Brett Ritchie wasn’t brought in on a tryout contract to be a fighter, nor was he tabbed as a top line solution in Calgary.
However, midway through a Calgary Flames season with endless plot twists, there stood the second line winger at centre ice Monday, knocking out Jujhar Khaira in a spirited scrap.
After starting the season on a PTO and progressing from the taxi squad to a healthy scratch, the 27-year-old power forward has landed himself a coveted spot alongside Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan.
Placed there immediately upon Darryl Sutter’s arrival last week, Ritchie has fit in well as the rugged winger chiefly responsible for helping dig dump-ins out for the two stars.
On Saturday he drew the primary assist on the first of Monahan’s two goals by steamrolling a defender in a puck battle.
On Monday he drew a penalty, led the team in hits and responded to a headshot on Oliver Kylington by Khaira with a highlight-reel scrap he dominated to remind the hockey world Nick’s older brother is far from finished in a league he’s played 276 games in.
“I was always pretty confident -- I knew I was good enough to play in this league on a nightly basis,” said Ritchie, when asked if he was worried he may have to retire or continue his career in Europe when no one offered him a contract in the off-season.
“You’ve just got to get a couple bounces your way and someone to trust you.”
That someone is Sutter, who has long coveted farm boy physiques like the six-foot-four, 220-pound frame Ritchie loves to throw around.
“Watching them the two games prior to me coming I just thought the line needed some size and speed -- Brett is a combination of that,” said Sutter of the move from the fourth line. “Good on him. We’re talking about Brett today because he went out and backed up (Kylington) in the fight but he also drew a penalty and was good on the forecheck. That’s what we need him to do. Those are his strengths, so if he uses them then he can fill a good role for us.”
On a line that has had trouble finding fits for Gaudreau and Monahan, Ritchie is a good fit early because of Sutter’s insistence on a dump-and-chase zone entry he thrives on.
“I like to be the guy getting in on the puck first on the forecheck for sure, but I think if we could get Johnny the puck with some time coming through neutral ice we could add another element,” said Ritchie, who scored 16 times in his third of five seasons with the Dallas Stars.
“He can use his skill to step up and make a couple plays and we could sort of be a double threat. We need to start scoring some more goals as a line, but the team is playing well and we’re buying in defensively and we’re a lot harder to play against so it’s a positive so far.”
A participant of just nine big league fights, Ritchie can obviously handle himself, making him a perfect candidate to step up on Kylington’s behalf by arranging the fight Khaira knew he had to take.
Unfortunately, it ended with the Oilers trainer being summoned to help the dazed Khaira off the ice where he immediately went through concussion protocols.
“You never want to see that happen,” said Ritchie.
“Obviously you go into a fight trying to win the fight, but your goal is not to knock him out and hurt him. You notice when you hit him pretty good. Your emotions are so high at the time, you’re happy it’s over and you’re not hurt but you’re like ‘Crap, I hope that guy is alright.’”
Sportsnet.ca learned Tuesday the league chose not to add insult to injury for Khaira and will not discipline him for initiating contact with Kylington’s head as he was prone along the boards.
Kylington left the game briefly to get checked out, but upon his return immediately sought out Ritchie to offer a fist bump.
“It’s great -- it gives a big energy boost and everyone is pumped,” said Mikael Backlund of the fight. “It was a great job by Ritch stepping up for (Kylington) after getting hit pretty high with an elbow. Good on him for doing that and covering his teammate. Everyone loved it.”
They also love the energy and physicality he brings to a team that now puts a premium on both under Sutter.
A second-round draft pick who finished sixth in scoring on a Canadian junior team in 2013 that included Jonathan Huberdeau, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jonathan Drouin, Mark Scheifele and Ryan Strome, Ritchie’s lone goal in eight games as a Flame demonstrated he has the hands to stay on his current line.
“(In Dallas) I would bounce up and down the lineup, a little bit of power play and always trying to be a good five-on-five guy,” he said. “As far as the fighting, I’m not a guy who is going to lead the league in fights, but if I notice a hit or if I have to answer for something I did those are the things I look for.”
You can bet he’ll be on a similar lookout Wednesday against Edmonton to do what he can to stay in the position he’s in.
“Definitely appreciate what he does on the ice and for the group,” said Backlund. “He’s been playing really well for us. He bangs his body around and skates well and has a really good shot as well. He’s a really good power forward. His job doesn’t go unnoticed in our dressing room.”