For the past two and a half years, at least before hockey tugged him back into its irresistible orbit, Ryan Malone had entered what he calls “full dad mode.” This meant facing knee hockey shots from his two sons in goalie gear. Camping, school activities, flooding the backyard rink each winter. The retired veteran of 647 NHL games stayed in decent shape, mostly for keeping up with the kiddos, but also to stave off soreness after walking 18 holes. He remembers loving the smiles that Will, 9, and Cooper, 7, each had upon skating for the first time during mini-mites. He looked forward to helping coach both during the approaching season.
Last month, seeking ways to stay busy and stick around the game, Malone called Jim Johannson, the USA Hockey executive and national team general manager for the 2018 Winter Olympics. At first, Malone asked about doing some part-time scouting in the Twin Cities area, where he currently lives. Two days passed. Then Johannson’s phone rang again. “Actually,” Malone told him, “I’m going to put the pads on and try to play.”
What changed? Enough to coax a 37-year-old into attempting a comeback that, while hardly sure to attract Brett Favre-esque levels of national TV attention, is nonetheless remarkable for its own improbability. Four weeks ago, Malone was busy coaching in Da Beauty League, a Minnesota-based outfit of professional players that holds 4-on-4 games for charity. When his team needed bodies one night, Malone showed up with gear. “Oh s---,” came the common response. “You’re really going to play.”
Absent any training, Malone felt good alongside his former peers; his team, which featured Coyotes defenseman Alex Goligoski and Panthers center Nick Bjugstad among others, even won the league championship. (“I think I had two blocked shots,” he says. “They didn’t keep my stats.”) But that was a casual offseason tournament in August. “Summer hockey,” Malone clarifies. The next part presents exponentially greater challenges: Starting this week, Malone will attend Minnesota Wild training camp on a professional tryout, hoping to complete the long-shot task of earning an NHL contract. If not, he wants to sign an AHL-only deal and compete for Team USA in PyeongChang next February.
“I was thinking I’m not too far removed from the game,” Malone says. “I feel like I can still think the game well and move it around. I feel actually pretty darned good.
“So why not give it a shot?”
To claim Malone hadn’t been working out would be unfair. His new fiancee is a trainer and nutrition coach, so she cleaned up his eating habits. He also picked up golf and started doing yoga. “I watched a Jillian Michaels 30-minute Inferno,” he says. “My buddy and I went to a similar workout. Moving the body around. I’m not even sweating, which is nice, compared to the hockey ones where you’re ready to be sick most of the time.”
Upon leaving the NHL in Feb. 2015, after the Rangers placed him on unconditional waivers and terminated his contract, Malone underwent four different surgeries to fix varicose veins in his legs. “It’s those ugly veins that get coiled, what older people tend to get because blood is not getting pumped back in the leg,” he explains. “They go in there and burn your vein closed so the blood reroutes itself to stronger veins, so you get better circulation.”
The procedures helped improve Malone’s mobility, which had presented issues as the power forward’s career fizzled. “I definitely feel better now, going into camp, than I did my last year there in New York, which is pretty amazing,” he says. But he cites another, larger reason for walking away: Upon getting demoted to New York’s minor-league affiliate in Nov. 2014, his desire quickly faded. “You lose that fire and drive a little bit,” Malone says. “I knew I lost it when someone was mouthing off to me and I just let them mouth off to me when I probably should’ve put my fist in his mouth. Especially for a guy like myself, who needs that edge to play on, you can’t go through the motions and have success. Obviously.”
Certainly Malone believes the spark has caught enough kindling to burn through one more season. But he will report to camp following just five weeks of training, preceded by more than 130 of rest. Asked what he is most nervous about, Malone replies, “I heard there’s a skating test.” And how many 37-year-olds out there are actively getting faster?
“He’s got to be just in awe too, even after two years, seeing the pace again and the speed,” says Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who has been working out with Malone in Minnesota. “It’s like anything. You don’t drive a car for a while, it takes a while to get used to it...But two years is a long time.”
Once Malone settled on coming back, he needed somewhere to spend the regular season; Johannson told him that the league or location didn’t matter to USA Hockey, only that Malone remained in game-ready condition prior to the Olympics. Rather than work through an agent, he started making calls. One of those went to Chuck Fletcher, the former Pittsburgh assistant GM when Malone played there for four seasons, ending with a run to the 2009 Stanley Cup Final. Now running Minnesota's front office as its GM, Fletcher called back and offered Malone the chance to tryout.
The plans promptly changed. “The main reason I put the skates back on was to go after the Olympic team,” Malone says. “Now I’m trying to make the Minnesota Wild.”
Not long ago, Malone told Will and Cooper about his sudden change of plans. Their eyes brightened. “I said, ‘I don't know if I can make the Wild, and if I do I can’t go to the Olympic team,”” Malone recalls. “My son was like, ‘You already played in the Olympics, dad!’”
Indeed, Malone was there with the Americans in 2010, dressing for all six games, recording three goals and two assists, feeling the firsthand heartbreak of Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal during the gold medal game in Vancouver's Rogers Arena. But while Johannson anticipates filling the PyeongChang roster with “a lot of guys who played some level of the NHL” and now play overseas, Malone would bring greater levels of experience to the international roster. “That’d be a good guy for a leader of that team,” says McDonagh, the Rangers’ captain.
Since the NHL isn’t allowing players under contract to attend these upcoming Olympics, Malone can only sign a one-way minor-league deal to be eligible. (He all but ruled out heading overseas.) The Wild’s affiliate is based in Iowa, a geographically ideal landing spot since Malone splits custody of his sons with their mother. The thought of sporting a Wild jersey during the preseason motivates Malone, who hails from Pittsburgh but attended St. Cloud State and calls himself “half-Minnesotan.” So does the prospect of wearing a red, white and blue one in South Korea. But picturing Will and Cooper in the stands, watching him play again, trumps all that. “Just to let them know that anything is possible,” he says.
Still, Malone thinks about how he last departed the league. “Not an ideal situation,” he says, referring to his brief stint with the Rangers. Asked whether during their conversations Fletcher brought up his April 2014 arrest in Tampa for driving under the influence and possession of cocaine, which resulted in probation and community service, Malone calls that incident “so gone in the rearview mirror. I’m sure he’s asked around, people that know me, know what kind of person I am, what kind of character I have, what I still can bring to the room.”
The more pressing question: What can Malone still bring on the ice? Making the Wild outright seems unrealistic; when longtime beat writer Michael Russo put together a preseason depth chart last week on The Athletic, Malone wasn’t even listed under the “vying for spots” section. But Johannson says he’ll submit Malone’s name among a preliminary list of eligible players and “potentially” sees him making the Olympic roster. And Malone wouldn’t mind riding buses again for an international nightcap to his career.
“Hopefully all that rest and training may pay off,” Malone says. “Sometimes the older guys might seem quicker if they’re in the right spots at the right time. And I’ll be dirt-cheap.
“All you can do is prepare for it. Then you just go out there and play your game. I’m excited to hit somebody. Or I’m sure I’m going to get hit. Who knows?”