Penguins forward Rupp values time spent in Erie

Pittsburgh Penguins forward Mike Rupp has come a long way from playing hockey in the driveway to playing on one of the biggest stages in professional hockey.


A member of the Erie Otters from 1998 to 2000, Rupp is now in his eighth season in the National Hockey League. It’s a journey that has seen its ups and downs, and it started in Cleveland, Ohio.


Rupp was hoping to become one of the first members of the United States Development Program when it was founded in 1996. He had a choice between playing for the United States or entering the Ontario Hockey League, and understood that the best chance to develop his game for the pro level came in the OHL.


“I weighed my options with (USA Hockey) and the OHL and I decided that the OHL was a route that would prepare me for the NHL,” Rupp said. “I was able to develop a different style that I needed to play in the NHL. I had to develop more of a physical style since I had been more of a point-getter growing up and there were parts of my game that were lacking from playing in Cleveland my whole life.”


Although Cleveland isn’t exactly a hockey hotbed, Rupp is just one of the few players from Cleveland to make the NHL in recent years, and the only active NHL player born and raised in the Cleveland area. It didn’t stop scouts from taking notice, as Rupp was selected with the tenth overall pick by the Windsor Spitfires in 1997 OHL Priority Selection.


 Coming out of St. Edward’s High School in Lakewood, Rupp put up 50 points in 20 games for the Eagles before stepping into the OHL. Already at his pro height of 6-foot-5, Rupp proved to be an intriguing prospect to NHL teams. Midway through his first season in the OHL, Rupp would be traded to the Otters for another future NHL player, Jason Ward.


Although Cleveland is almost equidistant to Windsor and Erie, the chance to play major junior hockey in the United States was a blessing to him and his family.


“It was fortunate that my family was close to me in my first few years of moving away from home,” Rupp said.  “Erie was even closer, and I had great support from my billet family and Erie.”


After putting up 17 points in 38 games with Windsor, Rupp closed out the season with 10 points in 26 games for Erie. The Otters finished the season with a 33-28-5 record, and marched into the 1998 OHL Playoffs to take on the rival London Knights.


It appeared the Knights had a stranglehold on the series as they won the first three games, all by close scores. The Otters did not go down without a fight, crushing the Knights in Game 4 and winning Game 5 in London to set up Game 6, one of the first classic games in Otters history.


The score was tied at three at the end of regulation, forcing overtime at the Erie Civic Center. It would be Rupp who provided the heroics 16:06 into the extra frame, setting off a frenzy in Erie and forcing an improbable Game 7 back at the London Ice House.


“Tim Connolly gave me a nice back door pass and I was able to put it in,” Rupp said. “It forced a Game 7, but unfortunately we lost that game.”


The effort did not go unnoticed, and Rupp continued to be a fan favorite in Erie after he was selected with the ninth overall pick by the New York Islanders in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft. The points would pick up for Rupp in the final two years of his OHL career, and he closed out a three-year campaign in the league with 70 goals and 57 assists in 185 games.


Despite good stats in his final two OHL seasons, Rupp was unsigned by the Islanders, and he re-entered the NHL Entry Draft in 2000. He wound up being drafted by the New Jersey Devils in the third round, where he began to work his way towards the NHL.


Rupp began his pro career in the American Hockey League with the Albany River Rats, then the affiliate of the Devils. He collected 69 points in 196 games with the River Rats before getting a called up to the Devils midway through the 2002-03 season.


During his first NHL season, Rupp scored five times and added three assists in 26 games with the Devils, who finished with the third-best record in the NHL at 46-20-10-6. The Devils had a deep run into the playoffs, although Rupp did not get into the lineup until the Stanley Cup Finals against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.


An injury to Joe Nieuwendyk paved the way for Rupp to become a part of NHL history. He made his playoff debut in Game 4 with the Devils ahead two games to one. He would play throughout the remainder of the series, and it was in Game 7 at Continental Airlines Arena where the rookie made his mark.


With the game scoreless going into the second period, Mike Rupp put the Devils on the board by deflecting in a Scott Niedermayer shot just over two minutes into the frame. It would stand up as the game-winner, as Rupp continued to contribute by assisting on two more Devils goals by Jeff Friesen to cap off a 3-0 win and New Jersey’s third Stanley Cup.


“It’s something I’ll always remember,” Rupp said of his Game 7 performance. “I might not fully appreciate it until I’m done playing the game. It set the bar high as a rookie to think you would get that opportunity again and it hasn’t happened. It provides some extra drive in my career to get back to that point and it was great.”


Rupp started the following season with the Devils before being dealt to the Phoenix Coyotes at the trade deadline for Jan Hrdina. The NHL then went into a lockout that eventually cancelled the 2004-05 season, when Rupp stayed in shape by playing 14 games for the Danbury Trashers of the United Hockey League.


When the NHL returned, Rupp played another game with the Coyotes before being dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Geoff Sanderson trade. An irregular heartbeat curtailed the end of Rupp’s season in March 2006, and it also spelled the end of his Blue Jackets stint as he became a free agent. The Devils would welcome back their Stanley Cup hero in July 2006 with open arms, and Rupp skate for the Devils for three more seasons.


Rupp’s second stint with New Jersey earned him a reputation around the league as one of the league’s top physical players. The Penguins recognized Rupp could be a valuable contributor and the then-defending Stanley Cup Champions signed him to a two-year deal on the first day of free agency in 2009.


The Penguins knew what they were getting in Rupp’s toughness, but were even happier with his offensive contributions in 2009-10. The rugged winger collected a career-high 13 goals, including his first career hat trick November 30, 2009 against the New York Rangers.


Last week, Rupp had the opportunity to take part in his first Winter Classic, which was held at Heinz Field. It was another pro hockey experience that Rupp would never forget.


“It was great,” Rupp said of the Winter Classic. “It was kind of on the back of my mind since they had announced the game. The ice conditions weren’t the greatest, and the result of the game (a 3-1 loss to the Washington Capitals) wasn’t what we wanted, but it was a great all-in-all experience. I don’t know if I’ll get the chance to play in front of 70,000 fans again, but it was something I’ll always remember.”


The opportunity to play in Pittsburgh allows Rupp to skate alongside some of the best players in the world, including Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. It also allows Rupp to live relatively close to his family.


Rupp, who met his wife Christi while playing in Erie, has three children that all live in Northwest Pennsylvania. Although he is a native Buckeye, Rupp is proud to be a resident of his adopted hometown.


“It’s home,” Rupp said of living in Crawford County. “(It is) the type of living that my wife and I want to have and raise children in. The people are great. We’ve been able to experience a few places in my career and we’ve discussed where we want to spend our post-hockey lives and living in Northwest Pennsylvania is where we consider home.”


Check back for more profiles in the coming weeks on former Otters players as we celebrate our 15th Anniversary!

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