RALEIGH, N.C. – As practice ended at Raleigh Center Ice (RCI) on Tuesday, each player filed into the Carolina Hurricanes’ dressing room.
There was no rush, even while preparing to embark on a three-game road trip to the West coast.
Of course, coming off a 1-0 shutout win over the Tampa Bay Lightning at home on Sunday, that extended an unbeaten streak in front of their fans to six games, there was reason to feel comfortable.
Forward Derek Ryan assumed his spot in his stall, closest to the door leading to the ice surface, as others filed past him.
During the season, the opportunities I’ve had to watch him off the ice, he’s presented himself as quiet, unassuming and that type of player who simply comes to play the game to the best of his ability – no more, no less.
He’s displayed that demeanor in his play as well, enough to be noticeable, but for the most part unassuming.
Ryan’s just picked his spots to get people’s attention, like tallying six points (3g, 3a) in his last seven games, including two goals, and the eventual game-winner, in a 3-1 win over Los Angeles on Thursday.
The 29-year old, five-foot-11-inch, 170-pound center has snuck under the radar long enough for Carolina and has now established a presence as an effective role player at the highest level of pro hockey.
How long his run with Carolina will go since being recalled on Nov. 11th, no one knows, but if he’s posting points at his current pace, he’s staying up with the big club for a while.
He’s proving he can play in the NHL, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise considering that some of Europe’s better leagues, in Austria and Sweden, dubbed him as their best player at points in his career before returning to North America.
“It’s been a long, convoluted journey through my hockey career,” Ryan said.
“Going back to the U of A, I’m just focusing on my education and playing hockey is a side job to that. Hockey was a big deal to me at that time, but school was more important. Just took a chance to go to Europe and maybe pursue a career over there. My wife and I didn’t really know what we were expecting of that, but we thought we’d take that experience to see a different part of the world and get paid to do it at the same time.”
Thus, as Hurricanes pro scouts and their contacts scoured the Alps, they eventually found this experienced and productive center getting better than regressing, even in his late-20s.
It wasn’t a shot in the dark though because Ryan was coached by Hurricanes bench boss Bill Peters for two years with Spokane in the Western Hockey League (WHL) – a relationship that began in 2005-2006 when the coach took over there.
Ryan had career years back then, and it seems that Peters kept an eye on him, or was reminded to do so at some point last year.
Many who had never heard of him thought that Carolina took a chance on an unknown, albeit an accomplished one, when they signed him last summer.
However, the connection with Peters probably made it a more calculated move – low cost, low risk, but with the potential of a high payoff.
The roll of the dice on the journeyman center has come up seven so far.
Ryan is fast-becoming a well-known commodity for the Hurricanes and in the NHL, and continuing to earn the same credibility he developed at all levels of hockey he’s played at – be it in the WHL with Spokane, in the now defunct United Hockey League (UHL) with Kalamazoo, in Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) and the CWUAA with Alberta, in Europe with Austria’s Villach and Szekesfehervar, or Sweden’s Orebro, as well as in the American Hockey League (AHL) with Charlotte.
“My first year in Austria, I had a lot of success and played really well, and got another contract and played three full seasons in the Austrian League and just continued to get better and better,” Ryan continued.
“Even at that point, my goal was never to play in the NHL; it was basically to just play and have great experiences in Europe, and raise a family and provide a good living for them at the same time. My last year in Austria I was MVP and set some scoring records and all that, and I got an opportunity to play in Sweden which is one of the better leagues in the world – probably third-best league in the world. At that point in furthering my European career, I wasn’t really all that interested in coming back to North America. Again, I had another good year there, got MVP, and led the league in scoring. At that point, my agent was starting to say that there were some NHL teams that were interested.
“Fast forward, I signed with Carolina and thought that was my best opportunity to play in the NHL. Over the last season I’ve had to work my way up in the minors and prove that I can play in North America, not just in Europe, and be an effective player. I think I proved that last year, and then this year I’m getting a little bit more of a look here up at the top in the NHL. I think I’ve proven I can play here as well and be an effective player whether I’m a third-liner, playing power play, or be a depth centerman if they need that.”
As much as you can consider this a ‘keeping the dream alive’ story, Ryan honestly pointed out that he was hesitant about taking on the opportunity of playing in the AHL, and grinding his way up to the NHL.
“Every hockey player whether in Canada, the United States, or even Europe, their dream is to play in the NHL – most players anyways,” he said.
“Especially coming from the U.S. where I was born and raised. When that opportunity arose, I was very interested but I was ignorant; I didn’t really know a whole lot about the American Hockey League. I didn’t know what the level of hockey was; I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do that. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to battle my way up. But, at the end of the day, we thought it would be worth it to get the chance to play in the NHL. I don’t know what the percentage of hockey players who get to play in the NHL is, but it’s really low, so to have that as a possibility is really cool.”
Ryan knows that as quickly his opportunity to play in the NHL has been provided, it can disappear just as quickly.
For now, he’s intent on playing the game he always has – within his space and role and allowing the elements of perseverance and luck to play out while continuing to work hard for results that come out to his and his team’s favor.
“I think that I’ve shown that I can play at this level too,” he added.
“I just have to continue to focus on my game and help the team succeed obviously, and continue to prove that I can play at this level.”
As the saying goes, good things do indeed come to those who wait.
For Ryan, though playing in the NHL wasn’t a priority, more a distant one that he parked in his mind, sharing how his story has unfolded to eventually follow the path to playing in the league is a “cool” one that even he smiles about when talking of it.
“A lot of cool memories for my family,” Ryan said with a grin.
“My son was born in Austria, and we loved playing in Europe – all those memories. We’ll cherish those forever, but playing in the NHL is what everyone wants to do.”