From Potential Phenom to Potential Bust – The Story of Rico Fata

By Brandon LeBourveau
When Rico Fata suited up for the Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds as a 15 year old in 1995-96, it was a dream come true for a young player ready to embark on a hopefully successful career. Growing up in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, Fata had the opportunity to play in the NHL for his hometown team a year before he was even eligible for the OHL Priority Selection, thanks to an interesting rule only allowed in the OHL. Any player can play for his hometown team at age 15, but then still become available for to be drafted by any team when he’s 16 and the Priority Selection rolls around. Fata played 62 games during his rookie season totaling 11 goals and 15 assists for 26 points, including 52 penalty minutes. He appeared in all 4 playoff games the Greyhounds played that season, but failed to register any points or penalty minutes.

After his rookie season was complete, scouts began to drool over his potential. Many even went as far to say that he was a lock to be the 1st overall selection in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft, a draft that was still two years away. Fata’s stay in Sault Ste Marie was short, as the London Knights shared the same opinion on Fata as tons of scouts. After finishing with a 3-60-3 record en route to one of the worst seasons by any team in the history of the OHL, the Knights wasted little time in making Fata the first player selected in the 1996 OHL Priority Selection. The Knights finally had a star player that they hoped would lead their team back to respectability.

In Fata’s first season with the London Knights, 1996-97, he tallied just under a point per game and improved his production from the season prior by 27 points. He finished with 19 goals and 34 assists for a total of 53 points in 59 games, while also tacking on 76 minutes in penalties, good for a tie for 5th in team scoring. The Knights improved 19 points from their horrible season the year before, but still finished dead last in the OHL with a record of 13-51-2. The following season was the year that Fata finally became a deadly offensive threat and at the same time the Knights became contenders. The Knights finished that season, 1997-98, with a 40-21-5 record, good for 85 points and the third best record in the entire OHL. They improved a whopping 57 points from 1996-97, and brought some interest back to hockey in London. A key player for the Knights throughout the season was Fata. Now in his third year in the OHL and the NHL Entry Draft coming up in June, Fata turned it up a couple of notches and improved his production 23 points. He recorded a new career high of 76 points, which included 43 goals, 33 assists and 110 penalty minutes in 64 games. In 16 playoff games, Fata notched 14 points, 9 goals and 5 assists, and 49 penalty minutes. After a solid season, it all paid off on Draft Day 1998 in Buffalo, New York.

Fata was originally ranked as the 7th best North American Skater by the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau in their Mid-Season Rankings for the 1998 Draft, but dropped three spots to 10th overall in the final rankings. When the draft rolled around, Rico didn’t even have to wait ten selections before hearing his name called. The Calgary Flames selected the Ontario native with the 6th overall pick. After being heavily touted for his first few years, the excitement around Fata seemed to dwindle the previous year in junior hockey, despite a large improvement in his production. The Flames obviously felt Fata still had loads of potential, as they took him before other highly touted players such as Manny Malhotra and Michael Henrich. Fata signed a three-year contract with the Flames that summer, and made the opening night roster with a strong effort in training camp. Rico suited up in 20 games with the Flames to start the season, but after only registering 1 assist and being used sparingly, the Flames felt it would be best for him to return to junior hockey for the remainder of the season. Fata played in 23 games with the Knights after being sent back by Calgary, recording 15 goals, 18 assists, 33 points and 41 penalty minutes. The late season addition of Fata helped the Knights reach the playoffs. Fata played excellently for the team during the post-season, scoring 10 goals, 12 assists and adding on 42 penalty minutes in 25 games.

The following season, now 1999-00, Fata graduated to the professional ranks for good, a rare occurrence for a player of his age. Since he played in the OHL as a 15-year-old, he finished his required four years of junior hockey by the time he was 19. The rules between the CHL and NHL state that any player who was drafted out of major junior must either turn 20 years old or play four seasons of junior hockey before being eligible to play in the minor leagues. However, they can play in the NHL at any age once they are drafted and signed. Fata went into training camp with high hopes of sticking around in Calgary longer this time around but spent the majority of the season in the AHL with the Saint Johns Flames, appearing in only two games for the Flames. During those two games he failed to get on the scoreboard, but was a key contributor to the Baby Flames throughout the entire season. In 76 games down on the farm, Rico scored 29 goals and 29 assists for 58 points, including 65 penalty minutes. Those were some pretty impressive numbers for an 18-year-old playing in a league dominated by men sometimes fifteen to twenty years his senior. In the playoffs, he was held scoreless as Saint John was swept in the first round. By the time Fata was 19, the 6’0 200 lbs. Forward had played four years of junior, one year in the AHL, and 22 games in the NHL. The only thing left for him to do was head into the off-season with a positive attitude and a goal of making the Flames permanently in the fall. Unfortunately for him, things didn’t turn out the way he had hoped.

