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Ivanas fought way to NHL

STEVE MACFARLANE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:27 AM ET

More than 7,400 kilometres separate Raitis Ivanans from his homeland.

But that distance is nothing compared to the big winger’s travels in his quest to make it to the National Hockey League.

Or how hard he fought, in the most literal sense of the word.

He’s gone from the streets of Riga, Latvia to the MetJHL, to the UHL, CHL, ECHL and AHL, all in the name of following fellow countrymen Sandis Ozolinsh and Arturs Irbe into the big league.

“I grew up watching them and kind of following their careers in the NHL. I always thought it was so cool,” said Ivanans, who took up the sport himself as a seven-year-old, hitting the outdoor rinks and playing street hockey.

“As a kid, in my room, I had hockey cards all along the wall instead of wallpaper. My parents got so mad, but I thought it was really neat.”

Committed to one day having a hockey card of his own, Ivanans made the move to North America as a teenager. He toiled for the Flint Generals of the UHL and the Macon Whoopee and Tulsa Oilers of the CHL before finally finding his niche as a scrappy defender of teammates.

“I was a defenceman.

I played defence until I was 24 years old,” said the 31-year-old, who found himself in a new position and a new role with the ECHL’s Pensacola Ice Pilots in 1999-2000.

“They put me at forward just to spark things up. The coach at the time thought it was a good idea. And I knew that was probably my only opportunity to go from the United League and those leagues to the AHL and then move on.

“It worked out.”

Thanks to his blood and sweat.

Ivanans had natural size but no real background in fights, which were virtually non-existent in Latvian hockey.

“At that time, I didn’t know what fighting was all about. Growing up, we didn’t have that. I didn’t know much about those guys,” he said.

Boy, did he learn. The school of hard knocks.

“On my own. I went the hard way through every league,” Ivanans said with a grin. “I just watched the other guys do it, looked at them. They had size and everything. I thought, why can I not be one of those?

“So I started doing it and kind of earned that role.

I was playing as a defenceman and switched to forward and was that fourth-line guy that provided energy and did that role.”

Eventually, the 6-foot-4 beast caught the attention of the Montreal Canadiens.

Making the team out of training camp in 2005, Ivanans was eager to make an impression in his debut against the Ottawa Senators. So, he dropped the gloves with then-Sens giant Zdeno Chara, the 6-foot-9, 255-pound Slovak.

A late punch spoiled his debut and pushed back his NHL career.

“It was kind of over. I got hit and I broke my cheekbone,” Ivanans recalled. “I can’t remember which punch got me, but it got me good. I got up and was a little dazed and skated to the locker-room. They gave me MRIs and all that and told me it was broken.

“Kind of unlucky. I made the team right from the beginning and got injured and sat out a month. They didn’t need anyone (on the roster) at that point and sent me down, and that set me back a little bit.

“That was disappointing.”

He’d get another shot with the Los Angeles Kings, and he took full advantage.

Over four seasons, he accumulated 555 penalty minutes with the Kings, taking on every heavyweight willing to battle.

But his toughness really showed in 2007, when a Rob Blake slapshot hit the same cheek that was broken by Chara two years before and shattered the bone.

“It was more painful with the puck, actually,” Ivanans said. “The bone was so shattered that they had to put it together. They put four plates in there.”

He didn’t even fall down when the puck hit and missed less than a month of action.

Toughness? He’s got plenty of that, which is why the Flames signed him as a free agent this summer after letting heavyweight Brian McGrattan go after one season.

But Ivanans prides himself on being a player, too.

Chipping in at times by scoring a dozen NHL goals and six assists in the league — last season being the only one in which he failed to record a point — is just as important as defending his teammates.

“That’s huge for guys like us. Not just going out there and fighting and sit for the whole game, but provide important minutes for the fourth line, play the game and not take stupid penalties and stay on the bench,” Ivanans said.

Versatility, and the ability to adapt is what got Ivanans through his tour of North American minor leagues and into the NHL in the first place.

“A whole page it would take to list my teams,” he said with a smile you won’t see on the ice. “It’s hard work to make it here. In every league.

“Finally, I made it.”

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