Monday, February 20, 2012

Ribeiro's One-on-One Skills are Magically Bewitching

By Larry Wigge

Sleight of hand and manipulation. Those of terms of magic. There are also hockey terms. Try abracadra and presto chango. Voila!

Pavel Datsyuk, Alex Ovechkin and Rich Nash will certainly go down in history as Barishnykov's on ice, but Dallas Stars center Mike Ribeiro belongs in that company. And that could be underscored by Ribeiro's one-on-one skills in shootouts and magically making plays with bewitching playmaking talent as well.

On February 16, Ribeiro used his quick hands to dig the puck off of the left wing boards to get the puck away from one Calgary defender and in-an-instant made a behind-the-back maneuver to pass to himself, probably even showing his tightroping and or even a pirorohet skills to keep his balance. Then, he worked him way to the right point his up to blister a screened shot past Miikka Kiprusoff for the winning goal with only 2:01 left in overtime of Dallas 3-2 over Calgary.

Highlight reel moves. Wizardry. Shake-n-bake and probably even a toe-drag thrown in there for good measure.

"That's just the way he lives, greasy Ribeiro," teammate Steve Ott said. "That was unbelievable, what an unbelievable individual effort by him. That was just phenomenal. I'm still in awe. I thought I blacked out on the bench."

It was Ribeiro's 12th goal to go along with 27 assists in 50 games. The stretch gave him six goals and six assists in the last 12 games.

Rookie coach Glen Gulutzan chimed in, "I don't know if it was a little Gordie Howe-ish there where he was changing hands and then changing back. I'm glad he shot it, because we bug him to shoot all the time, and it was a real nice shot. I can't get my head around it quite, the stick maneuver there. I'll have to see the replay."

Ribeiro often talks about the amazing skills he sees at the All-Star Game at the skills competition. He never missed one, even when he was a kid growing up in Montreal. He was always thrilled by that dazing moves the All-Stars pulled off. He got to live his dream at All-Star Game in Atlanta.

"What can I say? Where else do you see a player bring down the house like Alex Ovechkin?" Ribeiro told me. "He lifted the puck on his stick ..."

Ovechkin, the Washington winger, won the newest style points shootout event by lifting the puck on his stick, flipping it in the air a few times like Tiger Woods does with a golf ball, and then attempted to spin around and bat the puck into the goal. He missed. But it didn’t matter for entertainment value.

"I can lift the puck in the air," Ribeiro said with the laugh, "but I don't think I could do it in front of so many people."

His quick hands, which rival any in the NHL, go along with his nifty footwork. That's what Ribeiro takes from his family bonding growing up. You see, Ribeiro's father, Alberto, played professional soccer in Portugal and late for the Montreal Manic of the North American Soccer League.

When he was a kid, Ribeiro played soccer and baseball as a youngster, but hockey was always No. 1.

"Dad was always there to tell me to always believe in myself ... at whatever I did," Ribeiro recalled, saying that he still hears his father’s voice repeating that advice any time he faces tough times or a tough decision.

Of being a Montreal native and wearing a Canadiens T-shirt and dreaming he was Guy Lafleur at the age of 4. Or at 13, playing on a team sponsored by the Habs, and getting the chance of a lifetime to score on Patrick Roy.

"I'm a teen-ager and we’re having a scrimmage with the Canadiens," Ribeiro recalled, sounding almost as excited as he must have been when he was 13. "Our goaltender gets a chance to stop Denis Savard and then, well, I get to shoot against Patrick Roy.

"I didn’t score. Not even close. But it didn’t matter ... not when you get to shoot against!"

That what it's like growing up in the hockey capital of the world.

Born in Montreal, raised a Canadiens fan and the best was yet to come -- being drafted by Montreal and then playing for Les Habitants. Ribeiro had that opportunity -- to be drafted the the Habs, when he was picked in the second round, 45th overall, in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft by Montreal. 

"He was a pretty good player in Montreal, don't forget that," said Hall of Fame winger Michel Goulet, who also grew up in Quebec and now is an assistant to Colorado Avalanche GM Greg Sherman. "There's a lot of pressure, a lot of expectations for French kids who grow up in Quebec and play there. Sometimes the expectations can be too much.

"I loved it. It pushed me, but that isn't always the case with players."

"The scrutiny can make you feel like you're living in a fishbowl," Ribeiro said. "Don't get me wrong. I loved being a Canadien. It was surreal playing in my hometown. But I was there five years (parts of six seasons) and I never felt like I got the chance I should have. I said it at the time and I'll continue to say it. They traded me too soon."

He meant it, too. Montreal gave up on him too soon.

Ribeiro stickhandled neatly around that fishbowl theory when it came to letting him be himself on the ice in Montreal. But now he feels more focused because everything is about his wife, Tamara, and three children, Mikael, Noah and Viktoria.

"My wife and kids and I are closer than ever," Ribeiro said. "There are no outside distractions. I feel more focused ... maybe more responsible for our life as a family than I ever have. Maybe that's made me more mature, more accountable on the ice."

Closeness? Ribeiro has a baby tattoo in the likeness of his son Mikael on his left arm and one of Noah on his right. And ...

"I'm waiting for Viktoria's hair to grow out before I add a tattoo of her," Mike chuckled.

He was traded by Montreal in a lopsided deal for in 2006 for defenseman Janne Niinimaa. His fast start with Dallas helped him earn Ribeiro a new five-year, $25-million contract extension.

"I always knew I had this in me, but ... "

Ribeiro’s voice kind of trailed off at that point in our conversation. It was all those he-can't-do-this-or-can't-do-that obstacles that Mike remembered.

"Yeah, I've heard; ‘You're too small’ or ‘You're too slow’ at every level from squirts to pee-wees to midgets to juniors and then in the NHL," he said. "I was just 150 pounds when I reported to my first Montreal Canadiens camp in 1999.

"But that's OK, I worked at it, putting on five pounds each year ..."

The math may be off a little, but Ribeiro’s now 6-foot, 178 pounds or so.

"You can either let the criticism get you down ... or use it as a source of motivation," Ribeiro smiled, saying that he doesn't really feel like he's playing any differently this season, but that he is more confident and more comfortable in Dallas now.

Those around the team say Ribeiro's puck strength is freakish. He's grittier, more competitive than most thought he was during his time in Montreal.

Though the years in Dallas, Mike had led the Stars in goals and assists. He's at the top of the team in plus-minus as well.

Giving a little flex, Ribeiro laughed. "I'm skinny strong."

"To me, it's all about a continued maturity," former coach Dave Tippett said. "He's gone from being a small, skilled forward to a small, very skilled forward that competes and uses his energy and instincts to go to the puck and make things happen on offense and defense."

Added Los Angeles King center Anze Kopitar, "Mike has great hands and vision. He's always been tough to play against."

Magic? One-time success? Or no fluke?

And to think, all it took was a surprise trade for the rest of us to find out about the real Mike Ribeiro.

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