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Up-to-the minute updates and insights from the Red Wings locker room at home and on the road. By Chuck Pleiness of The Macomb Daily.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ritola learns new ways

TRAVERSE CITY -- Living in Grand Rapids wasn't easy at first. The city was fine, but Mattias Ritola was in the heartland of a country of which he was unfamiliar. Growing up in Sweden, Ritola had seen America in movies and taken some lessons in English.

But one year ago, Ritola was in full North American emersion, finding out about the language and ways of the land as he rode buses with the Grand Rapids Griffins. At least Ritola had his friend and countryman, Johan Ryno, with him on the journey as the pair of Detroit Red Wing prospects in their first season on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

That is, Ritola had Ryno as teammate and next-door neighbor for a little less than three months. Ryno wanted to return to Sweden and after 10 days of phone posturing with Detroit general manager Ken Holland, Ryno was allowed to leave the Griffins. Which left Ritola without a refuge. But Ryno's departure turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

"When he left, I started to spend more time with the other guys," said Ritola, 21. "I learned the language. It was so much easier that way. I didn't want him to go obviously, but it forced me to learn faster."

If the Red Wings' front office had any concerns about Ritola developing on his own in Grand Rapids, they were soon soothed. Detroit assistant general manager Jim Nill praised Ritola's efforts in training camp this week.

"It's nice when you see a guy that's been here before and is supposed to be good, be one of the better players," said Nill. "I thought in the prospects tournament he played well. He played in the American League and that's a pretty good league. You become a man."

In the big picture, Ritola and Ryno went in opposite directions after the latter returned to Sweden. Ryno went from playing the first dozen games of the American Hockey League season as a top-line forward to being a role player back with Djurgarden of the Swedish elite league.

Both Ryno and Ritola have contracts with the Red Wings that run through 2010. (The two were bookend draft picks around Darren Helm in 2005 with Ritola being selected just before Helm.) But it's Ritola who is back at training camp in Traverse City this week and Ryno who is back in Sweden.

"I feel way more confident out there than I was last year, holding the puck more, being on the power play," said Ritola. "Here, the game is faster, smaller rink. More up and down the ice. Over there, it was more hold the puck and see what happens."

It was Ryno who showed earlier signs of adapting to the North American game, having a stronger training camp last fall than Ritola. But Ritola gained ground and stuck with the Red Wings through the preseason longer than other prospects like Ryno, Helm and Evan McGrath.

Ritola was part of a four-player mix for the final two forward positions. Matt Ellis and Aaron Downey were kept in Detroit. Ritola and Igor Grigorenko were sent to Grand Rapids after the final preseason game.

It became a season of growth in Grand Rapids for Ritola, who learned to speak the nuances of hockey and English. He and the Griffins' other Swede, Jonathan Ericsson, had a rule that they would never speak Swedish in the locker room.

"When you guys start to talk fast, it's hard to understand, but now I get it," said Ritola. "You don't want to sound stupid. In the beginning, they ask one thing and you answer another, you get laughed at."

It was also a season of many highs.

Ritola was called up to Detroit for two games to fill in for an injury-depleted lineup. He finished the season at plus-10, leading a team full of minus players.
And Ritola was one of seven called up by the Red Wings during their playoff run -- a who's who of Detroit prospects that included Helm, Jakub Kindl, Jonathan Ericsson, Cory Emmerton, Kyle Quincey, Justin Abdelkader and Jimmy Howard.


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