BUFFALO – On Friday night, a day after UMass Lowell lost to Yale in the NCAA Frozen Four semifinal, Chad Ruhwedel checked his phone on the tarmac when the River Hawks’ flight from Pittsburgh landed in Boston.
“It says, ‘Call me immediately’ from my advisor, my mom, too,” the 22-year-old first team All-American defenseman said Saturday after making his NHL debut in the Sabres’ 1-0 win over the Philadelphia Flyers.
The undrafted Ruhwedel knew his strong junior season generated interest from the Sabres, who tracked the San Diego native all season. They wanted him to replace Tyler Myers, who broke a bone in his leg Thursday.
But instead of turning around and flying to Buffalo, Ruhwedel weighed his options.
“It was just happening so fast,” said Ruhwedel, who played 13 minutes, mostly beside Mike Weber. “My coach just kind of settled me down. We went back to Lowell, sat down in the office.”
Ruhwedel felt comfortable with whatever decision he made.
“I said I was going to commit 100 percent one way or another,” said the rookie, who wore No. 5. “Both decisions were great decisions.”
Finally, after a “long discussion,” Ruhwedel called his agent back.
“I said, ‘All right, let’s do this,’” he said.
Ruhwedel signed a two-year, entry-level contract Saturday. He landed in Buffalo at 9 a.m. and got to the First Niagara Center about 90 minutes later.
How did Ruhwedel, fresh off an emotional 41-game college season, get through Saturday? Remember, he still hasn’t practiced with the Sabres.
“Pure adrenaline,” said Ruhwedel, who was energized by Patrick Kaleta’s first-period fight. “I was pretty fired up the whole time.”
Ultimately, Ruhwedel, 5-foot-11 and 188 pounds, couldn’t turn down the Sabres, who wanted to add more right-handed shots to their blue line. Ruhwedel’s agent worked hard to start him in the NHL, something that “definitely sweetened the deal,” he said.
“It’s what you have to do to get the player to sign now,” Sabres general Darcy Regier said.
Ruhwedel added: “Sometimes you just have to take it and run with it. These chances don’t come along very often. I mean, every kid dreams of this.”
The Sabres “just kind of stuck with” their interest all season.
“I felt comfortable choosing them,” Ruhwedel said.
While the Sabres kept tabs on Ruhwedel, Ron Rolston knew little about the prospect. The interim coach watched video and called some NCAA contacts to get more info.
Two hours before the game, Rolston wouldn’t say which defender he would put beside Ruhwedel.
“I thought he played with a lot of poise and went through a lot in the last 24 hours,” Rolston said.
Ruhwedel called his NHL introduction “surreal.”
“These guys made my job a lot easier,” he said. “Playing with Weber, he made my life just so easy. I couldn’t be thankful enough.”
Weber told Ruhwedel to simply have fun.
“It’s a whirlwind for him,” Weber said. “Thursday night he was playing college hockey. Saturday afternoon he’s playing in the NHL. … I can only imagine what was going through his head.”
Weber said Ruhwedel “made me look good out there.”
“He played really solid out there, helped me out a lot, kept it really simple,” he said.
Growing up in California hardly hindered Ruhwedel’s development.
“California’s getting really big for hockey,” he said. “So I have probably five rinks within 15 minutes of my house. So it’s not that hard to get ice. I played for some really good coaches growing up.”
Still, Ruhwedel believes he didn’t deserve to be drafted.
He played two years in the United States Hockey League before going to the NCAA.
“I had kind of a slow start growing up,” Ruhwedel said. “I played AA hockey. I developed a lot in juniors playing for the Sioux Falls Stampede.”
He compiled seven goals, 23 points and 20 penalty minutes this season while earning first team Hockey East All-Conference honors.
Prior to the contest, Rolston said the Sabres didn’t recall a defenseman from Rochester to give Ruhwedel “an opportunity here and see what he will do.”