Rico did play in three more games in the NHL than he did in 1999-00, but it still wasn’t enough for his liking. In those 5 NHL games, Fata went scoreless and totaled six penalty minutes. He played 70 games for the Saint John Flames in the AHL, scoring 23 goals and adding 29 assists for as total of 52 points. His production was slightly off from the previous year, but he made some positive strides as a young player. He learned how to become better defensively and more of a well-rounded player. The season also ended on a very high note for the youngster, as Saint John won the Calder Cup as AHL Champions. In 19 playoff games, Rico only chipped in 2 goals and 3 assists, but was a very useful player in other aspects of the game. What lied ahead for Fata was yet another off-season of workouts and preparation for a fourth attempt at earning a permanent spot on the Flames NHL roster. Rico had a solid training camp, but was overshadowed by another young player by the name of Chuck Kobasew. Kobasew, the Flames 1st round pick in 2001, was stealing the spotlight in camp for Calgary. Since the Flames lacked scoring from the wings, Kobasew all but had a spot guaranteed on their roster. However, there was one big roadblock: a contract. The Flames felt Kobasew’s demands were too high, while Kobasew and his agent felt the Flames’ offer was too low. Unable to come to an agreement on a contract, Kobasew was assigned to his junior team, the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL. Now with Kobasew out of the picture, Fata’s chances of making the roster increased tremendously, or so everyone thought.

In an extremely surprising move, Flames GM Craig Button and the rest of his staff made the decision of assigning Fata to the minors, saying things such as he wasn’t ready for the NHL, and that they wanted to go with a lineup consisting mostly of veterans in an attempt to make the playoffs. Since he already had played three years of professional hockey (twenty games with the Flames in 1998-99, and two seasons in the AHL from 1999-01), according to NHL rules, Fata needed to pass through waivers first before being assigned to the minors. Craig Button and the Flames knew this, yet obviously felt either it didn’t matter whether Fata was picked up by another team or that no other team would pick him up. To the delight of the youngster who bounced between leagues for the previous three years, the New York Rangers came calling. Attracted to his blazing speed and potential, the Rangers felt claiming he off waivers was a very wise move in an attempt to add some more young talent to their organization. Fata finally got a fresh start with a new team and nothing could have been better. However, a major setback was again on the horizon.

Fata sat in the press box for the first four games of the season, finally seeing the ice in Montreal on October 15th. The result was a 2-1 win for the Rangers thanks to Dan Blackburn’s stellar goaltending en route to his first NHL win. Fata, on the other hand, barely even got a chance to make an impact in the game. He received only a couple of shifts and limited ice time on the fourth line, going scoreless in the game and registering an even +/- rating along with no shots on goal. Not the type of splash he wanted. He played in the next game as well, a 4-3 win over the Devils, but the story did not change. Scratched for the next game against the Atlanta Thrashers, Fata was back in action for the one after, a 5-2 loss in Tampa Bay. Rico saw a slight increase in his ice time and responded with 3 shots on goal, but still couldn’t break through. He played in the next two games before being sent back to the press box for the five games that followed. Realizing that there wasn’t any room for him on the team and it was hurting his development to sit in the press box, the Rangers took a chance that he wouldn’t get scooped up on waivers and assigned him to Hartford on November the 7th. Thankfully for them he cleared, and instantly made an impact down in the AHL. He was switched back to center once he got to the Wolf Pack, and the change worked. He spent the next two months with Hartford and was on a tear offensively, quickly becoming one of their best players. When Eric Lindros went down with a head injury shortly after the Christmas break, Fata was recalled and played in one game, a 4-1 loss in Edmonton on January the 2nd. Fata played the first half of the game on the 4th line, but was put alongside Theo Fleury and Mike York for a couple of shifts as Ron Low made an attempt to shake things up and get his guys going. Apparently not satisfied with what he saw, Fata was taken off of the line and was regulated back to his normal duty. He was re-assigned to Hartford shortly thereafter, where he has continued to put pucks in the net and points on the board.

