Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire

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  • Derek Ryan's road to the NHL didn't follow the traditional map, but the Carolina Hurricanes rookie is using what's behind him to make the most of what's in front of him.
By Alex Prewitt
February 02, 2017

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The moments come fast, like camera flashes, and whenever they do Derek Ryan tries his damnedest to hang onto them. Usually it happens before another game with the Carolina Hurricanes, as the forward stands on the bench and listens to the national anthem. “Be grateful for this,” he reminds himself. “It’s not something a lot of players get to participate in, especially someone who’s gone through my journey.”

Here is another moment, fortunately a little longer lasting: One Sunday afternoon in January, Ryan sits in the glitzy lobby of the JW Marriott in downtown D.C., glancing at the chandeliers on the ceiling and the mirrors on the elevator doors. It’s a fancy setup, more so than the inns of the American Hockey League, way more so than the chartered buses in Europe, because there his teams rarely stayed in cities overnight.

Opposite Derek at the lobby table is his father, Tim, who hasn’t stopped smiling since they arrived for a joint interview. Wearing blue jeans and a team-issued polo, Hurricanes logo framed inside a heart on the sleeve, Tim is hardly the only dad enjoying his first dad’s trip with Carolina. The roster, after all, trends young, with more than half of its ranks under the age of 25. But it’s also certain that none here can appreciate the opportunity better than Tim and his 30-year-old rookie son.

“I try to pinch myself every now and then to make sure that I take it for what it is,” Derek says.

Over breakfast that morning, the Ryans got to reminiscing. They find themselves doing this often these days. Once more their minds scrolled back—through all the stops that pointed here. Spokane, Alberta, Hungary, Austria, Sweden, Charlotte, Raleigh…how many crossroads did Derek encounter en route to debuting in the NHL last season? How many stars had to align so he could have 18 points in 36 games in ’16-17? How many little moments had to be seized before he could proudly change that LinkedIn title to read:

Professional Hockey Player
Carolina Hurricanes
June 2015-Present

“I like to call it the road never traveled,” Tim Ryan says. “It’s not less traveled. It’s never traveled.”

***

Bill Peters remembers. For two seasons with the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs, his leading scorer was an undersized (5’11”) center who had been raised locally. “An excellent player,” the Hurricanes coach says, “similar to how he plays now.”

Their paths reconnected two summers ago, when Ryan signed a one-year, two-way contract with Carolina, his first North American deal since he left Spokane and played three games in minor pro for the Kalamazoo Wings. Peters had heard whispers that his old junior hockey sparkplug was seeking a stateside gig after four successful seasons in Europe, so he asked former Spokane GM Tim Speltz for Ryan’s number. Decent interest came from “four or five” other NHL teams, Ryan says, but he felt most comfortable with the chance for ice time that Carolina presented. “Then from there,” Peters says, “he’s looked after business.”

NHL
Hurricanes coach Bill Peters chats about his young team and his Alberta roots

As Ryan moved on from the WHL, though, a much more modest future lay before him. Things didn’t work out in Kalamazoo, so he matriculated at the University of Alberta. The plan was to prolong hockey for another four years, study physiology, and find work in pharmaceutics. But educational subsidies from junior hockey only covered so much of the tuition, which was three times higher for international enrollees like Ryan.

“I’ve been the broke university student,” he says, “taking student loans out, trying to pinch some pennies to put together some meal. All that kind of stuff is a little bit different than, say, being 18, 19, 20 years old and hopping into the NHL and being on first-class flights and getting fed filet mignon and getting per diem. It’s a little bit different than the broke university student when you’re scrounging by trying to save your pennies to survive.”

Ironclad support came from Ryan’s parents, who would make the frequent drive to Edmonton. His mother, Nancy, always brought care packages of freshly baked cookies and frozen lasagna. Ryan had a solid rookie season with the Golden Bears, posting 25 points in 28 games, but tragedy struck early into his sophomore year. Then, Alberta traveled to Colorado for several exhibitions against American colleges. Tim and Nancy came down to watch. Upon returning to Spokane, Tim says, Nancy died in her sleep. “I got up for work,” he says, eyes welling, “and she didn’t.”

Eric Thurston, the Alberta head coach, learned the news from Tim. “I need to get Derek home right now,” Tim said over the phone. It was a Thursday, and the team had a game that night. Without telling his teammates what happened, Ryan stayed, played and won. Here Thurston too starts to cry. “It was one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen anybody do,” he says. “It was who he was, the character that he had. I never did ask Derek, I didn’t think it was my place, why you played…maybe he thought I’m here with this other family, this is my family too, my mom would’ve wanted me to stay and play this game.”

A man of firm religious belief, Derek often draws inspiration from Nancy’s spirit. When his neck cranes upward during the national anthem, he’s not just thinking about the road never taken, but also looking at her. “If you didn’t have faith, it’d be really, really hard to understand why that happened and what happens from here,” he says. “Faith makes something like that a little more bearable.”

***

Onward. Upward.

