Patrick Rissmiller has found new life in Grand Rapids after being loaned to the Griffins by the New York Rangers.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
In the B-movie classic, Escape From New York, the borough of Manhattan has been turned into a giant maximum security prison from which the character of Snake Plissken (played by Kurt Russell) must rescue the U.S. President.
Griffins forward Patrick Rissmiller can probably relate to the situation.
Rissmiller, who signed a three-year contract with the New York Rangers before last season, was assigned to the club’s AHL affiliate in Hartford after playing only two games with the Rangers.
Trying to make the most of his situation, Rissmiller commuted from the Big Apple to Hartford for the better part of the 2008-09 season.
Ever the optimist, he hoped things would be different this year. But when the Rangers sent him back to Hartford with nary a look, he felt like he had become imprisoned by his circumstance.
That’s when the Griffins came to the rescue.
Rissmiller’s agent knew Griffins general manager Bob McNamara and inquired about the extent of the team’s interest should the Rangers be willing to loan him to Grand Rapids.
“I wasn’t very happy with my situation,” Rissmiller said. “I tried to deal with it last year, but it had gotten kind of stale this year. I decided I had to give myself a chance and get back to where I was coming to the rink every day and having fun playing hockey again.”
Rissmiller, 31, had signed with New York after six years in the San Jose Sharks system, including four seasons with the AHL’s Cleveland Barons. He appeared in 79 games with the Sharks during both the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons.
Last season, the 6-4, 215-pound Rissmiller played 64 games in Hartford, contributing an AHL career-high 54 points (14 goals and 40 assists) despite being unhappy with his predicament.
“To be honest, it hasn’t been an easy year and a half,” Rissmiller said. “Since I’ve left San Jose, it’s been a tough road. Playing hockey is always fun, but obviously there is a business aspect at this level and it was playing a role in everything.”
When the Rangers agreed to send him to Grand Rapids, he couldn’t have been happier.
“Now I’ve gotten away from (the past), it’s a chance to maybe open some new eyes in a different organization,” he said. “It’s also a chance to just concentrate on hockey and enjoy myself. Nobody here is tied to my situation or has anything to do with it. It’s just refreshing for me. I show up every day and I’m having a good time.
“I’m no longer thinking about what has happened or what’s going to happen. I’ll deal with that in the summer when the season’s over. Right now I’m concerned with how I’m playing and making sure I’m doing the right things for myself and for the team.”
It’s ironic that Rissmiller wanted out of New York since he had chosen the Rangers over a couple of other teams.
“Part of the reason I had signed with New York was the opportunity to move back east and be closer to my family and friends,” he said. “In the end, I felt it would be better if I could come here and play hockey and not worry about anything else.”
Rissmiller is normally not the type to rock the boat. As the fourth of eight children, he knows what it’s like not to always get your way.
“I’m very laid-back by nature. I usually don’t get too caught up in things. When you grow up in a family of eight kids, you’re certainly not going to get everything you want. Coming to Grand Rapids is kind of the same boat. Just throw yourself into it and let everything fall into place.”
Rissmiller would be the first to admit that he’s already achieved more in hockey than he ever imagined.
Born in Boston, he grew up in Belmont, Mass., where he was cut from his high school varsity hockey team. He managed to play college hockey at Holy Cross, but only after spending a year in prep school.
“I knew I wanted to play in college and I wasn’t sure where it was going to be, other than that it wasn’t going to be one of the big hockey schools. I had a brother who almost went to Holy Cross for football, so I knew they had great academics. My focus was always on getting my degree.”
He majored in political science, primarily because he enjoyed the coursework. “I’m not sure what I would have done if hockey hadn’t worked out,” he said. “But I didn’t put much thought into pro hockey until my last year or two when my coach started talking to a couple of different teams.”
Undrafted, Rissmiller went to San Jose for a tryout.
“I just wanted to give it a shot. As a kid, you dream about it, but as you get older, you realize things don’t always work out. In the end, it turned out to be much more than I ever anticipated.”
Given the opportunity to make an impression in San Jose’s camp, Rissmiller did exactly that. He signed his first pro contract and made his pro debut with the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL.
