by Dan Rosen || NHL.com
Hakan Andersson wasn’t sure about the reports he was getting.
Mattias Ritola is working hard? No way. He’s running at the crack of dawn? You must be joking. The lazy guy with the bad reputation? Yeah, sure.
"I said, ‘This is not the Ritola I have seen,’" the Detroit Red Wings’ director of European scouting told NHL.com. "I did some more research and then I met him and he said, ‘I want to get rid of this label on me.’ So we decided to pick him."
That was the summer of 2005, after a season in which Ritola’s reputation as a lazy player cost him hours of ice time in Sweden.
Fast forward to today, and Ritola, who the Red Wings selected in the fourth round of the 2005 Entry Draft, is one of Detroit’s emerging forward prospects. He earned his chance in North America only because he has combined his obvious talent with strong work habits.
"When I was younger, I was always the guy at the far blue line that would score goals," Ritola told NHL.com. "Then, I had a huge problem being a professional hockey player back home. I didn’t work, so I didn’t play. When I got here, I recognized this is my last chance."
Ritola is 21 now, and for the second straight season is playing a regular shift with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins. His motivation isn’t to show everyone back home in Sweden that they were wrong about him.
"They weren’t wrong," he said. "I was wrong."
Instead, Ritola is trying to prove to the Red Wings they were right to gamble on him in 2005.
"He came over and said, ‘I’m done in Sweden. Because of my past, people think I’m lazy,’" Andersson said. "He’s turning himself into a different player over here."
Ritola’s struggles back home didn’t end after the Red Wings drafted him. He was admittedly miserable for the next two years.
He didn’t play well enough to stay in the Swedish Elite League during the 2005-06 season, and wound up playing for three organizations in three leagues, none being the SEL, in 2006-07.
In 107 games during two seasons, Ritola had 17 goals and 24 assists. He was left off Sweden’s National Junior Team in 2007 after scoring four points in six games at the 2006 World Junior Championship in British Columbia.
"He was eligible and the Swedes didn’t pick him for the team, which doesn’t happen a lot," Red Wings general manager Ken Holland told NHL.com. "Obviously they were giving him a message. I thought he played pretty well in British Columbia."
Following his disastrous 2006-07 campaign, Ritola left Sweden, saying there was nothing for him there. Amazingly, the Red Wings still believed enough to sign him to a three-year entry-level contract.
"I was so happy that Detroit signed me," Ritola said. "When I was 17 I had a name back home. I was good. After two seasons I barely played at all and I just disappeared. When I came here I recognized this is really my last chance to do something with my hockey."
Thanks to the pushing of Jiri Fischer, the Wings’ director of player development, and the prodding of the entire organization, including Holland, assistant GM Jim Nill, coach Mike Babcock and especially Andersson, Ritola finally appears to be on the right path.
He had seven goals and 15 assists in 72 games last season with Grand Rapids. Holland said Griffins then-coach Mike Stothers limited Ritola’s ice time early in the season because he wasn’t working, but by the end of the season he was playing a regular shift.
"I saw some games where, I can’t say he was the best player on the ice, but he was one of the better players," Holland said. "He’s got ability, but he’s got to do it on a shift-by-shift basis."
The Wings also gave Ritola, who was called up for two NHL games last season and produced an assist and two shots on goal, an education during the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season.
"We brought him in and he sat with us throughout the entire playoff run last year to the Stanley Cup," Holland said.
Ritola’s eyes were wide open. He observed intently.
"I didn’t believe it until I saw it," he said. "You see (Henrik) Zetterberg. He plays 30 minutes a game and after the game he went right back on the bike. Some guys need to see it and some guys just have it. I saw it and I recognized that’s what I need to do."
This summer, the Wings used Ritola on their top line at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament. He skated on the left wing with high-end prospects Justin Abdelkader and Jan Mursak, producing two points and a plus-1 rating in four games.
Ritola didn’t have much of a chance to make the Wings out of training camp this season considering their incredible forward depth, but he had an assist and was a plus-1 in the Griffins’ 4-3 season-opening loss to the Lake Erie Monsters on Oct. 11. Through 18 games, he has six goals and six assists.
"I feel like I’m a totally different player," Ritola said. "I like to work. I like to compete. Look at (Pavel) Datsyuk. He’s got the best hands in the world, but he works his tail off all the time, every game. You need to do that to get your career going.
"It took me two years to recognize it, but I did and now I want to keep going."