In 43 games thus far for Hartford, Fata has recorded 25 goals and 26 assists for 51 points, including 32 penalty minutes, 6 power play goals, 2 shorthanded goals and a +18 rating. He is currently trailing AHL veteran Brad Smyth by 10 points and sits second in the team in scoring, despite playing in 15 fewer games than Smyth. Fata was also named to the Canadian AHL all-star team that beat the Planet USA team by a 13-11 score. Fata was a key factor in the game, scoring 2 goals on the only 2 shots that he took and added another 2 assists, while finishing with a +4 rating. This season may seem like a disappointment for Rico since he has failed to make the NHL in his fourth attempt and finds himself again down on the farm, but as we all know some players just take longer to make it than others. Fata has been making baby steps in his development. Each step has been a positive one and if he can continue to do so, he’ll find himself in the NHL eventually whether it’s with the Rangers or another team. When you analyze his skills, there should be no reason why many think he’s a bust.

Rico easily is one of the fastest and best skaters around. He’s a real speed demon and would be right up there with the best of the bunch if they had a race. He has a good work-ethic and is a very hard worker on and off the ice. The competitiveness and determination are there, but he might not be able to put up numbers offensively at the NHL level. He doesn’t have the hands or the hockey sense to be an elite NHL scorer, and those lacking traits have definitely hindered his chances of making the NHL in the past. He has been criticized in past years for not doing the little things right and having “brain-cramps” on the ice at times but from what I have seen from him this season in the AHL, he seems to have turned things around in a positive way. His play away from the puck can use some improving and as I mentioned before, his hands, especially around the net. While at times he has scored some spectacular goals in the AHL, some of them have been what you would call “AHL goals,” ones in which NHL netminders would stop most of the time. Unless it happens overnight, Fata will never live up to the lofty expectations that followed him throughout his early days of junior hockey. He won’t be a top scorer or an elite player. However, he could be very helpful to many teams as a hardworking second or a third line forward capable of scoring 15-20 goals a season.

The talent is clearly there and although he has been to an NHL training camp four times, he has not gotten that golden opportunity where he is put in a position that he can succeed and not fail. In the opinion of this writer, that is exactly what he needs. His confidence at the AHL level is clearly there but once he gets that call-up he is not the same player. Some times he seems really nervous, while other times he just seems lost. The Rangers philosophy of developing young players of the years has not worked very often. What they need to do is take a long look around the league at the way other teams develop their players. You don’t need to look further than Colorado, an organization that should be a role model for everyone else. When Colorado has a prospect or a young player crack their lineup, where do they stick them? On the first or second line, playing with players such as Joe Sakic, Milan Hejduk, Peter Forsberg, Alex Tanguay, etc. Rarely do you see them on the fourth line playing five minutes a game. They put their youngsters in spots so that they can succeed, build confidence, and let them run with that.

There’s so many examples from that team to point out, but how about looking at the success so far of Radim Vrbata? A 7th round pick in 1999 by the Avalanche, Vrbata was a top scorer in juniors and was leading the Hershey Bears of the AHL in scoring for the most part of the beginning of this year. When the Avalanche ran into injury trouble they called up Vrbata and in his first NHL game he was put on a line with Joe Sakic and Milan Hejduk. The result was two assists for Vrbata in his first NHL game, which happened to be against the Rangers at the Garden. How could they not just look across the ice and realize what a superb job Colorado was doing, not just with this youngster but many others in the past as well? The very next night Colorado was on Long Island for a game against the Islanders. Again Vrbata was put on a line with Sakic and Hejduk, and finished the night with a goal and two assists. Would you honestly expect him to produce on the fourth line? Probably not. With that early confidence being used to his advantage, Vrbata has totaled a very respectable 11 goals and 21 points in 31 games as a rookie. He has missed some time over the last few weeks due to injuries and such, but if his current numbers were prorated over 82 games, that would come out 29 goals and 56 points, which are great numbers not only for a rookie but for most veterans as well.

Fata needs a chance. He needs an opportunity to play alongside the big boys on the team to gain confidence. The Rangers seemed to finally do that when he was on a line with Fleury and York in Edmonton but as quickly as he was put on that line he was taken off. Fata needs to turn it up a few notches when he gets to the NHL level and not be nervous of the superior competition. For a player selected so high, most expected more than one measly assist in 33 games. He is still waiting to score his first NHL goal, and when he eventually does, expect it to be a huge sigh of relief for the former potential phenom. No one can tell the future, but hopefully for Fata and the Rangers things turn around soon before it’s too late.