In the nearly 10 years since he was traded out of Nashville, this much has become abundantly clear to Cliff Ronning.
“One thing about friends from Nashville — they never go away,” he said. “It’s like life-long friends. That’s what always draws you back.”
Lessons learned during his time as the Nashville Predators top scorer have lingered as well.
In particular, Ronning understands the need to reach out in order to spread a message rather than wait for folks to come to him. It’s an approach he uses in his new role as vice president and co-founder of Base Hockey, a stick manufacturing company built on the concept that all players are different so their sticks ought not be identical.
“I think [general manager] David Poile was very smart in the sense that it was all about the community,” Ronning said. “We went overboard sometimes in the community doing whatever we could — trying to get the kids to play road hockey, trying to let them love the game like we do. You can see that passion in a lot of people here for hockey.
“… If they just stay the course of the community [involvement] … this is a game that grows on you. Sometimes, that first game, it doesn’t bite you but when you understand the game you love the game.”
Ronning is in town this weekend as part of the third annual Preds Fest, a three-day event that kicks off Friday and is part of the franchise’s continuing efforts to reach out to fans. He will conduct a youth clinic Saturday afternoon. Also on the schedule — among other things — are skating sessions on the Bridgestone Arena ice, a plaza party prior to Saturday’s preseason finale against Carolina and a high school hockey jamboree on Sunday.
He said Thursday he has not been back in any role other than that of a member of a visiting team since he was traded on March 16, 2002. It was one of the most dubious deals in franchise history because in return for their all-time leading scorer at the time, the Predators got troubled defenseman Jere Karalahti.
“One of the hardest things, when I look back on my hockey career, is actually when I got moved from here,” he said. “I was a veteran player at the time. I was at a stage in my career where I was enjoying what I was doing. But that’s the nature of the business. I have absolutely no hard feelings on it at all. I still feel grateful I got to play here [four] years.”
Acquired from Phoenix three weeks into the inaugural season, he led Nashville in points and assists in each of those first four seasons. After that, he played just two more years — one each with Minnesota and the New York Islanders.
Almost immediately upon the completion of his career, he sought new opportunities within hockey. He has been a coach and a broadcaster in addition to his work with Base.
“Hockey is in my blood,” he said. “It’s what I love. People say you should stick with what you love doing and then you’ll be a happy guy. I enjoy it.
“…I was always a believer that hard work will pay off.”
Founded at the start of the year, Base already has its own manufacturing plant and five mobile units spread across North America engaged in direct marketing. It also employs a handful of former NHL players who teach shooting technique as they explain the benefits of the properly fitted equipment.
That too is a concept that Ronning traces to his time with the Predators.
“I went to the Sara Lee Classic [LPGA tournament] and I saw all these different golf companies having all these different available shafts and weighted clubs and stuff,” he said. “I thought it was a great idea to eventually bring to hockey.”
He’s also convinced — now, as much as ever — that the idea to bring hockey to Nashville was a pretty good one too.
“I always feel pride that I was a part of this,” he said. “I guess I’m a Predator alumni. There were great times here.
“When you step back from the game and look at it from a different perspective as we get older, I think you become a little bit wiser to realize how fortunate I was to play here. Now I’m fortunate that I’m even doing stuff here helping support what really supported me.”