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Friday, April 19, 2024
John Ramage

John Ramage is one of Wisconsin hockey’s brightest stars. His father, Rob Ramage, is an NHL veteran and two-time Stanley Cup champion who made the mistake of a lifetime.

The captain and his father

Rutherford Road is a wide stretch of Canadian asphalt that shoots from east to west across a small piece of the suburban sprawl emanating north from Toronto.

It runs for 11 mostly straight miles across the city of Vaughan, Ontario, past a creek and some golf courses, Canada's largest shopping center and rows of planned communities. Somewhere along that path, though, Rutherford Road curves into a right turn. And on Dec. 15, 2003, Rob Ramage missed it.

The two-time Stanley Cup champion and former Toronto Maple Leafs captain was driving back from a funeral for another former hockey player, Keith McCreary. With Ramage in the car was veteran Chicago Blackhawks player and coach Keith Magnuson. With Ramage as well were the chemical remnants of between 15 and 22 alcoholic drinks, which a toxicologist would later testify and the Canadian press would later report he must have consumed in the hours leading up to his drive.

Newspapers like The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail would widely cover what happened next.

When he didn't follow the road, Ramage and his Chrysler Intrepid crossed the center line into oncoming traffic, glanced off of another car and slammed into a Nissan Pathfinder.

Magnuson was killed instantly. He was 56.

The other car's driver, Michelle Pacheco, survived with serious injuries. She was 39.

Ramage suffered a dislocated hip. When he missed that turn, he was 44.

His son, John Ramage, who has followed in his father's footsteps as a defenseman and today wears the captain's "C" for Wisconsin, was 12.


John Ramage's adolescence is the stuff of grassroots hockey legend. According to his father, John was born not only into the family of one former NHL star, but a community of retired pros in St. Louis, ex-pats from Canada who moved to the area after playing for the city's pro team, the Blues.

Names like Basil McRae, Al MacInnis and Kelly Chase might not have much meaning to the average sports fan, but for a kid playing hockey they could be the legend who taught you how to block a puck or protect a teammate. They were the kind of guys who wanted to give back to the sport, and Rob Ramage said they did it the best way they could.

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"Hockey has given us all so much," Rob Ramage said. "We love the game, obviously, we're passionate about it."

"Al Arbour was a great Stanley Cup coach with the New York Islanders and had actually coached in St. Louis also. He said to me once, ‘If you can't play, the greatest thing -- the next best thing in hockey -- is coaching.' And he's certainly right, it's a lot of fun."

John Ramage estimated his dad coached him from the time he was eight or nine years old, and kept at it until he joined the St. Louis Bandits, the local affiliate of the North American Hockey League, in high school.

Ramage said his father wasn't the kind of coach who was too controlling, but that he was one that would force everyone -- even, and maybe especially, his son -- to work hard.

"I was really lucky; I've always said that," he said.

"Coming up, he wasn't really too hands -- on, he just kind of let me be. Whenever he felt like it was time to step in [he would], just showing me things that any other defenseman never even got growing up. Sometimes with the coach's son, they get the bad attitude. My dad, he would maybe sit me a little more just to teach me a lesson."

Plenty of kids play hockey growing up and imagine they will make it to the top, with the dream that maybe one day they'll hoist the Stanley Cup or be the captain of one of the game's proudest franchises. According to Rob Ramage, he saw his son had the ability to do that -- not just in his mind on an empty rink, but in the pros -- when John played for the United States at a tournament in Slovakia.

"That's when the light started to go on, that he really wanted to pursue this," Ramage said. "He always enjoyed the game and wanted to do well, but I think that burning desire started to ignite when he was around 16."

Russia won that tournament's gold medal, while the United States placed fifth. The games ran from Aug. 14-17, 2007. Two months later, Rob Ramage was in an Ontatio courtroom, listening as a jury found him guilty of driving drunk, missing a turn and taking a life.

A few months after that, a judge sentenced him to four years in prison.


Part 2

In so much of John Ramage's story, he is a passive character.

His father is the NHL star who coached him, the hockey community in St. Louis is the atmosphere he was raised in and, since he plays defenseman like his dad, it seems like his style was determined for him. He admits the defenseman role is "just something I fell into," and that he "never really thought otherwise."

Even his father's biggest mistake is something that happened to John Ramage, a force acting upon him.

But watch him on the ice, and "passive" is not a word that comes to mind.

Mike Eaves played in the pros at the same time John's father did, and as the head coach of the Wisconsin men's hockey team, he has watched Ramage grow from a promising freshman to a strong-willed leader. Like anyone else who has watched Ramage -- nicknamed "Rammer" by his teammates -- Eaves sees a tough edge that makes him one of the more talented players in NCAA hockey.

That physicality doesn't manifest itself in fights, like it did for Ramage's father and might in the NHL, but instead in the kind of hard work that requires a drive and dedication to match strength and skill.

"If you just watch him in front of the net and in the corner, his determination and drive to win battles, that's how we express it in college hockey," Eaves said. "Not so much with the fighting, but with his ability to compete in the corners and the hard areas of the rink. He's very good at it."

When he talks about Rob Ramage as a player in the 1980s, Eaves uses a lot of the same words he might employ to describe the junior defenseman currently on his roster -- the one who wears number 55, the same number his dad was wearing when he lifted the Stanley Cup in ‘89.

Another member of the Wisconsin program, women's hockey head coach Mark Johnson, played alongside Rob Ramage for part of the 1985 season in St. Louis.

Back then, teammates called the forward Johnson "Magic" for what he could do with a puck. Like his son would hear a couple of decades later, they called the hard-nosed defenseman with a wicked shot and a tough demeanor "Rammer."

