Rucinski gets his due from Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame
Mike Rucinski's professional hockey career included a stint with the International Hockey League's Saginaw Blackhawks.
He was an all-area football quarterback and an all-state baseball shortstop at Wheeling High School (Class of 1982), and his National Hockey League career spanned, oh, one regular-season and two playoff games.
Mike Rucinski started playing hockey at age 7, in 1970, for the Schaumburg Kings. He then played for Glenview and the Arlington Heights Rangers.
Rucinski played two junior-level seasons for the Chicago Jets before landing at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where he skated for three seasons. He also played for Team USA in the 1985 World Championships, and he even scored a goal against the archrival Russians.
Rucinski was signed by the Calgary Flames after his junior season at UIC, in 1986, and eventually was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks.
He skated in two playoff games for the Blackhawks during the 1987-88 season, and then one regular-season game — against Toronto — during the 1988-89 season.
A knee injury ended his pro career in 1990-91, and he switched to amateur officiating, which lasted three seasons before turning to coaching. Twenty years later, Rucinski is still behind the bench coach as he coaches the Northwest Chargers' midget major team and also Carmel Catholic High School.
His playing legacy has finally been honored. Rucinski, 49, who lives in Huntley with his wife (Christine) and four sons (Matt, Justin, Dylan and Cody) was recently inducted into the Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame at the Belvedere Banquet Hall in Elk Grove Village.
The Class of 2012 also includes players Tim Breslin (posthumously) and Bob Nardella, builders Bob Arturo, Karl "Butch" Kaebel, Amy Lapoe, Don Levin and Bob Turngren, plus referees Scott Brand and Paul Ciancanelli.
"Obviously it's a thrill (to be inducted)," Rucinski said. "My whole life, I've always been so proud to say that I played all of youth, juniors and college hockey in Illinois. And then to play for the Blackhawks, that was a great thrill."
His parents, Don and Nancy, who now live in Algonquin, attended the hall of fame ceremony, along with countless hockey friends.
"Mike was an outstanding player at both UIC and the professional levels," said Bob Melton, himself a member of the Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame (Class of 2009). Melton played at Glenbrook North, then UIC, and is now the head coach for New Trier Green and New Trier White. "Mike is very deserving of being inducted into the Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame."
It truly has been a memorable skate for Rucinski, dating back to hockey practices decades ago at 5 a.m., at a rink inside Woodfield Mall. He also skated years ago at the now-closed rink at Randhurst Mall.
"I just loved the game and always have wanted to continue improving," he said. "I played hockey in the driveway and countless games of street hockey. It was hockey, hockey, hockey. And I always was striving to get better."
Today, though, pain in his knees and wrists keep him out of the traditional late-night adult league action around the area. But he's at local rinks almost daily from August through April, except most off-nights on Fridays.
"Hockey is still fun for me," Rucinski said. "I love being in the rink, the relationships I have with my players and their parents. Sure, there are ups and downs in hockey, but never a dull moment. I really love what I do, and can't think of anything else I'd rather be doing."
After all, he's stopped his painting jobs and quit working construction. Rucinski is all hockey, 24/7.
Rucinski chose UIC over Miami (Ohio) and the University of Michigan because he figured he had a better chance to play right away, as it was the Flames' first season playing a Division I schedule and the team's roster was filled with 17 freshmen.
"We took our lumps," said Rucinski, named to the CCHL all-rookie team.
Rucinski signed with Calgary after his junior year in 1986.
His minor league gig included stops in Saginaw, Mich., Indianapolis, Ind., and Moncton, N.B. He is a two-time winner of the International Hockey League's Turner Cup (1986, 1990).
"My dream always was to play for the Blackhawks," said Rucinski, known as a finesse player.
That came to fruition during the NHL Playoffs in 1988, for a pair of games in St. Louis. His lone regular-season action in the NHL came during the 1988-89 season, a call-up for one game against Toronto, which his parents attended at the old Chicago Stadium.
"My first NHL game was a playoff game. Obviously that was a thrill, a lot of fun, a great experience," he said. "My one regular-season game, I had a regular shift, and had 1 shot on goal. That was a big thrill, kind of overwhelming for me.
"I don't talk about it much (nowadays). The players who I now coach can't even relate to the era. Some players (who I have coached) over the years have tried to pick my brain about the game, especially the pro game. They want to know as much about me and my hockey experiences as possible."
After retiring from playing, Rucinski kept his skates on and switched to local amateur officiating — a gig that lasted three seasons.
"It definitely takes a special person to be a referee, and definitely a special person to be a referee for many years, because of all the craziness," Rucinski said. "I enjoyed it. I officiated the way I wanted the game to be called when I played. You let the players decide the game and you just control the game."
Officiating led to his run as a coach.
"What I was hearing from the coaches made me feel sorry for the kids because of the instruction that the coaches were giving. It made me think, 'I have to start coaching,' " Rucinski said.
Twenty-plus years later, he's still "Coach Mike," whose local coaching resume started with a Crystal Lake Mite AA team and has since included runs with the Leafs, Team Illinois, Chicago Young Americans, Barrington and Lake Park High School, among other stops.
He coached the co-op Carmel-Mundelein team to a state championship in 2005. He coached the 2009 Chargers Midget Minor team to the Illinois State championship, USA Hockey central district regional championship, and a berth in the USA Hockey national championships, held that year in St. Louis.
In 2010, he coached the Chargers' Midget Major Team to an Illinois state championship and a berth to the USA Hockey national championships in Rochester, N.Y.
"Coaching was my way of giving back to the game, giving back a little more direct than refereeing, not that officiating isn't," he said. "I never thought I would have been coaching for 20-plus years, but I just love it."
Rucinski's teams, particularly the Carmel clubs, have annually been the least penalized team in their league, even the state. That's mandated by Rucinski.
"I really stress to the kids that they can play the game without the over-violent play," he said.
Last season, Carmel had 88 penalty minutes in 22 Metro Central games — which was 44 two-minute minor penalties.
He has a strict team policy that, if a player is penalized for arguing with an opponent or an official, he does not play the rest of that game or the next game.
"I always try to teach the kids that, yes, you can play the game without going into the penalty box," he said. "Plus, wouldn't you rather (be) on the power play as opposed to penalty kill? That leads to more success as a team."
Rucinski has rejected opportunities to coach in the junior ranks, "because the timing just wasn't right," he said. But, he eventually wants to try his hand in the junior ranks and maybe someday at the college level.
"I think it would be kind of cool," he said.
Rucinski models his coaching after all of his past coaches, not one in particular. His teams always are disciplined and everyone has a role.
"I guarantee zero ice time per game," said Rucinski, who annually has parents and players sign off on that agreement at the start of every season. "You'll get what (ice time) you earn. There is no such think as equal ice time.
"The biggest joy I get out of coaching is watching kids go on to play after I'm done (coaching them), perhaps to college or junior hockey."
Just like their coach did.
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