After signing with the Maple Leafs on a two-year deal, Nick Ritchie discussed the decision to come home to Toronto.
How long has this been in the works, and what was the allure in coming home to Toronto?
Ritchie: It came together pretty fast. I didn’t know I was going to be an unrestricted free agent. I got to talk to some teams. Definitely, the allure of Toronto and how good of a team they have, being from here, and the fit that I think is there was part of the decision. I am excited to get going and play with this team.
You have a bit of a connection to both Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe. How did that possibly figure into things?
Ritchie: It definitely made things easier. It was more comfortable. I had Sheldon coach me for a short time in Sault Ste. Marie when I was younger. I always liked the way he coached. I knew he was going to get to the next level. Here he is with the Leafs. It is a dream to come home and play for a coach that I know and a hometown team. It is just going to fit really well, I think.
What did the Bruins tell you — anything at all about why they didn’t qualify you?
Ritchie: Not really. I think it was probably a business decision. These are things that happen in hockey. Not much of an explanation there. Not really concerned about that. More excited to join the Leafs and worry about what is going to happen this year more than worry about the past. Not much to say there.
In your draft year, there was a lot of talk the Leafs might select you. You went two picks later. Were you hoping they would’ve taken you back then?
Ritchie: That feels like a long time ago. Of course, I would’ve wanted that. I am sitting here now having signed with the Leafs. At the time, I think it worked out well for me. Being a Leaf and playing in your home city is extra special. I am just excited to be here now. Obviously, it would’ve been nice then, but this works, I guess.
Emotionally, how would you describe what the past week was like?
Ritchie: It was a new experience for me, being a free agent, talking to a bunch of other teams, and seeing how it all comes together. It has some highs and lows with it being a new experience. I think I enjoyed it and enjoyed how it ended. I am just so excited to play for the Leafs and wear the Maple Leaf on my chest this year.
How many other teams were you seriously considering?
Ritchie: There were lots of teams. It gets narrowed down and you are talking to just a few by the end, but there were lots of teams with interest. I chose what I thought was the best team and the best fit for me at this stage of my career.
In terms of fit, were you told anything about the opportunity for you? Do you anticipate trying to crack the top six and play with some of those superstars?
Ritchie: Obviously, when you sign with the team, you want to play with good hockey players. That is part of the reason why I signed. There are lots of good players on the Leafs. I am just going to have a great rest of the summer, come in, and see where the chips fall. Hopefully, you’re right about that.
You would’ve played against this Leafs team a number of times. What do you think it needs to get over the hump and win that first playoff series? How do you think you’ll be able to contribute to that?
Ritchie: This has been a great team for a few years now. They have been right there. I know they haven’t gotten the reward of winning series, but they have lost a lot of close series. Sometimes, in hockey, that is the way it goes. You have to lose a few times before you get over the hump.
I think it is at that point now where the team is ready to take the next step. I signed here because I truly believe in the team. Hopefully, I can help the rest of the team get over that hump this season.
How is your family reacting to this news? What is the reaction back in Orangeville?
Ritchie: Everyone is excited for me. We were all Leafs fans growing up. It being the closest team to us, there was always a buzz about the Leafs. Being away from it for a few years, you kind of lose that, but now it is right back on. I’ve gotten tons of messages from people. Everyone is really excited — family and friends. I am really excited to get things going. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me in my career.
What can you tell us about Ondrej Kase? He signed with the Leafs as well. What kind of player and person is he?
Ritchie: A great hockey player and an even better person. Obviously, he suffered some injuries that were tough for him to go through, but he is just a high-end player with lots of speed and skill, and he can score. I have been lucky enough to play with him on a couple of teams now. Here we are again on another team. I think he is doing a lot better and he is going to be able to stay healthy for a long period of time here. The Leafs and the fans are going to love him.