- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 16, 2013

With a large diamond stud earring in his left ear and a gold chain around his neck, Mike Ribeiro “looks like a rapper,” in the words of coach Adam Oates. But the most important piece of jewelry Ribeiro owns is the ring on his left hand.

His fashion and colorful personality make Ribeiro stand out among most hockey players in the Washington Capitals’ locker room. His reputation as a partier preceded him and played a role in his getting traded out of Montreal and Dallas.

But the 32-year-old Ribeiro, a center the Caps acquired last summer, was different. In July, he and his wife, Tamara, got remarried and his life got back on track.

“It took me to get divorced to really realize what’s important and what’s not important. At the end of the day, when you grow up and be old, the only people around will be your family,” Ribeiro said. “A lot of your friends will get on with their lives and move forward. I think to get divorced last year, it just was a rough year for me and just [a chance] to put things in perspective and really realize what’s important. That’s why I made the decision to come back and try to be a better man.”

Being a better man means growing up: “Your actions, your decisions,” he said. “Your day-to-day life habits.”

Ribeiro and his wife got a fresh start on their marriage and life in Washington with 12-year-old son Mikael, 8-year-old son Noah and 6-year-old daughter Viktoria. Armed with plenty of what he calls, with a smile, “life experience,” Ribeiro has learned a lot.

“You need to take one day at a time and not look too ahead and try to not go backwards in your life,” he said. “Try to take a step forward.”

Ribeiro was 19 years old when he made his NHL debut, playing for his hometown Canadiens. He grew into a 65-point player and enjoyed the celebrity that came with it.

“I believe that if you’re 18 to 25, you should enjoy yourself,” Ribeiro said. “But obviously people are more looking at us and every time you go out, people will talk about us and stuff. It’s just normal. It happens everywhere, and every kid does it.”

Ribeiro’s partying ways led to a 2006 trade to the Dallas Stars. Trouble didn’t end there, as he was arrested for public intoxication in October 2010.

“I think if my habits were better when I was younger, once I retire I’m probably going to look back and say, ‘Well, if I would’ve committed 100 percent on both sides — on the ice, off the ice — I think I could’ve done a lot more,’” Ribeiro said. “That’s why I’m at a point now that, OK, I’m 32, do I want to still do what I was doing? Or do I want to become a better player and still play till I’m 38, 39?”

From having children to getting divorced to being traded twice, each event played a role in Ribeiro’s transformation from a kid in his 20s to a man in his 30s. He concedes it took him time to get to this point.

“As a human being, you just grow with experience, and a lot of times you grow from your mistakes,” Ribeiro said. “Obviously, it took me a while to learn those steps. But I believe I’m a better person now, outside and inside. [I’m] just more mature overall with life experience.”

The Caps didn’t just take that for granted last summer when they gave up a second-round pick and 21-year-old center Cody Eakin to acquire Ribeiro, the No. 2 center they’ve needed for years.

“I talked to people about him, and you’re not going to stop people from being young,” general manager George McPhee said. “But at some point, they all grow up — at least the ones we have here do. And they get married and have kids, and as we all know it changes your life.”

McPhee talked to former Caps center Jeff Halpern, who played with Ribeiro in Dallas, and got good feedback. Knowing that Ribeiro is happily remarried with some strife behind him is another positive development.

“You certainly like to have people who are settled in their personal lives, that everything is OK in that regard, because I’ve been in other situations when guys go through divorces and that sort of thing,” McPhee said. “It’s hard. It’s hard on them and affects their performance.

“It’s nice to have a Mike Ribeiro who’s in a good place in his life and happy and looking forward to a challenge and bringing that maturity to this hockey club.”

At first glance, Ribeiro comes off like a goofball. Forward Brooks Laich recalled seeing Ribeiro leaving the rink in Dallas two years ago and being in awe of his fashion sense.

“I was like ‘Holy cow, somebody put a mirror in front of that guy,’” Laich said. “But hey, it’s never a bad thing. If we were all the same, it would be all boring. I like him. The short time that I’ve known him, I really like him. And I think he’s going to bring some flair for sure.”

He will. Ribeiro is looking forward to adding some sarcasm and humor to the Caps’ locker room, even as he talks seriously about his role as a veteran voice.

Ribeiro is confident that as he has aged, he has become better on the ice because he’s not out drinking as often. He’s a husband and a father, and he hopes that means he’s a better hockey player, too.

“It’s just a healthier life,” Ribeiro said. “If you’re out and partying, you come back, translate that to the ice, it’s going to catch up at some point.”

Ribeiro is upbeat when he talks about his new life in the D.C. area. He doesn’t want to move his family again and hopes he can earn another contract with the Caps.

Since he moved to town, he has talked to captain Alex Ovechkin more than any other teammate. With Ovechkin recently engaged to tennis star Maria Kirilenko, there are parallels between him and Ribeiro.

But if you ask Ribeiro, Ovechkin is maturing at a faster rate.

“I won’t tell you where I was at his age, you know what I mean?” Ribeiro said. “I think when you get to 25, 26, 27, I bet you know a little bit more of what you want and what you don’t want.”

Ribeiro knows what he wants now. On the ice, it’s to play until he’s 39 or 40. Off the ice, it’s to learn from plenty of life experience.

“You try not to re-create the mistakes you made in other cities,” he said. “I don’t have a lot of years left, and hopefully I can mature enough to know what to do and not to. I’m at a better place in my life and I know myself better as a person, too.”

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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