Ribeiro aiming for straight and narrow

Mike Ribeiro has had a season to celebrate in Nashville, for more than one reason. John Russell/NHLI/Getty Images

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- We talk often about "fit."

Does a player fit with his linemates? Is a coach a good fit for his players? Does a player fit with a particular organization?

If there is success, it's easy: that's a good fit.

But what if a player doesn't "fit" with himself?

What if a player is so unhappy with his own life, his circumstances, the choices he's made and continues to make that even the thing that gives him great joy, the playing of a game, becomes unpleasant? Well, that would be the definition of a bad fit.

These are the things Mike Ribeiro considered during those long, lonely afternoons last season in Arizona, afternoons that often began with wine or vodka by the pool and later getting high and meandering through another night, often in the company of strangers but very much alone, apart from his family, apart from himself.

Where did he fit?

The answer at that time was, sadly, nowhere.

In a quiet room on the event level of Bridgestone Arena one recent afternoon, Ribeiro is animated, healthy and eager to discuss how those moments -- Was it really just a year ago? Somehow it seems longer -- have evolved into a most unexpected fit with the Nashville Predators.

To fit here, though, Ribeiro had to first find a fit with himself and with the family from whom he'd been separated.

Ribeiro voluntarily went into the NHL/NHL Players' Association substance abuse and behavioral health program at the end of the 2013-14 season after a long heart-to-heart discussion with Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett.

Ribeiro's family -- his wife, Tamara, and their three children, two boys aged 14 and 10 and a daughter aged 9 -- was there when he left the rehab center a few weeks later, making the trip home somehow shorter, the future somehow less daunting, the possibilities within reach.

The trip back home with his family was the start of a different kind of journey, a dramatic divergence from the path Ribeiro had traveled in the preceding months.

"I think the kids were happy to see me and to see that Daddy was getting better," Ribeiro said.

More than once during the conversation, the Montreal native described how his children, his family, are the sun around which his life orbits.

It was a sun that was missing for most of last season's disastrous turn with the Coyotes.

"I didn't see my kids at all last year," he explained.

At one point early in the season, the family came to Phoenix to join Ribeiro but things didn't work out and almost immediately they returned to Dallas. Not just alone but lost.

The routines that Ribeiro followed were not healthy ones.

Out for lunch, out for dinner, staying out at night.

Drinking, drugs, women.

"It just got depressing," Ribeiro said.

Clinical depression.

"I didn't feel like going to work a lot of times," he admitted. "So, hockey, it wasn't important anymore. I just wanted the season to be over."

He saw his family briefly at Christmas and during the Olympic break but in some ways it made him feel even more isolated, knowing he was going to leave them again.

"My life is my children and my family," he said. "Phoenix; it was not good. It just got slowly worse and worse."

In the intricate world of pro sports and especially with a player who possesses such great raw skills and whose impact on the game can be so great, this kind of descent never happens in a vacuum.

At one point, things were so bad that Tippett made Ribeiro a healthy scratch. His behavior caused problems in the Coyotes' dressing room and within the organization.

One person familiar with the dynamic within the team called Ribeiro "a bad seed."

Another called his time with the Coyotes "a disaster."

Jeff Halpern first met Ribeiro when the two were with the Dallas Stars.

"What stood out for me really was just how invested he was in hockey," Halpern said.

After games or practices, Halpern and Ribeiro would be among a group of guys that would sit and talk about the game.

"Ribs is a guy in that group that I would consider a hockey nerd," Halpern said. "He just had such a passion for the game."

Which made last season so difficult for all concerned.

Halpern joined the Coyotes early in the 2013-14 season and saw things unravel for his old teammate.

"There are a lot of stories. You can believe what you want. But he's a guy who loves his kids," Halpern said.

It was difficult as a teammate and friend to see what was happening but also as a professional athlete playing for a playoff berth, the impact on the team added to the toxic dynamic in the locker room.

Coaches, management, players, their families, these kinds of situations "affect a lot of people," Halpern said.

For a player who had in the past excelled in pressure situations, who had risen to the occasion in the past, who never got nervous, "you didn't see that last year," Halpern said.

Sometimes Ribeiro's play was more noticeably off than others and later it would be discovered that something had happened away from the rink.

"It carried over to the game and affected his play," Halpern said. "It was very noticeable."

