The New York Islanders - along with every other NHL team and many other businesses - have temporarily suspended operations due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 Coronavirus. The Center for Disease Control and World Health Organizations have strongly advised the public to practice self-quarantining and avoid close contact and crowds to limit the spread of the virus. But that doesn’t mean we can’t gather in a virtual space and talk about old hockey players.
As long as the Islanders are on pause, we’ll run this series to give folks a place to chat, reminisce, and generally relieve the stress of the times.
Can Cliff Ronning be considered an NHL legend? He’s got a really good case. Seventeen years in the league, over 300 goals, played on some good teams in a few different eras. If you grew up playing EA Sports NHL video games during the 16-bit era, you probably thought he was one of the best players in the world, with wheels that would make Usain Bolt jealous.
Was Cliff Ronning a New York Islander? There we can answer a definitive “yes,” although you would forgiven if you totally forgot that.
Beginning with the Blues in the 1986-87 season, Ronning hit 24 goals in his third year in the league, was traded to Vancouver in a multi-player deal that was absolutely awful (at the time) for St. Louis, and then blossomed into one of the most consistent and exciting players around. Aside from a couple of outliers in both directions, the center was almost always good for around 20 goals and 60 points every year for over a decade. Not bad for a dude who was just 5’-8” (playing with Pavel Bure no doubt helped, too).
After six years and 112 goals for a damn good Canucks team, he left for the Coyotes as a free agent. In 1998, he was traded to the inaugural Nashville Predators to lend Barry Trotz’s expansion team some much-needed leadership. After three-plus seasons in Nashville, and leading the Preds in scoring in each one, he was traded to the Kings, then the Wild.
Ronning’s final NHL season was played in blue and orange in 2003-04. He was 38 at the time and coming off a 17-goal, 48-point season and a trip to the Western Conference final with Minnesota (yes, that happened) and felt he had more left in the tank. He turned down a low ball extension offer from the Wild and went into the season as an unsigned free agent. The then-16-year veteran waited until January of 2005 to make his decision while he played in a beer league with some friends including a 57-year-old security guard.
Ronning chose the Islanders for the same reasons everyone else does: history and family.
The Islanders were one of several teams that courted him last week, and he chose Long Island because it’s “where I felt comfortable with my wife and kids,” he said yesterday after practicing with his new team.
Ronning, who needs three goals to reach 300 for his career, was signed to a $400,000 contract by the Isles on Friday.
“We both felt this was a great opportunity, coming to the Islanders, with so much history, with that uniform,” Ronning said of the decision he and his wife made to come here.
The idea was to have Ronning augment the power play and make up for the losses of Alexei Yashin and Mark Parrish, who were both injured at the time. In 40 games as an Islander, Ronning scored nine goals - including his 300th career tally - and 15 assists for 24 points. Only two of those nine goals were scored with the man advantage.
Update: Our own North Dakota Red Eagle Travis alerted me to this Adrian Aucoin overtime goal in which Ronning plays a key role.
They made the playoffs that season but lost in the first round to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Lightning. Here’s a quick video of that series, which was close for the first two games, then went off the rails for Ronning and his new teammates.
When the NHL resumed following Lockout II: Lock Harder, Ronning was once again a free agent. He officially announced his retirement in February of 2006. He was elected to the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame in 2018. His son Ty was drafted by the Rangers in 2016.
As an Islanders fan, I remember Ronning’s brief tenure with the team, even if few people outside of this sphere do. What’s more surprising to me is that he never played in one All Star Game and only received a handful of votes for one major award (The Lady Byng) in the second to last season of his career.
Because between SportsCenter highlights, video games and good old fashioned urban legend, this dude was a legit beast. At least he was able to sample Long Island for a little while.