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Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Paul Ranger during practice the day before the Winter Classic hockey game against the Detroit Red Wings at Michigan Stadium.

RICK OSENTOSKI/USA TODAY SPORTS

Paul Ranger really likes pizza.

Not just any pizza, but the kind that he can get from the Riverside Restaurant in Cornwall, Ont., with his uncle.

Now in Toronto and closer to family than he was as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning years ago, he can spend time away from the rink debating what pizza joint is best and finding balance in life.

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Because of that, Ranger has begun to write the second chapter of his NHL playing career and was named the Maple Leafs' Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy nominee for "perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey."

Ranger learned that he was chosen for that honour Wednesday morning, 49 games into what he considers the renewal of his career more than four years after abruptly leaving the Lightning for personal reasons he still won't reveal.

What the 29-year-old does say about version 2.0 of his hockey-playing life only hints at why he left and what made him come back.

"What makes it easier for my second go-round is just that experience on how to handle different pressures from the outside, pressures on the ice and really just how to go about it and live your life and balance," Ranger said. "Balance is huge. It makes for a much healthier lifestyle. It makes for a much healthier, I think, mind, on the ice, as well."

On the ice, the defenceman's game is still rounding into form but isn't quite as good as he'd like it to be. But his mind seems to be at peace with the sport's importance in his life because Ranger has been able to spend time reflecting and placing value on different things.

"You get away, you try different things, you do different things, you focus on other areas of your life that you love and that make you good," he said. "Too much of one good thing it can kind of become a mental battle sometimes. ... When you have that balance, everything seems to work a lot more smoothly, a lot more comfortably and positively."

One of those positives is family, like being able to have his mother and father closer than they were when he was in Tampa. Friends make the support group even bigger.

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"Once in a while I'll get to see some of my closest friends, my high-school friends, my best friends," he said. "Everyone needs a break outside of work and outlets for different parts of life, and that's one of them for me."

Outlet from what, exactly, Ranger won't say. Asked at the end of a 13-minute conversation with reporters to shed even a bit of detail on what caused him to leave the Lightning early in the 2009-10 season, he politely but firmly responded: "No. I'm not willing to go there. Thank you, though."

In general terms, Ranger repeatedly talked about "challenges" on and off the ice. That included playing last year for the AHL's Toronto Marlies, then signing a one-year deal with the Leafs and making the team out of training camp.

"Lots of challenges, but when you overcome them, that's the coolest part of it," Ranger said. "That's the most fun. You look at yourself in the mirror and say you did it. And that's huge, for everybody. Every person in the world goes through that kind of thing at some point in their lives, and I think it's important to be able to challenge yourself and to recognize and give yourself some credit."

Ranger noticed and appreciated the credit and recognition opponents around the league and former teammates have afforded him this season. He took special pride in reconnecting and building "genuine" relationships with a couple of players he spent time with in Tampa, too.

Very little of Ranger's time talking about his journey back to the NHL had anything to do with hockey, other than to say it has been a success. The Whitby, Ont., native said he never had any doubts about returning after such an extended absence.

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"No. This is the right thing for me to do," Ranger said. "This is the thing for me to do to grow and to overcome all the challenges that I've had on and off the ice. This is the path, and I'm committed to it.

"I can't really put it all into words, but this is it. It's going to help me until I reach 150 (years old) and riding my Sea-Doo around somewhere and I'm going to look back and smile and just say I did it."

As he's in the process of doing it, he's earning respect along the way.

"When a guy misses that amount of time and claws himself (onto a roster) and grabs an opportunity, you've got to take your hat off to him," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. "Any individual that's gone through what he's gone through, now he's playing the highest level of hockey there is in the world and he's earning his stripes."

Whether earning those stripes means Ranger will be back with the Leafs next season is unclear. He insists he hasn't pondered that possibility and immediately brought the focus back to the present and what he and his teammates need to do in the final games of the season.

Even if the Leafs' season ends without a playoff berth, that's not the end of Ranger's world, though he brought up Wednesday that he has a theory on how to win a championship in a city like Toronto. He's just not willing to reveal that quite yet, either.

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"I can't say I've figured it out because it hasn't been put to the test yet," he said. "But I just know for me it works. I'm in no way ready to comment on it. This is something that perhaps I would tell you after we win the championship."

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