The disharmony in the room was not lost on Ribeiro, even if he felt powerless to change.

"I think the guys liked me," Ribeiro said. "But they didn't like the lifestyle I was leading."

And then the season was over.

But the question was whether Ribeiro's career was going to be over.

Shortly after the season ended, Tippett, a supporter of Ribeiro for many years dating back to their time in Dallas, invited Ribeiro to his home. They sat outside for several hours having an emotional talk: what kind of life did Ribeiro want to live and how could he get there?

The next day, Ribeiro, now 35, contacted the league about getting help. He told his wife he was tired of the life he was living, tired of living apart and that he was going to rehab.

"I was doing things I shouldn't do," he said. "It was time for me to clean up my system and find the right path."

This wasn't the first time he'd tried to come to grips with his behavior, his addictive lifestyle. But in the past he'd always tried to go the solo route to recovery. And for a few months, there might have been a change in behavior.

"But then you're back drinking or you're back smoking again," he said.

This time, he admitted he needed help and sought it out.

"Really at the end of the year, it was less about Mike as the hockey player more about Mike as a person and which way was he going to go?" Tippett said. "He was the guy that had to make that choice to go do it. He did a lot of the things on his own and I give him a ton of credit for that."

The NHL is a small town spread over 30 cities. The stories about Ribeiro, his lifestyle and his situation were well-known.

Some of the stories were true, some were apocryphal, some were exaggerations or even urban legend. But they were widespread within the hockey community.

But when Arizona general manager Don Maloney announced at the draft that the team was going to buy Ribeiro out of the final three years of his four-year, $22 million deal signed less than a year earlier, it was a very public confirmation that Ribeiro was in trouble or, more to the point, was trouble.

Maloney said as much, explaining that the cost-conscious Coyotes were eating the final three seasons of the deal because of off-ice issues.

"Mike had some real behavior issues last year with us I felt we could not tolerate going forward," Maloney told Sarah McLellan of the Arizona Republic in announcing the buyout. "To his credit, he has been getting help this offseason and obviously would hope he continues. But at the end of the year and all the background checking and what happened, we felt that for us to move forward, we couldn't have him a part of this team."

Ribeiro, among others within the organization, was surprised by the move.

Maloney had called the center to ask if he'd be willing to accept a trade. Ribeiro said no. And a short while later the GM called back to say they were buying him out.

"It was a very short conversation," Ribeiro said.

"I didn't expect it. I was hoping for a second chance there," Ribeiro said. "I really wanted a chance to redeem myself there."

One longtime NHL executive told ESPN.com that the buying out and the public comments were a kind of tarring and feathering of Ribeiro.

But Ribeiro remained undaunted.

Rededicated to being a husband, father and hockey player, Ribeiro then needed to find a place to make it all happen. He needed to find the right fit.

It wasn't necessarily an easy proposition. But, this was a player who had averaged more than a point a game during the lockout-shortened 2013 season with the Washington Capitals and not run afoul of team officials. He remained, at least when on his game, one of the most creative players in the game.

"It turned out to be a good story," Tippett said. "He's a helluva player. He's a unique player. When he plays, he can do things right. The other thing is he's a player that relies on his family and his wife to help him out every day.

"He made some bad decisions but when it comes to hockey and thinking the game, he's genius. He is unbelievable."

Ribeiro never goes into a penalty-kill meeting, "but all of a sudden he can tell you exactly what we're doing on the penalty kill. His thought process of the game is phenomenal," Tippett said.

From Ribeiro's perspective, after completing his stint in rehab and being reunited with his family, hockey was a given as he set about trying to reclaim his career.

"I didn't have a doubt in my mind how I was going to do on the ice," he said.

He'd put on weight in rehab, good weight, and he was ready to prove he could make good on another chance, if someone was willing to give him one.

There were a couple of teams interested, the New York Rangers for one. "But at the end of the day, my wife kind of made the call to come here," Ribeiro said.

When Mike Fisher needed surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon in early July, there was an obvious opening for a top-six center. But this was no normal negotiation between a team and a free agent. When Predators GM David Poile agreed to entertain the idea of Ribeiro joining the club, he first chatted with Ribeiro via Skype and the call included Ribeiro's wife.

