Cliff Ronning was all about numbers.
I'm not talking about his 18 seasons in the National Hockey League, for an impressive 1137 career games, just the 176th player in league history to play in 1000 games. I'm not referring to his scoring exploits which saw him score 89 goals and 197 points in his final season of junior. Nor am I talking his career 306 NHL goals, 563 assists or 869 points, all very solid numbers. I'm not even referring to his 126 career playoff games or his 89 career playoff points, 15 of which came in 1994 when he came within a whisker of winning the Stanley Cup.
No, the numbers that always defined Cliff Ronning were his height of 5'8" inches and size at 165 pounds.
His all life Ronning faced detractors and experts who said many years ago he would never make it in the NHL, because he was too small. No matter how impressive his offensive numbers were in junior, international or minor pro hockey, he was always told he was not big enough for the National Hockey League.
The shifty centre believes the constant criticism actually helped him become the great NHL hockey player he became more so than hinder him.
"It did the opposite. If anything, I'd like to thank those people who said that. That's what kept me wanting to keep proving things," he said. "If no one said anything, I probably wouldn't have that feeling I have to keep proving myself."
Prove himself he did. He became one of the most entertaining and productive players in the NHL.
Ronning had hands soft enough to stickhandle in a phone booth. He also has great first-step speed, which he utilizes in a variety of ways to help his teammate, most notably by turning on a dime while carrying the puck to buy him extra time. Ronning has a knack of finding the hole in the open ice and he is effective at distracting a goalie by using his speed to buzz around a net. He’s also tremendously poised, and despite his size, was never afraid to zip in and out of the high traffic areas. Ronning was particularly dangerous on the power play, where he loved to come off the wall and curl into the slot where he would either pass to the corners or slip in further to unleash his weak but accurate shot.
Ronning was a late bloomer, mostly because the St. Louis Blues, who drafted him 134th overall in 1984, were unwilling to give Ronning the opportunities and ice time needed to succeed. Upset that he was primarily being used as a power play specialist, Ronning actually left the NHL to play a year in Italy in order to improve his game. When he returned to the Blues in 1990, he proved he could be more than a special teams player, but ultimately the Blues gave up on him.
Ronning had little to be upset about, however. At the trading deadline in 1991, Ronning was returned home where he would play for his boyhood idols the Vancouver Canucks. Joined by Sergio Momesso, Robert Dirk and Geoff Courtnall in that trade, the transaction is widely remembered as one of the best in Canucks history.
In Vancouver, Ronning immediately was given the opportunity to succeed. He finished the season with 12 points in 11 games before leading all Vancouver skaters in goals and points in the playoffs.
The following year, 1991-92, he finished second in Canucks scoring with 71 points. In the following post-season, he again led all Vancouver skaters with playoff goals, and finished just one point out of the scoring lead.
1992-93 proved to be Ronning's finest individual season. He scored a career high 29 goals and 85 points, finishing second to Pavel Bure in the team scoring race.
The 1993-94 regular season was a disappointment for both Ronning and the Canucks. Both seemed to take a step backwards, even though the team had been knocking on the door as one of the league's top championship contenders. Ronning slipped to 68 points, still third best on the team, but was unhappy with the regular season.
Both the Canucks and in particular Ronning rectified their poor regular season showing in the playoffs. The team went on an unexpected playoff run, finishing just one goal shy in game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. Ronning's 5 goals and 15 assists during that post season may be overshadowed by the likes of Bure, Trevor Linden, and Geoff Courtnall, but Ronning was a significant contributor to that magical post season run. The hometown hero added boyhood spunk to his already established reputation as a playoff warrior. John Davidson, colour man on the MSG/ESPN television broadcasts, was so impressed that he called Ronning "one of the top three forwards in the finals, perhaps Vancouver's best." In a match up that featured the likes of Bure, Linden, Mark Messier, Adam Graves and Alexei Kovalev, that is an impressive compliment.
The Canucks fortunes sagged after the magical run, and soon the team was dismantled. One of the first players to leave, surprisingly, was Cliff Ronning. Ronning admitted he would have taken a discount to stay in Vancouver, but was insulted by the Canucks contract offer. The Phoenix Coyotes offered significantly more money, and Ronning was off to the desert.
Ronning would play 2 years in Phoenix before landing a 4 year home in Nashville. Though he will always be best remembered as a Canuck, he acquitted himself quite nicely in Tennessee, and was a fan favorite even among the untraditional fan base. He was an important leader in the dressing room and his impact with the following generation was felt long after he left.
He bounced around late in his career, with Minnesota, where he contributed in one last playoff run in 2003, Los Angeles, and the New York Islanders, eventually retiring after giving up hope anyone would give him another chance.
The man everyone said was too small to play in the NHL is better remembered as the shifty, creative, and dauntless warrior who always brought everything he could, particularly in the playoffs when he raised his game to another level.
Cliff Ronning was all about numbers.