Last January, I caught up with Laredo coach Terry Ruskowski at a game in Rio Rancho. Here’s what he told me.
Timbits Trivia of the Day:
Ruskowski admits, “I probably go through six to eight pieces of gum a game.”
“Rosco,” as he’s known to his players and colleagues, must have one heckofa jaw. But he had tough chops long before he was coaching. As a player in the World Hockey Association and the NHL during the days of Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe, Ruskowski commonly defied his smaller stature by sticking up for his teammates to just about anyone. His dedication earned him the “C” on his jersey more seasons than not. Although he tallied the most assists for the Chicago Blackhawks during the 1979-80 season, Ruskowski most often topped the roster in penalty minutes, amassing 1,354 PIMs overall in his 10-year NHL career. “My teammates always knew I had their backs, whatever happened,” says Ruskowski.
Ready to Rumble
Sticking up for your teammates can build unity and demonstrate a solid work ethic. Aggression can translate into wins by way of out-hustling other teams. Ruskowski puts this positive spin on owning a higher count of penalty minutes, and it manifests in the teams he coaches. “It’s being aggressive and wanting to win, never backing down from a challenge, meeting the challenge head-on. My philosophy is: it’s not whether you win or lose, as long as you show up and show your teammates and the other team you’re willing to do whatever it takes to meet the challenge,” he shares.
Ruskowski says the most effective quality of a coach is recruiting ability. “You try to recruit the players who have character and want to win. When your team has character and doesn’t like to lose, it makes the coaching job a lot easier.” He’s gleaned the most successful tools from the various coaches he’s played for, including Roger Neilson and Pat Quinn. For coaches, too, Ruskowski emphasizes a strong work ethic and thorough preparation, with an added personal touch. “All you have to do as a coach is try to get the other team’s weaknesses and try to manipulate them, then go forward from there. If you can take a little bit from each of the ideas of other coaches, it’ll benefit you in the long run. I also think if you’re your own person, you’ll be a better coach. If you can’t be yourself, then you won’t be a good coach.”
Put the Hurtin’ On
Weaknesses? Players don’t reveal any they can hide. Guessing at the number of less consequential pains players suffer in a game, Ruskowski sighs, “Oh… Lordy. Everyday there’s a list that my trainer gives me of bumps or bruises or cuts that we had sewn up. We probably have two or three guys a game who have some sort of aches and pains. We’re padded okay, but obviously the padding can’t cover the whole body, so it’s from blocked shots, nicks across the arms and that kind of stuff. During the whole year I couldn’t imagine – way over 100.”
Presumably, it’s all worth it for the two CHL President’s Cups the Bucks earned in 2004 and 2006 (plus the extremely near-miss in 2005), and just over a 70 percent win record by the team since their inception – with Ruskowski at the helm. It’s no surprise that a guy whose birthday is New Year’s Eve knows how to create excuses to celebrate big. “Everyone celebrates my birthday,” Ruskowski smiles.
While many teams find themselves overconfident with what masks itself as a secure lead, ultimately losing the game, Ruskowski tells his team to keep up the pace. “You rely on your team to do the job on the ice. What I can do is if we’re ahead by two goals, I try not to change up a whole lot. I don’t like to sit back and let the other team come at me. I like to be aggressive and keep on going. What I do not like is an odd-man advantage against us. So we make sure that we’re defensively sound.”
On the flip-side, say, with a 5-goal deficit, Ruskowski expects about the same. “We try to create more opportunities by getting the defensemen into the play, going to the net as hard as they can for rebounds and the screen, trying to get back on the track. That kind of deficit is pretty tough to come back from. All I can say is, you have to keep on working hard and whatever happens, happens.” And whether his team is playing Colorado or Wichita, Ruskowski knows it can be a mistake to not get “up” for the game. “Rivalry teams keep you on your toes, like Rio Grande and Corpus. But if you’re not on your toes for any team you play against, you’re not going to win. There are times when the players themselves get more up for games, like Colorado.”