"It wasn't much about hockey. It was more about family and where we were together," Ribeiro said. "It was really heart-to-heart and human."

Ribeiro and his wife decided to come to Nashville on their own dime to check it out.

Over the course of a few days, they had dinner with Poile and his wife and with head coach Peter Laviolette. They began to look at houses and one afternoon, even before there was a formal contract offer, the couple put an offer in on a home.

Leap of faith?


Maybe just the right fit.

Poile, like many, heard the stories about Ribeiro's misdeeds. And, of course, he called around to various people in the game to see what was what.

"You hear a lot of things but what you hear and what you know may be two different things," Poile told ESPN.com. "They were very open about a lot of situations."

Still, Poile made things crystal clear to Ribeiro: This was not a place to come and take a couple of swings at getting his life back on track. He was down to one strike. Act up and the team would be done with him.

"They totally agreed," Poile said.

Tamara told Poile that they were committed to putting their past and all that had happened in Arizona and Dallas behind them.

In spite of the Predators' recent slide, the team has far exceeded preseason expectations and Ribeiro has been a big part of that. He has been the team's top center, playing for long stretches with the NHL's top rookie scorer, Filip Forsberg, and former Stars teammate James Neal.

"He's always been a great guy," Neal said. "Obviously he's had his issues personally, but I've definitely seen a big change in him coming in here in Nashville. I think he had something to prove both on and off the ice. He's definitely proven himself in those areas. If he continues to do that, he's going to be a big player for us down the stretch. He's a guy that we count on, we need him.

"I think he's very open with what he was like and what he did and how he went about his life. But the biggest thing is how much he loves his family and loves his kids. He's a great father. I've been around him quite a while, so I know how passionate he is about the game and about his family. He's been great for us all year."

Veteran Matt Cullen often sees Ribeiro away from the rink and has been impressed with both the man and the hockey player.

"You come into the season and you read the news clippings and stuff, so you don't really know what to expect," Cullen said. "But to be real honest, I've been so impressed with Ribs. He's had a real good attitude all year and he's been positive in the room. His play on the ice has been awesome for us. He's been a huge addition. He's been so good for us.

"I've been really impressed with the way he's handled himself. He's had a few bumps in the road and everybody has their share of ups and downs in their life, and I've been impressed with the effort that he's made to really change things. It's been impressive. We have kids that are close to the same age, so I see him at the rink a lot with his boys and great family, great kids. So, yeah, I've been impressed. Obviously, I'm really happy for him. He seems like he's happy and it seems like he's doing really well."

Both Poile and Laviolette, needless to say, have been pleased with the results both in terms of on-ice productivity and Ribeiro's ability to fit in with a group that needed desperately to come together after missing the playoffs two seasons in a row.

"Mike has been a terrific teammate. He really has," Laviolette said recently. "I think the guys like him as a person and they like him as a hockey player."

There will always be risk of relapse, the temptation of a night on the town or worse. Ribeiro knows that.

When he's on the road, he orders room service and Skypes with his kids and wife, watches a movie. He attends meetings for various forms of addiction sometimes online, although he prefers to go in person. He admitted that was a hurdle to overcome, as well, wondering if people would recognize him, what he would do if he saw a neighbor or someone he knew?

But after attending meetings, he said he finds them informative, comforting.

"You feel better and you realize you're not alone," he said.

Ribeiro and his wife -- whom he met while a 19-year-old in Montreal and from whom he was divorced for less than a year a few years ago before remarrying -- are still attending couples' counseling.

Today, he imagines that he can become a resource to other people, teammates perhaps, who are facing difficulties in their own lives.

"We've been through a lot," Ribeiro said. "But I think I'm more confident with myself, where I am, than I've ever been in my life. ... I know my boundaries. I know what path I want to follow. I know the places I shouldn't be."

In the past, he'd find himself getting antsy on the road in the afternoons, looking forward to being out, having drinks, maybe more, and staying out late.

"I couldn't stay in my room," he said. "And it just escalates from there."

Now Ribeiro has stopped drinking and things are less of a blur.

He feels better in the mornings, ready to go to work, ready to go to a job he loves.

He also feels free in the sense that he's able to talk freely about his journey.

"It's great that it's not a secret," he said. "It's good that it's out there. It just feels good to get up and do the right thing."