Adam Ruzicka, the latest Flame to play against his hockey hero

“Obviously it’s going to be cool to see someone on the other side that you looked up to when you were younger. It’s a cool thing’

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PITTSBURGH – Adam Ruzicka played it cool. He had to.

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If you’re still trying to establish yourself as an NHL-level weeknighter, you’re definitely not going to be able to impress an opponent.

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But Wednesday was undoubtedly special for Ruzicka. Pinch-me kind of thing. While the Calgary Flames pitted in Pittsburgh for a date with the Penguins, he faced his childhood idol, Evgeni Malkin, for the first time.

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The 23-year-old from Slovakia had no intention of making a formal introduction.

“What am I going to say?” asked Ruzicka. “He just played his freakin’ 1,000e game.”

Indeed, Malkin hit that career milestone last weekend. ‘Geno’ is a three-time Stanley Cup champion, an eventual Hockey Hall of Fame shoo-in and still a force at 36. His hardware collection includes replicas of most of the NHL’s major individual awards – from the Hart and Art Ross to the Calder and Conn Smythe.

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For a power-forward-in-progress, the Russian dynamo was a great role model.

“Similar playstyle, height, same body type, same attitude…” Ruzicka reasoned. It’s his confidence, right? As soon as he entered the league, he was a dominant player right off the hop. That’s the most important part.

“Obviously it’s going to be cool to see someone on the other side that you looked up to when you were younger. It’s a cool thing.”

Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins controls the puck in the second period against the Chicago Blackhawks on November 20, 2022 at United Center in Chicago, Illinois.  Malkin skated in his 1,000th NHL game.
Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins controls the puck in the second period against the Chicago Blackhawks on November 20, 2022 at United Center in Chicago, Illinois. Malkin skated in his 1,000th NHL game. Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

This storyline probably sounds familiar to Flames speedster Dillon Dube. He also admired a Penguins center, although Sidney Crosby was his hockey hero.

Dube’s first confrontation with Sid did not come until his ninth NHL outing. He even earned an assist… in a 9-1 loss. Crosby piled up three points that night.

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“I was pretty nervous,” Dube recalls. “We didn’t play such a good game that night. They beat us pretty bad. Definitely not the memory I wanted.

‘But it’s cool. You know, you look up to guys like that when you grow up and play against them, it gets you excited. As a child you dreamed of this and now that you play against them more and more, you definitely get used to it.”

Ruzicka, who is currently auditioning in The Flames’ top trio alongside Elias Lindholm and Tyler Toffoli, is determined to become a lineup lock. This season, remember, didn’t start out that way. He could have taken on Malkin last month, except when the Penguins paid their annual visit to Calgary, he was stuck looking like a healthy scratch.

While it’s not unheard of to ask a star-rich opponent for some kind of memento, Ruzicka had no such plans in Pittsburgh.

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“I don’t need a cane,” he protested. “I’ll just know I’ve already met the guy, so I’m fine with it.”

Flames veteran Mikael Backlund was also unable to score a memento of his idol, though – through equipment manager Mark DePasquale – he made a request during his rookie campaign.

“When I was young, Peter Forsberg and Teemu Selanne were my two favorites,” said Backlund. “I played against Selanne a few times. The first time was in Calgary, and I remember that was really cool.

“I asked him for a stick but he wouldn’t give me one because I think when he was younger a coach from another team asked for a stick and then he measured it and (the curve) was too high. I remember asking DePo to check and he sadly said no. But I have a hat with his signature at home, so that’s kind of cool.”

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And Forsberg?

Backlund, 33, the longest-serving skater on the Flames’ payroll, lets out a sigh.

“He retired the day we got to Denver,” he said. “I walked into the Pepsi Center, as it was then called, and he announced that he had retired right before their morning skate or after their morning skate. I was disappointed. It would have been great to play against him. I’m sure he was very difficult to play against. It probably would have been a tough night, but it would have been really cool to play against my greatest Swedish hero.

“It’s a pity I missed it. He tried to come back and he played some games and I was very excited. But then, yes… retired.

Mikael Backlund #11 of the Calgary Flames face off during a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena on November 17, 2022 in Tampa, Florida.
Mikael Backlund #11 of the Calgary Flames face off during a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena on November 17, 2022 in Tampa, Florida. Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

There was no surprise announcement on Wednesday in Pittsburgh, where Malkin was honored for joining the 1,000-game club prior to the puck drop.

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Ruzicka’s career tally now stands at 40 major league registrations. He won’t soon forget the latter, his first confrontation with his idol, even if he had to play it cool beforehand.

Though he wasn’t in much of a mood for reminiscing, Flames skipper Darryl Sutter mentioned the likes of Lanny McDonald, Darryl Sittler, and Bobby Orr as guys who were special to stand up to when he was breaking into the Chicago Blackhawks.

A rising Milan Lucic would watch Hockey Night in Canada and marvel at the talent and toughness of Todd Bertuzzi and Jarome Iginla. A few years later, he rubbed shoulders with them.

“And I still remember my very first time, as a 19-year-old, playing Pittsburgh,” said Lucic, now 34, after Wednesday morning’s skate session. “I know Malkin and Crosby are my generation, basically the same age, but I remember looking at them and thinking, ‘Oh wow, there’s Crosby and Malkin,’ which is kind of cool too.

“It’s cool to play against future Hall-of-Famers and guys you look up to and just want to try and beat.”

wgilbertson@postmedia.com

Twitter: @WesGilbertson

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