Sport Ryan Reaves almost played football, until an injury changed his future

17:55  12 october  2017
17:55  12 october  2017 Source:   Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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Penguins winger Ryan Reaves skates up ice during a preseason game against the Buffalo Sabres on Sept. 27 at PPG Paints Arena.© Peter Diana/Post-Gazette Penguins winger Ryan Reaves skates up ice during a preseason game against the Buffalo Sabres on Sept. 27 at PPG Paints Arena.

Ryan Reaves is built like a linebacker.

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Stands 6-feet-1. Weighs 225 pounds. Appears to have slightly less body fat than a standard-issue steel beam.

Football, though, isn’t his sport. Not these days, anyway.

He is as a right winger with the Penguins, working at the highest level of the game. And Reaves does it in a manner about as punishing as anyone in the NHL.

So even though he didn’t play the position when he was younger — he was a running back, actually — it probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that he had a linebacker’s mentality.

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“Take me off the ice, put football equipment on and that’s me,” Reaves said, smiling. “I loved running guys over.”

That’s not a difficult image to conjure.

Reaves, though, said his style was infused with finesse, as well as physicality.

“Believe it or not, I had some nice dance moves on the field,” he said.

Did he really? Who knows? No reason to doubt him, though.

And good luck finding someone with the courage to do it, anyway.

Reaves came by his running back genes honestly; his father, Willard, played the position briefly with Washington and Miami in the NFL after logging five seasons with Winnipeg in the Canadian Football League.

“I kind of followed after my dad,” Reaves said.

Indeed, if not for an untimely — or was it timely? — injury, it’s possible, if not likely, that he would have followed a career path similar to that of his father. Reaves discovered he had a physical issue just as he was wrapping up participation in a summer hockey tournament for players preparing to be drafted by major-junior teams.

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“The game was over and we were shaking hands, and my knee locked on me, somehow,” he said. “I found out I tore my [posterior cruciate ligament].”

PCL tears aren’t as common as some other knee injuries, but they are significant because that ligament connects the femur to the tibia.

Reaves said he was injured “right at the start of football season,” so he was recovering while games were being played.

Around that time, he was drafted by Brandon of the Western Hockey League, and the Wheat Kings made it clear that playing two sports wasn’t an option.

“[General manager] Kelly McCrimmon said I had to make a choice if I wanted to play for them, and I was already missing the football season,” Reaves said. “So that kind of made the decision for me.”

Although he played high school football in Manitoba, Reaves said some U.S. colleges were interested in him. That might have compounded the separation anxiety he experienced.

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“The first year was tough for me,” Reaves said. “I really missed football. I actually thought about leaving hockey and going back to football.”

Reaves has little reason to regret the way things played out, however. At age 30, he has more than 400 NHL games on his resume and is in the final season of a four-year contract worth $4.5 million.

Besides, even though he abandoned spikes for skates more than a decade ago, echoes of his athletic past still are evident in his current work.

“I definitely feel like a lot of my physical play comes from the way I played football,” Reaves said.

That might explain why the idea that he could have played football in college — and maybe even beyond — lingers, after all these years.

“I would have loved to have seen what would have happened,” Reaves said. “But that’s the way it goes.”

Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.

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