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The Lost Shifts Ep. 3: Cliff Ronning, the undersized and under-appreciated Canucks star

"If you've got it in your heart and out-work your opponent, good things will happen."
Cliff Ronning warms up for the Vancouver Canucks. photo: NHL

When one thinks about the most noteworthy players in Vancouver Canucks history, few ever look past the names that adorn the rafters of Rogers Arena and the Ring of Honour. Many, however, are left out of the fanbase's collective remembrance. As the years progress, the fan favorites of each generation begin to become obscure to their children and their grandchildren. Alas, history is selective, and everything that is not catalogued for present and future audiences will start to become forgotten over time despite how vivid that information is today.

Too many players who were at one time integral to the Canucks have become underappreciated and underrated in terms of their talent and ability. Some have remained in the public eye as ambassadors for the Canucks. Those players who have remained active in the local community should be applauded for their efforts to give back to their neighbors. However, this unfortunately does not prevent their on-ice stories from slowly slipping from the consciousness of the general populace.

Even the team's most skilled supporting cast members may eventually only be remembered in name, whereas in an ideal scenario, visuals and stories would preserve their legacies.

Thus, today we present a look at one of the offensive leaders of the early 1990s Canucks who defied all odds to play in the National Hockey League: Cliff Ronning. He was an underdog of the highest order, constantly battling naysayers at a proud height of five-foot-seven inches and a weight anywhere from 155 to 170 pounds (Frank Orr, Toronto Star, 21 Jan 1987). Although undersized players remain uncommon in the current NHL, the league has become much more hospitable to those who lack the size or strength to overcome the game's most monstrous behemoths.

This is Episode III of The Lost Shifts featuring Ronning's performance from Game 3 of the 1992 Smythe Division Final against the Edmonton Oilers.

To play in the NHL as a smaller skater prior to the 2004-05 NHL Lockout was a monumental task, and only the most exceptionally-gifted players could establish a long-term career in the league. Some were offered only the smallest sliver of opportunity, and many not a chance at all.

Cliff Ronning was a brilliant junior player with an impressive list of accolades. As a 16-year-old with the Burnaby Winter Club Travellers, he captained his team to a gold medal. He was their leading scorer and the Most Valuable Player at the 1982 Air Canada Cup, the national midget club championship tournament. When he joined the British Columbia Junior Hockey League's New Westminster Royals in 1982-83, he quickly established himself among the league's elite, scoring 83 goals -- third all-time behind only Brett Hull's 105 and John Newberry's 84.

The following year, he joined the newly-revived New Westminster Bruins of the Western Hockey League and became the league's rookie of the year with 69 goals and 136 points.

In his sophomore WHL season, Ronning was the WHL's leading scorer and Most Valuable Player with 89 goals and 197 points — fifth and second all-time in their respective categories. The league honored him with its Most Sportsmanlike Player Trophy and designated him as a member of their 1984-85 West Division First All-Star Team. He also played for the Canadian national team and was the team's offensive leader with 55 goals and 118 points in 71 games in 1985-86. He was a phenom, and yet National Hockey League executives thought little of him.

While Ronning clearly possessed first-round talent, he wasn’t drafted until the seventh round of the 1984 NHL Entry Draft, 134th overall by the St. Louis Blues.

Ronning grew up in Burnaby and graduated from Burnaby North Secondary. He and his wife, Ivana, both attended the same elementary school. His family owned an antique store on East Hastings. He was present as a fan at the Burrard Street Canuck Week parade on May 18, 1982 when the team made its improbable Stanley Cup run that year. His entire junior career had been spent in the Canucks' backyard, and yet the team expressed no interest in Ronning even after he established a role with the Blues in 1986-87 (Jim Taylor, The Province, 6 Mar 1991). 

He was "too small." They expressed no second thoughts about the local whiz kid. None could envision the impact of this player with the organization at its pinnacle.

Team Canada coach Dave King summarized the general perception of Ronning in 1987, saying, "Cliff's a small man and he hasn't got great speed... It's difficult for Cliff to play an 80-game schedule at that level, especially when they play the man so consistently... He's going to have to overcome a lot of things but he always has. He's got a great big heart" ("Olympians' Ronning gets," Toronto Star, 5 Jan 1987). 

Heart, indeed, described Cliff Ronning to a tee. He surprised everyone with his determination, first by successfully battling to be the Blues' fourth line centre and then resolving to become the shining example of a league-wide trend towards smaller centres.

"The tendency right now is to load up with big wingers and go with centremen who can handle the puck," said Ronning in October, 1987 (Mike Beamish, The Vancouver Sun, 8 Oct 1987).

Ronning was determined to prove everyone wrong, and by his fourth season in 1988-89, he produced as though he was a regular offensive contributor, scoring 24 goals and 55 points that season. He ranked third in team scoring behind only Brett Hull and Bernie Federko. Despite this, he remained a powerplay specialist and a fourth-line centre. He was still not guaranteed a position with the team at the conclusion of the 1988-89 season, and his dismay about his role led to his decision to spend the 1989-90 season with Asiago of the Italian Hockey League. 