"If somebody wanted to take liberties with certain players on your team, you had other players within your group that made sure that wasn't going to happen, and if it did, it wasn't going to happen very often," Johnson said.

That was Ramage, who amassed 2,226 career penalty minutes.

"Rob had the ability to play different ways. If he wanted to play a finesse game, he could play that way," Johnson said. "If he wanted to get physical and drop the mitts, he wasn't shy in that category either."

His father's experience certainly impacted the way John Ramage learned hockey, but shaping the young player as well were those old players he learned from growing up. The ones who, like his father, knew the game in its tougher days and gave him the kind of work ethic that comes from the 1980s style of hockey.

"We're a close-knit group there in St. Louis, so there were always former players around. We celebrated a lot of the holidays together, the Thanksgivings and Christmases as a group, and he got to be around and hear the hockey stories, and hear how we talked about the game -- the respect for the game that we all have," Rob Ramage said. "And he certainly has that."


Talking to Rob Ramage about his son is easy. Ask him about the players John grew up learning from or how he coached him through the ranks of youth hockey, and you'll get lengthy answers in response.

But when you ask him about the more recent history of his life -- the one that changed on a road north of Toronto -- his speech becomes much less natural.

When he answers a question about how his son has matured in the past year, much of which Rob Ramage spent behind bars, he picks his words with a great deal of caution, stumbling through what he wants to say and how he will phrase it.

"He is a very committed and focused young man," Ramage said, "and, yeah, it's been just incredible as a parent to watch that transformation and, so that's, yeah, I guess that's all I have on that."

There is an awkwardness to that answer you will not find when he talks about St. Louis or John's tournament in Slovakia.

It is to be expected, in a way. For the past eight years the story about Rob Ramage has been that of a legacy tarnished by a horrible decision.

"Ramage will forever be branded by the accident that took his friend," a columnist wrote in the Globe and Mail soon after Ramage was convicted. "The other stuff, about how he won a pair of Stanley Cups, how he was captain of the Leafs and became an investment broker and even a minor hockey coach in St. Louis, none of that will matter as much."

When he got behind the wheel back in 2003, pointed his car east down Rutherford Road and slammed into Michelle Pacheco, Ramage irreparably flipped his story and his son's. Today, neither of them want to talk about the accident and they are hesitant to speak on what has happened since, but for the past eight years that is what the world has wanted to hear.


Part 3

On a Wednesday afternoon in late September, John Ramage walked out of the Wisconsin hockey dressing room and stood amidst the concrete drab that pervades the floor level of the Kohl Center. Behind him, through the door to that room and under the bold red letters that read "Badger Hockey," were puck-like black circles bearing in white numbers the years of the team's six national championships. In front of him was the cavernous arena, its fluorescent lights humming above the sheet of ice Ramage and his teammates just tore up in one of their first workouts.

He had ditched the practice uniform and gear he was wearing a few minutes earlier for the body-hugging black and gray of his Bauer compression shirt and pants. And there, standing on the nondescript carpet leading from the locker room to the ice, he was asked how it feels when your father misses some of the most important events of your career because he is stuck in jail or on parole for driving drunk.

"He's always been there for me no matter what," Ramage said. "I've been able to talk with him, keep contact with him, and he's actually been there just as much as he could be."

After he was sentenced in 2007 to four years in prison, Rob Ramage appealed the decision. Once that appeal worked its way through the Canadian courts, it was denied in July 2010 and Ramage began serving his sentence at the Frontenac Institution, a minimum-security prison in Kingston, Ontario.

A few months earlier, Rob Ramage had watched his then-freshman son play in person for the last time, when Wisconsin lost in the national championship game to Boston College April 10.

John's mother, Dawn, and older sisters, Tamara and Jaclyn, have watched him play. But his father has not seen a game since, and it is unclear when he will again.

Ramage served 10 months of his sentence before being paroled, and today lives in a half-way house in London, Ontario. According to the London Free Press, he coaches young hockey players as a "defensive consultant" with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.

Not long after his father began serving that sentence, John Ramage was named captain of the American hockey team that would play at the 2011 World Junior Hockey Championship in Buffalo, N.Y. The event is a lauded showcase for international hockey talent, where the best future NHLers under 20 years old compete for their countries in heated games highlighted by the showdowns between the United States and Canada.

Ramage was going to lead his country's team in some of the biggest games he had ever played. His father, meanwhile -- the man who coached him growing up and taught him the tricks of the defensive trade -- was going to sit in a cell on the other side of Lake Ontario, trying to watch his son as much as he could.

"That was just the situation," Rob Ramage said. "You deal with it, and his mom and sisters were there, and I was certainly there in spirit."

When John Ramage suited up to take the ice as the Wisconsin men's hockey team's captain Oct. 7 against Northern Michigan, the drab of the empty arena was replaced with the buzz and anticipation of a new season; the Kohl Center's red seats packed with Badger fans and its ice cleaned and readied for the first game of the year.

And after Ramage walked by those black circles with the years in white, under the bright red "Badger Hockey," past the cinder blocks and concrete and across the featureless carpet, he sprinted out onto the ice to create his own legacy in the shadow of his father's.

Rob Ramage was not at that game because of a choice he made and the turns his life has taken.

One took him onto the path of NHL stardom, another to the community where he raised his son, then another down Rutherford Road.

It is that turn that kept Rob Ramage from watching his son represent his country in Buffalo, and kept him from seeing his son's first game as the Badgers' captain.

"I would have liked to have been there," Ramage said about the 2011 tournament, "but it wasn't possible."

"Life's full of twists and turns."

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