by Alyssa Dombrowski || for NHL.com
For most people, the mere mention of Southern California evokes images of sun, sand and surf.
For San Diego native Chad Ruhwedel, his mind has always been on the ice.
“Playing hockey out there, it definitely wasn’t the biggest sport,” said Ruhwedel, a rookie defenseman with the American Hockey League’s Rochester Americans. “Ninety percent of the kids didn’t play hockey – it was mostly baseball, basketball, football … the standard sports. My mom and dad threw the skates on me at a young age, and it just kind of stuck. I knew it was the sport I always wanted to put first.”
Ruhwedel was raised in the Scripps Ranch area of the coastal city, where he played for his high school roller hockey team and a handful of junior ice hockey teams before joining Sioux Falls of the United States Hockey League. He played three years at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and led the River Hawks to their first Frozen Four appearance in 2013.
“Playing junior hockey in South Dakota and going to college out in the Boston area, it was pretty cool,” said Ruhwedel. “The fan base is a lot different – everybody knows everything about hockey, they know all the players, how to play the game, and they all grew up playing it, so the culture is definitely different.
“Coming up here, it’s the same scenario,” Ruhwedel said of Rochester, N.Y., one of the AHL’s cornerstone cities since 1956. “It’s been a good change and I can definitely get used to it.”
The undrafted Ruhwedel signed an entry-level contract with the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres on April 13 and subsequently made his professional debut that same day in a home contest against the Philadelphia Flyers. He played in seven games with the Sabres at the conclusion of last season before being assigned to Rochester to start his first full pro campaign.
Ruhwedel’s rookie year with the Americans has also been the first full season as the leading man behind the bench for Chadd Cassidy, who was promoted to head coach last February when Ron Rolston moved up to Buffalo.
“I think it’s different for kids from [nontraditional hockey markets] in general to make that trek to the National League,” said Cassidy. “[It] isn’t as easy, because they don’t always grow up in that hockey culture. They have to learn the game a little bit later than maybe a Canadian or an American kid who grows up in the border states.
“I think that the experience is a lot different for them, so it’s obviously something that has taken Chad a lot of time to get to this level and to get to National league games.”
The time spent developing his game continues to show throughout Ruhwedel’s first year as a pro. He leads all Amerks rookies and ranks second among the team’s defensemen in scoring this season, having notched four goals and 10 assists for 14 points in 24 games so far.
“Chad is a great first-pass defenseman who’s got really good vision,” said Cassidy. “His specialty is getting pucks out of the D-zone and getting them onto our forwards’ skates with speed. He can get them going in transition so we can be an attacking team, and he’s just really good with the puck.
“He’s an elite skater, certainly at our level. He gets pucks out of the zone cleanly, he can break other teams’ forechecks and he’s been real effective on our power play because he’s got a good shot. He’s also a very competitive kid, so he’s a guy that you can rely on defensively and he battles hard for our hockey team.”
At the root of Ruhwedel’s effective transition to the professional leagues is his firm understanding of the game’s fundamentals.
“Coming to the pro level, you have to make decisions a lot quicker, and then whatever decision you make, you need to execute it a lot better,” said Ruhwedel. “There’s hardly room for error because the skill level is so high that if you make a bad pass or turnover, it can cost your team and [the opponent] can turn and score right away.”
A former collegiate player and five-year assistant coach with the U.S. National Team Development Program, Cassidy has garnered a plethora of experience to draw upon in advising 23-year-old Ruhwedel and the other newly professional players on his roster.
“I think the first thing for them is just to learn how difficult it is to play at this level,” said Cassidy. “Consistency is the number one thing – that’s what makes you a professional. We work with our guys and talk with them all the time about building up their routines and habits so they are prepared for every game.
“Chad comes from college, where he played two games as a week, and is now a pro, where you’re playing three or four times a week against men, and you’re playing a 76-game schedule. So just being able to manage yourself, your energy and your time, and making sure you’re prepared every day to be consistent and compete – I think that’s the biggest thing for young players coming into this league.”
