2004 period when there was more hooking and holding, because you’ve just got the skills to get around it? Or do you prefer to play like right now?

Ribeiro: I mean I’ve played in both, you know. I played with hooking and cross-checking, slashing. And then it went on to a quick game. You know, the game changes every two-three years, so…

Kerans: And you can handle it any way…

Ribeiro: Yeah, you need to adjust to it. You need to adjust to new coaching systems, and really adjust yourself, like everyone else, I guess.

Kerans: So you just take what comes. Do you miss playing with wooden sticks?

Ribeiro: No {smiling}.

Kerans: Why?

Ribs wood

Ribeiro flashing the wood (I think...) for his first NHL team, hometown MTL, in 2004

Photo credit: © Doug Benc, AFP

Ribeiro: If you didn’t know different, I think, it was fine. But now that they’re lighter…

Kerans: They’re lighter, but is it possible that it actually helps the defense? Everybody’s got an active stick, just whipping it around? Or is it really better for the offense? The shots are better.

Ribeiro: Yeah, everything, but they’ve been around now for almost 15 years, so it’s really just part of it.

Kerans: You get used to it.

Ribeiro: Yeah.

Kerans: Is it possible—and you don’t have to tell me anything about yourself—but is it possible that there is more trash talking now in the NHL, or less? Or is it about the same?

Ribeiro: I think there’s less nowadays than it used to be.

Kerans: Is it possible, or, well, every fan will tell you there were more bad-asses in the league before.

Ribeiro: Before, yeah. Back in the day, but because you were allowed a lot more before. And now you’re on TV, and they pick everything…

Kerans: Do you miss the organ music, from when you were a kid?

Ribeiro: Uh, no not really.

Kerans: Do you miss hearing “Oh, Canada” before every game?

Ribeiro: Yeah…

Kerans: Wouldn’t be bad?

Ribeiro: Yeah, wouldn’t be bad.

Kerans: Did you get any feelers from the KHL before the lockout in 2012?

Ribeiro: No, no. I was too old to go there and play.

Kerans: Did you get any feelers from the New Jersey Devils when they were losing Kovalchuk before you came here {NOTE: Ribeiro signed with Phoenix on July 5, 2013; Kovalchuk announced he was leaving the NHL for Russia on July 11, 2013. Opinions vary on how much his decision caught the Devils by surprise. Had NJ expected Kovalchuk’s decision, one would assume they would have been taking a close look at acquiring Ribeiro.}

Ribeiro: Nope, no. Jersey wasn’t (saying) a thing.

Kerans: {joking} Did you get any more feelers from, is it Espoo or Elpoo in Finland? {Ribeiro played for Espoo for a while during the 2004-05 lockout}

Ribeiro: Espoo? Espoo Blues?

Kerans: Was that a good experience?

Ribeiro: Yeah! It was a great experience, actually, you know, just to be able to play in a different country…

Kerans: Really tough to handle the language, right? It’s impenetrable?

Ribeiro: Yeah, kind of hard, but…

Kerans: And you’ve got some languages {Ribeiro grew up speaking Portuguese at home, and French throughout school}, but not that one?

Ribeiro: No, not that one.

Kerans: You’ve talked about Jagr in a couple of interviews, and he said he credits part of his success {well, his longevity} to going over to Russia. He played in Siberia for three years, and he’s doing windsprints at midnight. You want to play a long time. Can I talk you out of doing that? I don’t think that’s a good idea.

Ribeiro: {smiling} No, not for me, no. I’ll really just sit down and focus on my game.

Kerans: I hope I get to watch you a lot times, a lot more years. Thanks Mike.

Ribeiro: Thank you.

So what should fans take away from all of this? Ribeiro is not slowing down or losing his edge, and he sounds sincerely desirous of playing out his four-year contract at a high level. We sense that he does have the drive and the discipline to work on his fitness as much as will be required every off season. His coach respects and values him, as do his teammates, as best we could tell. Ribeiro himself looked relaxed after the game, pausing at length to catch up with some Verizon Center employees he befriended during his stay last year with the Capitals, then walking off to the team bus wearing a gangster suit and his big diamond earring.

 

hockey, NHL, VOR's NHL, Mike Ribeiro, Mike Ribeiro interview, Phoenix Coyotes, Dave Tippett
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