Alumni Q&A: Pat Ribble
Ribble was in town last spring for the Capitals’ alumni game, and we had a chance to talk to him about his hockey career before, during and after his days in D.C.
You started your pro hockey career in the old Central League with Omaha. What was that league like?
“It was good. The Central League was a good league. You flew everywhere. Omaha wasn’t one of the ideal cities to be in, but it was still a nice experience for me. After my first year in Omaha, the Omaha team folded. Atlanta, who owned my rights, put half the team in Tulsa and half the team in the American League in Nova Scotia. I went to Tulsa.”
When you reached the NHL it was with Atlanta. You were a Canadian guy playing in the southernmost city in the league at the time. What was that experience like for you.
“Atlanta was a very nice city. We had a good team. We thought we had a good team, anyway. I don’t know if it was the weather, but we seemed to underachieve at times. But it was nice playing there. There were a lot of friendly people there.
“What you’d see there were people who didn’t really know the rules of the game. So you just have to go along with it. They’d clap on an icing and things like that. It was new for them. It was an all new experience for me, too. I’d never really been anywhere. I grew up in a small town in Canada and had spent a couple of years in the minors. It was nice to go to a big city.”
Speaking of big cities, then you got traded to Chicago. At the time, it was the biggest trade in NHL history from the standpoint of the number of players involved. I lived in Chicago at the time and remember it well. Chicago was a good hockey town in those days, much more so than it is now, and it was a huge trade.
“Chicago is a great city. When we got traded there from Atlanta, it was a shock. It was my first trade, and I think it was everybody’s first trade that was involved in Atlanta’s side of the deal, anyways. We went there with the attitude to try to do something for the Chicago Blackhawks.
“That division – I believe it was the Smythe Division at the time – Chicago was in first place in that division. They certainly didn’t have a lot of points, but the division was weak and we went in there got a bye in the first round of the playoffs.
“But it was nice going to Chicago. What a great city it is. It’s like a smaller New York; that’s what I’d compare Chicago to is a smaller New York.”
Who was the coach for the Hawks in those days? Billy Reay wasn’t still there then, was he?
“[Bob] Pulford was there. And then Eddie Johnston was there after that. But Pully was there, and when he wasn’t coaching he was the GM. Bobby Orr was an assistant coach when I first got traded there, and he picked me up at the airport. I was impressed.”
Bobby Orr picked you up at the airport? Just you, or the rest of the guys, too?
“Well, I went in his car. I talked to him later, and he told me that I was a big part of that trade because he liked the way I took the body. That’s what he told me. And he’s still a good friend.”
This deal was toward the end of the season, might have even been at the deadline.
“It was the trade deadline, right on the deadline.”
That’s always tough to do at that point of the season, and something that few people realize. Families are getting uprooted and you’re expecting them to perform seamlessly while all this is going on off the ice. Find anyone in an office job anywhere today and tell them, ‘You and your wife and your kids are going 800 miles away and we want you there tomorrow.’ I imagine that’s what it’s like.
“We got traded on a Monday at noon. And they wanted us to play that night in Chicago. Tommy Lysiak had all the pull, and he said, ‘No, we’ve got families here and we’re not coming. We’ll come tomorrow.’ So that’s the way it ended up. We didn’t fly in that afternoon or play that night.
“I don’t think any of us were married when we got traded there, so it wasn’t like we had kids and everything to uproot. But it’s still a big thing. The rest of that year, all of us stayed at a hotel in Chicago, the Bismarck, instead of looking for apartments and houses and everything like that.”
You played in the World Championships in Prague the year before that. What was that like?
“That was a great experience for me. I was fortunate because a couple of guys from the Rangers got hurt. Carol Vadnais and Ron Greschner were supposed to be on the team. They both got hurt, and they went to Dan Bouchard, who was our goalie in Atlanta and asked him, ‘Who was your best defenseman in Atlanta?’ He mentioned my name and I got the call and I went. It was a very good experience for me. We won the bronze medal there.”
