Reaching NHL is 'dream come true' for Robbie Russo

Author: Brendan Savage, mlive.com
Date: Mar 8, 2017

TORONTO - Robbie Russo has been waiting patiently to make his NHL debut.

Now, almost two years after signing with the Detroit Red Wings, the time has arrived and it's going to come in the self-proclaimed hockey capital of the world.

Russo is scheduled to play his first NHL game Tuesday night, when the Red Wings play the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre. There's no bigger stage in hockey and Russo is well aware of the spotlight he'll be under.

"It there's one place to have your first game it's definitely here, kind of the hockey center of the world," Russo said Monday. I'm kind of excited to play here.

"For sure it's a dream come true to be called up to the NHL. I've just been trying to work hard to get here and hopefully it pays off and I can do well up here."

Russo practiced with the Red Wings at Air Canada Centre after being recalled from the Grand Rapids Griffins Sunday. He replaces Ryan Sproul, who sprained his knee Saturday in a 4-3 loss to Edmonton.

He skated with another young defenseman, Xavier Ouellet, in practice and they'll be paired together when the Red Wings face the Maple Leafs.

They were defensive partners last season in Grand Rapids so that should help make Russo's transition a bit smoother.

"We have some pretty good chemistry and know each other well so I think that will help," said Russo, who played with eight current Red Wings while in Grand Rapids.

"I'm definitely more comfortable because you're definitely nervous when you come in here. A lot of these guys I've played with or I've seen at training camp. They're all nice guys. That helps out a lot."

Russo joins the Red Wings after playing 56 games for the Griffins this season. He had seven goals, 24 assists, 33 penalty minutes and a team-leading plus-14 rating.

Last season, he led the AHL with a plus-40 rating as a Griffins rookie. Russo also recorded five goals, 34 assists and 42 PIM in 2015-16.

"He's done a real good job down there," said Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill, a former Griffins coach. "We haven't had a chance to see him. Let's see what he can do. Let's see if he can help us be a better hockey team.

"He's a real smart, puck moving type of player. He doesn't panic. He has a good threshold for that. He can handle pressure, get in on the forecheck. He's been a real big plus/minus guy down in GR for us. I think he has to make sure he does a good job moving his feet.

"I think he's got good feet. He's got to move them. If he moves them real well I think he'll do a good job. He's one of those guys until he gets an opportunity in the NHL you're not sure."

Although Blashill didn't coach Russo in Grand Rapids - he was hired to replace Mike Babcock in Detroit a couple of months before the Red Wings signed Russo out of Notre Dame - Blashill is familiar with Detroit's newest defenseman.

"I actually recruited Robbie when I was at Miami of Ohio," Blashill said. "He didn't come and went to Notre Dame but I recruited him as a 15-year-old. I've known him for a long time.

"He's always had great, great poise with the puck. He's real calm under pressure. He just has to make sure he closes on people fast. If he closes on people fast he'll do a real good job."

Fellow defenseman Nick Jensen is among the Red Wings who played with Russo in Grand Rapids.

Jensen spent all or parts of four seasons with the Griffins before being called up in December so he knows Russo's game as well as anyone.

"Down in Grand Rapids, he was a really smart player," said Jensen, who has been one of the Red Wings' most pleasant surprises this season. "He knows how to move the puck up to the forwards. I think that's his best asset, using his vision. He's good at moving his feet too.

"I think those are his two biggest things, using his vision to get the puck up to the forwards I think is his biggest asset. He's really smart. I saw him play his first exhibition game his rookie year. I thought he did great. I thought he fit in right away.

"And then his time in Grand Rapids, just like mine, was really good for his development. I think that's really going to help him here, his year-and-a-half down in Grand Rapids."

Jensen made his NHL debut Dec. 20 in Tampa and has an idea of the emotions that Russo will be feeling when he takes the ice against the Maple Leafs.

"There's a lot of mixed emotions," Jensen said. "I was really excited, really nervous. It gives you a little edge. It keeps you on your toes and I think he's probably going to go through the same thing. It gives you a pretty good energy boost.

"You're playing against the top guys in professional hockey so it's definitely going to give you little bit of an edge, a little bit more competitiveness in your game."

Russo, an Illinois native, said his parents will be traveling to Toronto for his big game.

Not surprisingly, he expects to be nervous.

To combat those nerves, he's going to try and keep things as simple as possible.

"Yeah, definitely don't try anything crazy, that's for sure," he said. "In the O zone shoot the puck and defend like crazy in the D zone.

"I just have to get the game experience and I think that will help. Definitely playing with these guys will help you.

"I'm really excited. Practice was fun today. We were really moving. I'm happy to be here. When I got the call I called my family. I'm very excited to be here. It's cool."

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