At Alberta, Ryan was a two-time conference all-star, and won the MVP in CIS West as a senior. A section of friends from his dorm began attending games wearing blue jerseys and hard hats, forming “basically the Derek Ryan cheering section,” Thurston says. Today, when Thurston asks his children who they remember from his college coaching days, Ryan’s name “is always at the top of the list.” His point totals improved each season —25 to 35 to 39 to 47, in a 28-game schedule—and he became known for executing breathtaking moves.

Once, as a freshman, Ryan was deployed as the forward to kill a 5-on-3. As the puck came to him in Alberta’s zone, Thurston began screaming from the bench, “Get it deep! Get it deep!” Instead, Ryan deked away from his first man, toe-dragged around two more in the neutral zone, burned the remaining two in the opposing zone, faked out the goalie, scored, and returned to the bench grinning. “Well,” Thurston thought, “that’s deep enough. Sums up everything that Derek Ryan could do.”

Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire

How many stars had to align…Thurston left Alberta around the same time that Ryan graduated, after the ’10-11 season, and began working for the Hungarian Ice Hockey Federation overseas. It was there that Kevin Primeau, an ex-Golden Bears forward who had cups of coffee with the Oilers and Canucks, called Thurston asking about Ryan. “It was an easy sell,” Thurston says, both to the Austrian Hockey League club that Primeau coached, Székesfehérvár, and to a recent college graduate looking to travel the world.

“At that point I could’ve quit playing hockey and just taken up a normal job, normal career,” Ryan says. “But this was a one-year opportunity to travel the world. I had a wife. We could have some cool experiences in Europe, so we took it one year at a time, just trying to see how we’d like it.”

They loved it. At their offseason home in Spokane, Derek and his wife, Bonnie, hung a giant map onto which they put arrows and dots marking the cities they’ve visited. “There’s a lot of them on there, too,” Tim Ryan says. After one season with Székesfehérvár, Ryan switched to Villacher SV, an Austrian-based club. There Derek and Bonnie settled into an apartment located in the middle of the mountains, nestled along a glacier-fed lake. They were a half-hour from Slovenia, two and a half from Venice and Muich, three from Vienna, and a cozy 20-minute drive from the Italian border, which often resulted in the following post-practice question: “Hey, do you want to go to Italy to have some pizza for lunch?”

After leading the league with 38 goals and earning MVP honors in ’13-14, Ryan leapt to the SHL, the top outfit in Sweden. The ascension never stopped. His 60 points and 45 assists ranked first, leading to another MVP trophy and the award for top overall forward. Soon, NHL teams began reaching out. How many crossroads…

“We pretty much decided at that point, I was 28 at the time, this is my opportunity,” Ryan says. “If I’m going to take an opportunity, this is the year. If I stayed in Europe, I probably would’ve for the rest of my career. The path could’ve gone both ways.”

***

A quick recap. Six years ago, Ryan was attending Canadian university, a level that rarely produces NHL players. (San Jose’s Joel Ward, graduate of Prince Edward Island, is perhaps the most well known.) Then Hungary, then Austria, then Sweden.

Next he reported to the Charlotte Checkers, where after just one month and 10 games Ryan received the captaincy, and after four months appeared in the AHL All-Star game. His first promotion came March 1, 2016. The Hurricanes were in New Jersey. Tim had just returned from an afternoon bike ride and scrambled to make travel plans. So did Bonnie and the couple’s newborn son, Zane, who came up from Charlotte. That night, Ryan scored his first NHLgoal, patiently sniping a wrister from the slot past Cory Schneider on a second-period power play. When he did, the Ryans went bonkers in their seats. “All the people around us were in Devils jersey,” Tim says, “so we pointed at his boy and said, ‘His dad just scored.’”

NHL
Sebastian Aho showing skill, consistency as a rookie with Hurricanes

In Carolina at one point this season, Peters asked Ryan how long it had been since he played wing. “Well,” Ryan replied, knowing that it last happened five years ago in Austria, “you want the real answer or the fake answer?” The switch, however, has opened up room in the lineup for Ryan, a capable right-handed draw who usually skates beside Jeff Skinner and Victor Rask on the second line, and receives hefty chunks of power play time (2:32 pergame, second on the team). It’s clear he has trust and respect of Peters, too; when the coach’s 12-year-old son wonders about getting drafted, Peters points to Ryan as an example of a nontraditional path.

“People are looking for players that can help them win,” Peters says. “People are looking for players that can play a role. The more roles you can play and benefit your team, the more irreplaceable you become. You don’t want to become a one-dimensional player. He’s not.”

Of course, this all means that Tim got invited along for the ride. (“I got on a plane and I didn’t just get salted peanuts,” he says.) The Hurricanes stumbled into Washington on a three-game losing streak, including against Columbus, the first stop of the dad’s trip. The slide will worsen with a 6-1 loss to the Capitals, and a 3-0 blanking by Los Angeles at home before the All-Star break.

In this moment, in this hotel lobby, little of that matters. The posh digs, chartered flights, unfamiliar rinks and packed schedule still make Derek feel like the new guy in some ways. Plus, that rookie dinner is sure to cut into the $600,000, one-year extension he signed last summer. But it’s also clear that, after all those stops in all those countries after all those years, that he truly belongs.

“It’s pretty amazing, the journey I’ve had—the convoluted journey,” he says. “Definitely not how you write it up on paper.”

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