Upon returning to North America the next year, he attempted to find the positives of his situation, reckoning that "it seemed to work out for the better by going there, getting a little more experience, enjoying the game again... As a hockey player you always want to get better, you're always striving to do better. I'm definitely not satisfied with what I've done so far" (Frank Luba, The Province, 15 Feb 1991).

In 1990-91, Ronning returned to St. Louis. The Blues, though, continued to utilize him on their fourth line and second powerplay unit, a situation that discouraged him greatly. He needed a change of scenery.

Not long after, Blues general manager Ron Caron placed him on their trade block along with wingers Geoff Courtnall and Sergio Momesso. According to Mark Harding of the Toronto Star, the Blues needed "a second-line centre to complement Adam Oates," as well as a "seasoned defenceman and a second-line right winger" (Mark Harding, Toronto Star, 2 Mar 1991). 

The Blues had pitched an offer of Courtnall, Ronning and goaltender Curtis Joseph to the Calgary Flames in exchange for Mike Vernon and Doug Gilmour, but were declined by Flames manager Cliff Fletcher (Al Strachan, The Globe and Mail, 1 Mar 1991).

Days later, one of the greatest trades in Vancouver Canucks history took place. Momesso, Courtnall, Ronning, and defenceman Robert Dirk joined Vancouver in exchange for cenre Dan Quinn, along with the player Caron coveted most: the fiery, tough, and tireless defenceman Garth Butcher.

Neither party knew at the time the degree to which they needed one another. Ronning was destined to be a Vancouver Canuck, as was Duncan, British Columbia native Courtnall. The pair immediately formed two-thirds of the team's new first line with soon-to-be captain Trevor Linden — the Life Line. Ronning and Courtnall became first-line players immediately and were a massive success. These three players became integral to the foundation of the team's offense leading up to their ultimate triumph, the 1994 run to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Ronning not only became one of the Canucks' offensive catalysts, but one of its most inspirational stories. He was tenacious, quick, and unafraid to charge into the corners of the ice to compete for the puck. Even though he was so much smaller than his competitors, he out-battled them with a sense of courage and haste. 

His willingness to engage physically and aggressively close any distance between himself and his opponent drew the attention and admiration of Canucks fans. He approached the sport with a brave and plucky style, demanding the best of himself to overcome his hurdles. In spite of his size disadvantage, he was always in the opponent's way to retrieve the puck.

This intense and resolute work ethic never wavered. Indeed, he played his best hockey in front of his hometown crowd. His passion along with his skill led to remarkable achievements for the player once deemed incapable of playing in the NHL. He scored 24 goals and 71 points in 1991-92, his first full season with the team, then offered a follow-up performance of 8 goals and 13 points in that year's playoffs. In 1992-93, he elevated his game to new heights, scoring 29 goals and 85 points in the regular season — the sixteenth highest-scoring season in Canucks history and one of only thirteen Canucks to eclipse the 80-point plateau.

He finally was granted an opportunity to demonstrate his offensive capabilities and play to his full potential in Vancouver. As a playmaking centre, he often looked to transition the puck up the ice with speed, but he possessed the agility to loop back into his own zone and create additional space for himself if the opposition became an obstacle in his path. He could flick the puck to an open teammate as he and his fellow forwards moved up the ice together or he could carry it into the offensive zone on a solo dash. 

Upon entering the attacking zone, he often distributed the puck to a teammate and then moved around the zone to support the team's possession of the puck. He was a creative passer and quarterback whose plays through the neutral zone helped to increase the team's overall speed — a slick and crafty puck carrier.

If the puck was dumped into the offensive zone, Ronning did not hesitate to be the first player to hustle up the ice and forecheck along the boards. His heart and skill worked in tandem. His greatest attribute was his ability to find open teammates and distribute the puck, but he caused so much more to occur because he pursued the puck actively, intelligently, and persistently. 

Additionally, his poise with the puck and ability to keep possession amidst pressure from the opposition were excellent. His edge work allowed him to slip between tight spaces and dodge opposing checks with relative ease. He was often described as a "waterbug," whose skating and lateral control made him very difficult to contain.

His offensive arsenal included a blistering shot that he utilized often, either when he popped into an opening to receive a pass from a teammate or to score from a standstill. Sometimes, he would hold on to the puck for extended periods of time, but rarely for too long. He was patient, often endeavoring to outwait his opponent and seek the proper moment to exploit their vulnerabilities — much like his career path, he found the right opportunity.

Cliff Ronning was home representing the team he adored growing up, all the while proving to the hockey world that he belonged.

He was a tremendously gifted player who often faced the unfair judgment and prejudice of the sports world as a result of his stature. The vast majority doubted him, and all he ever did was show his detractors that they were wrong to profile him. He represented the millions of fans who dreamed of playing for their hometown and conquered every hurdle to achieve his goals. He was a role model for a generation of Canucks fans, albeit one whose achievements are not discussed nearly enough anymore.

In his five full seasons with the Vancouver Canucks between 1991-92 and 1995-96, he was third in team scoring with 316 points in 355 games behind only Trevor Linden and Pavel Bure. He was a crucial member of that very special 1990s squad, but his presence continues to be felt locally today. Ronning was beloved as a player and remains a cherished member of Vancouver's community. He exemplifies perseverance and has never forgotten his roots.

If one were to ask what it means to be a Canuck, he would know the answer.