You were with three teams in 1979-80, and that’s a lot of movement for one season.
“I went to Chicago, finished the year. The next year I broke my thumb and I broke my nose in training camp. When I was ready to go back in the lineup, there wasn’t any room for me. They put me in, and they wouldn’t put me in. It was tough. So I just told Pulford I said, ‘If you can trade me, trade me.’
“He showcased me for some reason in Toronto, and I got a goal and I think I was the first or second star. Toronto was trying to get rid of some of their fools, so I got traded to Toronto. When I got to Toronto, it was so nice to play for the Leafs. You grow up watching the Leafs, but there was so much turmoil going on with [Harold] Ballard. It was like the players against the ownership. I had never seen that before. Every place I played, you respected the coaches and you respected the owner. That wasn’t going on in Toronto. I played there 31 days before I got traded, and it was probably the best thing that could have happened. It was good to get out of there.
“It was good to have played for the Leafs, but at that time it was good to come to Washington because Washington wanted me. Max McNab was the GM. We had a good talk and I was glad to come here.”
It had to be hard as a defenseman coming to Washington in those days. I would imagine you spent a lot of time in your own end.
“We had some pretty good players, really. We had Mike Gartner and Dennis Maruk. We did have some good players. When I played here, for two years in a row we were right on the line of making the playoffs. And we had to sit on that ice after we played [our last game of the season] and watch the big [scoreboard], and see who won [the other game]. If one team won, we were in. Both years, the other team won and we didn’t get in. It’s tough that way, to sit there and watch. But it’s really nice to come back here for something like this.”
You guys had the youngest head coach in the league back then in Gary Green.
“I was older than him. I had worked hockey schools for him before, so I knew Gary Green. He and I got along pretty good. He knew the game and he was a good teacher. I had a lot of respect for him.
“Things just didn’t go right. We had some good games. We played good some nights and we’d stink it up the next. It’s too bad because the people here wanted a winner, and we could have very easily given it to them.”
Then you were traded back to Calgary. If I remember right, it was about 10 days or two weeks after Bryan Murray and Roger Crozier took over.
“Gary and Max got fired. When Bryan Murray came in, he didn’t have anything to do me and I never got a chance. What are you going to do? I could blame him, but it wasn’t his fault. So I got traded to Calgary and played a couple more years in that organization.”
And then you went back to the Central League, with OKC and a few other teams.
“OKC, and then I went to Colorado. Salt Lake City went from the Central to the International League and I finished up there. My last year was 1986-87. We won the championship and I figured that was enough.”
It’s a good way to go out.
“It was. That was one of the reasons I did it. Plus I was getting old.”
Who was the best defensive partner you ever had, whether it was in juniors, the minors or the NHL?
“Probably Borje Salming in Toronto. I have tapes of the games, and it’s amazing some of the passes he made. And he always gave you an outlet. I never wanted to handle the puck, so all I would do is look for him and he would make himself open. He was amazing.”
How important do you think it is for a guy coming into the National Hockey League as a young defenseman to be partnered alongside a guy with a good bit of experience in the league, say 400 games or more? Do you believe in that kind of a security blanket?
“I think it works out good that way. I know that when Darren Veitch was coming up with the Caps, I was his partner. First, it was because I had been around for a while. I know that’s what Max and Gary were thinking. And Darren had some offensive talent, and I wasn’t going to be traipsing up the ice. So that’s why they did that, and I think it helps, really.”
Give me your best memory on the ice here and your best off the ice.
“My best memory on the ice, it might have been when I scored my first goal. It was against Montreal. We had so much fun playing this game, and we had a good bunch of guys. There are teams you play on where there might be one [bad guy], but that never happened in Washington.
“Off the ice, it was the friends I made. I used to play ball here, and I still come down to visit friends from around here. I made friends, they’d come to the games and howl at me.”