Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Paul Ranger returned to the NHL this season after three years away from the game followed by one year playing in the American Hockey League.
Ranger has never publicly discussed why he abruptly quit the Tampa Bay Lightning early in the 2009-10 season. And yet, now he is Toronto's candidate for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for best exemplifying the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.
He was nominated for the award by the local chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association.
Ranger is a very deserving candidate for the Masterton. He has persevered through a very trying season that has included many ups and downs and an injury scare two weeks ago, when he was driven from behind into the boards and had to be carted off the ice on a stretcher. Fortunately, he was alright.
Of course, what comes with the nomination is an obligatory meeting with reporters, who, naturally, wondered Wednesday if Ranger would expose why he walked away from the sport in the first place.
Sticking to his guns, which is certainly his prerogative, Ranger said: "I don't want to speak about that."
Instead, the 29-year-old from Whitby, Ont., spoke of the journey he is on and how happy he is to be back playing in the best hockey league in the world.
"I'm honoured," said Ranger, quite humbled by the nomination.
"I haven't really thought about it, to be honest ... this whole award thing. It's a nice gesture, a nice award ... a bonus.
"It honours, I guess, the work I have done coming back after three years out and playing. It feels even better now because [Tuesday's 3-2 victory over the Calgary Flames] was probably the best game I have felt all year. It's kind of cool that this comes the morning after."
It was also Ranger's first appearance with the Maple Leafs in six games. He missed three games after the injury and then was a healthy scratch for two more.
'There were some challenges'
The road back to the NHL began last season when he signed to play with the AHL Toronto Marlies. Ranger felt playing in the minors was a necessary step to getting back to the NHL.
"There were some challenges on the ice ... off the ice ... all around the game," he said. "But that's part of the journey of coming back; life and work ... life and hockey.
"Overall, it was a success, personally for me and hockey-wise, to be able to come back to the big team and get an opportunity to play at this level ... just to renew everything. There are lots of challenges.
"But when you overcome them, that's the cool thing. You look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'I did it.'"
'The potential is there'
There was a sense that Ranger could play in the top four on Toronto's blue-line, but that has not been the case. Being switched back and forth from right defence to left and being paired with young, inexperienced partners hasn't helped matters. Nevertheless, Ranger has shown determination and signs that moving forward he can be a steady, rugged defender.
"Am I getting closer? Yes. Am I there? No," Ranger said. "I know what I have to give and I know the potential is there and I'll keep that to myself.
"It's growing every day, every game, every week, every month. And I don't expect it to stop growing."
Asked about the biggest challenges he has faced this season, Ranger replied: "It's a difficult schedule and it takes a lot of dedication, physically and mentally. I had to adapt to a new style of play."
With the Lightning, Ranger's playing weight was about 205 pounds. Now he tips the scale at around 230. He is a much more physical player, but has not lost his offence. Although the Maple Leafs rarely employ him in offensive situations, the hard-shooting defenceman has four goals and 12 points in 49 games.
And never once has he second-guessed the decision to come back.
"This is the right thing for me to do to overcome all the challenges I have had in my life, on and off the ice," Ranger confessed. "This is the path and I'm committed to it."
Follow Mike Brophy on Twitter @HockeyBroph
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