Now highly regarded as a two-way player – someone who is as responsible in his defensive end as he is prolific in the offensive zone – Rissmiller was initially much more one-dimensional.
“My first couple of years weren’t very pretty,” he said. “I knew what to do when I got the puck, but it took me a couple of years to learn what to do in the defensive zone.
“You learn that you’re not supposed to chase the puck all over and you can’t get caught watching the puck. It took some time to develop (my defense) but once I did, my overall game improved, which helped me getting to San Jose. If I hadn’t learned the defensive side of the game, I would have never played in the NHL.”
It’s a lesson he’s only too happy to share. “For a lot of young guys, it’s probably their biggest adjustment in coming into pro hockey,” he said. “It’s something you have to learn and adjust to in order to become a better player and help your future.”
Griffins head coach Curt Fraser is thankful to have a strong two-way player like Rissmiller to work with his younger players.
“He’s a big, talented center but he brings more than just good skills. He’s been the perfect veteran, working with youngsters like (Tomas) Tatar and (Jan) Mursak.
“Patty is constantly talking to both of them and he’s done a really good job in terms of helping those kids out. So he’s not only doing a good job for us by producing points and playing in all key situations, but more importantly, he’s helping us develop our younger players.”
Although he jokes that he feels “old” playing with Tatar and Mursak, who are 19 and 21 respectively, Rissmiller feels the change of scenery and the opportunity to play with young talent has revitalized his play.
“The organization here is really good and they want their young guys playing and developing,” he said. “I think the group here is willing to work and willing to listen.
“It kind of makes me feel old, but it’s nice to help out because guys were always helping me along the way. Now it’s kind of my turn to steer guys in the right direction, sharing little things here and there, both on the ice and off the ice.”
Rissmiller is thriving, making the most of out of what Fraser called “a terrible situation.”
“Being here enabled me to get away from a bad situation, which is what I needed to do,” said Rissmiller, who remains in limbo since New York owns his rights for one more year.
“I’m hoping to open new eyes and I’ve always heard good things about Detroit. Obviously they’re contenders every year, so if it works out with them, great. If not, maybe it will be somebody else.
“Just being refreshed and being able to enjoy hockey again was the biggest step. I can have fun every day and I feel relaxed again. The more I enjoy myself, the better I play and the better it is for the team.”
Rissmiller was rewarded for his first-half play by being selected to play for the for the PlanetUSA AHL All-Star Team at the 2010 Time Warner Cable AHL All-Star Classic, which will be held Jan. 18-19 at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, Maine.
Since joining the Griffins, Rissmiller had gone scoreless in consecutive games just twice, posting four separate three-game point streaks and registering his 100th pro goal (Oct. 30), 200th pro assist (Dec. 13) and 300th pro point (Dec. 9).
Rissmiller said it didn’t take long for him to feel at home in Grand Rapids.
“I really didn’t know anyone, but I had played against (Andy) Delmore, (Doug) Janik, (Kris) Newbury and (Jeremy) Williams. It’s a little bit of a feeling out process because I’m generally a quiet guy by nature, but I’m not the first guy in this situation.
“Once you get to the rink, everyone’s in the same boat. I think that’s true in most sports. Everyone’s here to play. When a new guy comes, it’s ‘Welcome aboard,’ now let’s go play.”
There’s little doubt that Rissmiller is a team player. He proved his mettle as a warrior during the Stanley Cup playoffs with the San Jose Sharks.
Rissmiller suffered a separated shoulder and a broken foot in the 2006 playoffs. However, he continued to play until San Jose was eliminated by the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference Semifinals.
“That was my first playoffs after being called up for the last 20 games of the regular season,” he recalled. “It was a lot of fun and exciting, but disappointing when we lost.
“I couldn’t really walk and my arm was killing me, but you just try to battle through it as best you can as long as you’re not hurting the team. You’re playing for the Stanley Cup, which is something that everyone who plays hockey dreams about.”
It was one of his first lessons in perseverance, a trait that serves any player well.
“As much as last year was hard and I was mad and angry, I have to realize I’m still playing hockey, which makes me very fortunate,” Rissmiller said.