Nearly ten years have passed since the Nashville Predators traded away Cliff Ronning. In Nashville this week to coach a youth clinic and to showcase his company that makes custom hockey sticks, Ronning has come back to the building he called home for four seasons.
Even today, the player affectionately known as “The Rat” still feels the pain of when he was told he was no longer going to be a Predator.
“That was a killer,” he said when asked about the day Nashville traded him to the Los Angeles Kings. “It was tough.”
At the time, Ronning was the franchise leader in goals (81), assists (145), and points (226). He was also a fan favorite. Things happened when he had the puck; the fans knew it and the excitement level in the building rose each time he stepped onto the ice.
To this day, fans can be seen wearing “vintage” Predators jerseys around Bridgestone Arena with Ronning’s name and number seven on the back, for a guy who played his last game as a Predator in March 2002.
Just three weeks after the Predators began their inaugural season, General Manager David Poile acquired the talented forward from the Phoenix Coyotes. In many ways, the trade was a perfect match for both team and player. The Predators were in their infancy; fighting for recognition and respect, and the 5’8” Ronning had been fighting for those very same things his whole hockey-playing life.
“It was kind of fitting because the team was really the underdog in every game and that was kind of my persona as a player,” Ronning said. “I was always the underdog, so it was a good fit for me. Going into the rink and finding a way to win against a team that was much superior. I found that was very fulfilling and very exciting.”
Nothing came easy to Ronning in his hockey career. Players his size have to do a lot just to get noticed, and they have to do even more to stick around. It was something that stoked a fire in the Burnaby, British Columbia native who was a seventh round draft pick of the St. Louis Blues in 1984.
“The reason I was successful playing in the NHL for 20 years was I constantly had in the back of my mind all those people who told me I couldn’t do something,” he said. “That was fuel. If someone constantly tells you can’t do this, you have two ways of going; you either believe it or you use it as fuel for you to go against it. For me, I took it as a positive. The more you told me that I couldn’t do something, the more that it energized me.”
Leaving Nashville was tough on both Ronning and his family. The trade did not just mean he was playing for a different team, it meant leaving a city the Ronnings had grown to love.
“It was a place at first when my wife got here, she wasn’t too excited because we left Phoenix where there are palm trees, swimming pools, and good shopping,” Ronning said. “Getting here opened her eyes and my eyes about family, community, and friends. That’s what special about Nashville, its small-town feel. I hope it never loses that because that’s what makes Nashville special.”
Ronning played 1,137 career NHL games. His milestone 1,000th game came as a Predator and is one of his fondest on-ice memories of Nashville.
“That was special,” Ronning said. “That was one that was pretty huge for my family and how the city embraced it was huge.”
Since retiring from playing, Ronning has stayed very active in hockey. He has coached some, tried his hand at broadcasting and also is the co-founder of BASE Hockey, a custom hockey stick company.
During the playoffs, Ronning worked for CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada and appeared on a show called “Seeking Stanley.” He says that he enjoyed becoming a member of the hockey media.
“That was the first time I would actually watch a game and critique it with no feedback possibly from the different clubs because I was saying what I felt,” Ronning said. “It was very easy to be able to say this guy made a mistake, he needs to do better; this guy is outplaying that guy. I learned to say what you think and be honest with the fans because they are a lot smarter than you think.”
BASE uses computer technology to customize sticks to each individual player’s needs. Not only is Ronning helping players find exactly the right stick, his company is also saving players some money while doing it.
“We created a company that there is another option out there where you can get fitted for a hockey stick just like golf clubs,” he said. “It’s factory direct. Hockey is expensive, and it is something that I have a passion for, and I just felt that I can save people money and get a great product in their hands. Our theory is performance, customization and value. We actually customize and put logos and a name on it just like the pros.”
Despite his busy schedule, Ronning says that he will be spending more time in Nashville in the coming years, as his daughter is a freshman at Belmont University hoping to become a songwriter.
“We still try to come back here a couple of times a year to visit people,” he said. “Now I have an excuse to get out here to see my daughter to make sure she is behaving.”
Ronning thinks that there could be another excuse for him to make frequent return visits to Nashville as well, as his son is a talented hockey player with a bright future ahead.
“He is at that bantam age,” Ronning said. “He is a good little hockey player that a lot of teams like. Who knows, maybe he will end up in Nashville one day.”
If he does end up in Nashville, there is no question that he will be welcomed with open arms, just like his dad.