The Colorado Avalanche employed some of the very best two-way forwards in the entire NHL during the late 1990s and the early 2000s. Adam Deadmarsh. Claude Lemieux. Mike Keane. Stephane Yelle. Also firmly established on that list was a guy named Mike Ricci.
To say "Reech" was a gritty guy on the ice is probably unnecessary, but to say he was invaluable to the early Colorado Avalanche is absolutely required. His work as both an antagonizer of opposing top lines as well as a constant scoring threat places him firmly on the list of Top 19 Avalanche Players Of All Time.
A soccer player turned hockey center (and Geddy Lee lookalike), Mike Ricci was traded to the Quebec Nordiques in 1992 by the Flyers as part of the Eric Lindros Trade along with Peter Forsberg and others. At that time, not only was Ricci an effective defensive forward, but he could score, too. His first season in Quebec he scored 27 goals and 78 points in 77 games, a total he would never reach again, though not to the team's detriment.
As the seasons passed, Ricci began to fully develop his defensive abilities. On a team with centers like Forsberg and Joe Sakic, he didn't have to be a constant offensive threat. But his penalty minutes didn't increase with his decline in points. In fact, he became a more disciplined player and improved his effectiveness killing penalties. In 1992-93, his first season with the franchise (78 points), he had 123 penalty minutes. In 1995-96, he had only 52.
When the Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche, "Reech" enjoyed instant Denver fan approval for his nasty, persistent defensive play as much as his iconic face and flowing mullet. His offensive skills weren't totally lost, though, because he scored 17 points in 22 playoff games in 1996, the first year the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup.
Ricci was the quintessential "grinder" during that period. He, along with Keane, Lemieux, Stephane Yelle and Deadmarsh composed one of the deepest squads of two-way forwards in the league at the time. Other teams' top lines were hard pressed to score against the grinding lines coach Marc Crawford was able to put on the ice. Ricci, along with his fellow third- and fourth-liners, were as much responsible for the first Cup as were Forsberg, Sakic and Valeri Kamensky.
Unfortunately, Ricci's time with the Avs was short, and he was traded to the San Jose Sharks in 1997 for Shean Donovan and a draft pick that became Alex Tanguay.
Sadly, I wasn't able to find any highlights from his time in Colorado on YouTube, so this profile will be without video clips. Sigh.
Mike Ricci cemented his reputation as a defensive power forward with the Sharks, playing seven seasons with that team and forming the cornerstone of their penalty killing unit. He often led the team's forwards in blocked shots and takeaways. Reech finished in the top four among candidates for the Frank Selke trophy in 1999-00 and 2000-01, a further testament to his two-way talent.
Ricci's time with the Sharks defined his career, and he now works as an advisor to the team.
In 2005, Ricci joined the Phoenix Coyotes and changed his uniform number to 40 in honor of the late Pat Tillman. At the end of that season, in the summer of 2006, Reech underwent surgery to repair a neck injury but never fully recovered, and after playing just seven games last season, announced his retirement at a charity golf tournament on Monday, August 13, 2007.
"I tried to play but wasn't strong enough," Ricci said. "It was tough. I tried but just didn't have the health. I wasn't ready. I hoped I could still play but couldn't do it. With that, and other reasons, I decided to retire."
A lackluster end for an exciting and iconic hockey player. Mike Ricci was an asset to every team he ever skated for, and will be missed by fans in Denver as much as anywhere else.
(A shorter version of this post appeared on MHH last year. It has been expanded and revised.)
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