The 5-foot-11 Ruhwedel credits the hockey operations of both the Americans and Sabres for successfully guiding him through his first season as a professional athlete.
“It’s been a good transition,” said Ruhwedel. “The guys here and in the Buffalo organization are all very helpful, and they give you everything you need to be successful so that it’s just up to you after that to put in the work and get better.
“They’re always there for extra help, especially Coach Cassidy. It’s an open-door policy – you can always walk into his office and ask him any questions, and he’s always going to give you an honest answer. If you’re not playing well, he will tell you how you can fix it, and if you are playing well, he’ll make sure to let you know of that.”
Although he’s only a few months into his tenure as Ruhwedel’s coach, Cassidy has already pinpointed certain aspects of the defenseman’s game to be focused on during his training.
“The biggest thing he’s working on right now is just his ability to move pucks,” said Cassidy. “As a smaller defenseman, he doesn’t want to necessarily be the guy putting himself in a lot of situations where he’s being confronted physically by a forechecker from the opposing team.
“He’s got to be real smart with how he moves the puck and how much he holds onto it, so he doesn’t want to waste a lot of his energy having to defend. The best way to do that is to get the pucks back quickly and move them quickly so he doesn’t have to be in a lot of those battles against big, strong forwards at this level.”
Ruhwedel’s puck-handling skills will be put to the test in an entirely new environment tonight, when the Americans host the Lake Erie Monsters, AHL affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche, in the teams’ “Frozen Frontier” outdoor matchup. The game marks the first outdoor contest for both teams as well as a majority of their players, including Ruhwedel.
“It’s going to be a great experience,” said Ruhwedel. “It’s been cool to watch the Winter Classic on TV over the past few years, and it’s awesome to finally be a part of something like that.
“I think the whole aspect of being outside reminds a lot of these guys – and I did it in juniors too – of growing up playing hockey outside. I think the fans are really going to enjoy it, and they’ll probably be a little rowdy – it’ll be a cool atmosphere, especially if we get a little snowfall.”
Spectacle aside, Rochester’s coach notes the importance of the game itself – a third of the way into the season, the Monsters are one point behind the eighth-place Americans in the Western Conference standings.
“It’s going to be a really neat experience – one of those things that you’ll look back on and talk about to share the memories of it,” said Cassidy. “But at the end of it all, it’s a really important game. It’s a division game against a team that’s [battling] us in the standings right now, and it’s worth two points.”
“We have to come in with that mentality – the quicker that the nostalgia of it wears off and we get focused on what we need to do is going to be best for us. I think if we can come out with a win, we can all look back on it and enjoy the experience that it was, but first and foremost we’ve got to put ourselves in a position to win a hockey game.”
The matchup’s significance equally resonates with the players on Cassidy’s team, who have won two of three meetings with Lake Erie already this season.
“We’re definitely looking at it like another game,” said Ruhwedel. “We’re going to prepare for it like we would any other night, and we know that if we bring our A-game we’re going to give ourselves a good chance to win.”
Ruhwedel’s dedication to preparation and consistency is an integral part of the effort he’s exhibiting toward achieving his definitive goal – a return to the Sabres’ lineup.
“Obviously, my goal is to get up to the NHL with the Sabres and I’ll do everything I can down here to get up there,” said Ruhwedel. “But while I’m here, I’m going to focus on this team and my goals here, and try to win some games with the Americans.”
The hard work that led him to where he is today has become engrained in Ruhwedel’s mentality moving forward.
“I think it’s a daily process – coming to the rink every day with a good mindset, trying to work on the little things that coach has you doing, executing all the drills in practice correctly and just having a positive attitude,” said Ruhwedel.
“Just keep working hard and doing what you do, and the organization will give you a chance at the next level. Once you get there, it’s just time to perform.”