If patience is a virtue, then Jani Rita of the Edmonton Oilers is approaching hockey sainthood.
For the ninth straight morning skate on a game day, Rita was one of the last players off the ice yesterday morning, filing into the dressing room with Krys Kolanos and Dan Smith long after many teammates had already showered, dressed and left Rexall Place.
And, for the ninth straight game, the burly Finnish winger was a healthy scratch last night against the Vancouver Canucks, perched in the press box when the puck dropped.
What's been deemed a make-or-break season for the Oilers first-round draft pick in 1999, what looked in early October to be Rita's best chance to finally make an impression, has turned into a waiting game.
At least he's playing something.
"I watch all the games and try to learn as much as I can," Rita said yesterday after peeling off his practice jersey. "You have to stay positive, so I do my job and be ready for when I'm in the lineup again."
Rita, 24, hasn't played a shift since Nov. 11, when he saw just 5:52 of ice time in a 3-1 win over Columbus, a win that marked the end of four straight games in the lineup.
Before that, he'd been a scratch in three straight after playing nine in a row. All told, Rita's big chance has amounted to 2-0-2 in 13 games of mostly fourth-line duty in which he's averaged 7:42 of ice time per game.
Suffice to say, Rita hasn't exactly been overworked since the decision was made to keep him over hotshot prospect Robbie Schremp.
Schremp's tearing it up with the London Knights. Rita, meanwhile, is biding his time without uttering a discouraging word - at least not in English with reporters around.
"I've been in the farm system three years," said Rita, who has just 28 NHL games on his resume since draft day. "Finally, I'm this close and knocking at the door. It's a big chance for me. I just have to stay positive."
The problem for Rita - and Kolanos for that matter - is he needs waivers to be sent to the minors. The Oilers can't ship Rita - being paid the NHL minimum salary of $450,000 - to Hamilton or Iowa of the AHL to get him game action, without the risk of losing him to another team.
Of course, that might be a blessing to agent Don Meehan and Rita, who has paid his dues in the AHL (204 games in Hamilton and Toronto). If Rita's in the plans, the Oilers certainly have a roundabout way of showing it, even if the 13 games he's played this season represent his longest look.
For now, Rita sits and waits.
"What can I do?" Rita said. "I'll be ready to help the team and do something to help myself stay in the lineup the next time I get a chance."