Ex-Chief Ryan holds Spokane in special place
Derek Ryan – on a clock that runs nine hours ahead of Spokane – is technically living in the future. But he thinks about the past – his hometown and all that happened to and for him here – on a daily basis.
The Shadle Park graduate was the original Tyler Johnson, if you will. A home-grown hockey player who Spokane Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz made sure was staying home while he played out his Western Hockey League career.
A home-grown hockey player who gave fans even more of a reason to back the team in the years it struggled.
“The opportunity to play in Spokane is something I wouldn’t trade for the world,” Ryan said via telephone from his current home in Austria, where the 25-year-old is playing professional hockey.
“I got to be a hometown hero, if you will, for the majority of my career,” he added. “I got to live with mom and dad while I played – and that’s pretty rare – and they got to come to every home game. I mean, the list of things I loved goes on.”
So does the list of accomplishments.
Ryan played for Spokane from 2003-2007, mostly during a time when the Chiefs were in the cellar, standings- wise.
Still, he was the Western Conference Rookie of the Year in 2004 and became one of five Chiefs in club history to lead Spokane in scoring in two separate seasons – highlighted by a record two goals in 16 seconds in a 2006 game against Prince George.
Instead of grinding it out in the lower pro ranks in the U.S., Ryan opted to take advantage of his WHL scholarship, which pays a year of tuition and books for each year spent in the league. He headed to Canada, where he could study to become a pharmacist while playing hockey for the University of Alberta.
His first year was a rollercoaster of emotions, with one of the highest highs in his life, and without a doubt, the lowest low.
He won the University Cup with the Golden Bears that year – that was for sure the highlight. That took the sting off a little when south of Ryan – and back in Spokane – the Chiefs got to celebrate winning the WHL’s Ed Chynoweth Cup and the Memorial Cup.
“It was pretty crazy, because when I played in Spokane we were never a big threat to win,” Ryan said. “It hurt a bit – I mean, we were the worst team in the league two years before that. But at the same time, to know I played with those guys – like Drayson Bowman was on my line for two years, and he’s been quite the star, even now in the AHL and NHL – that I had a lot of pride in. I helped lead some of those guys. And, you know, I’ll be honest – it probably would have hurt a lot more if we hadn’t won the Canadian college national championship.”
But one event offered perspective on the trophy that got away, hockey, and life in general. His mom – with no indication of any problem – died very young and very suddenly while Ryan was away at school in 2008.
“I look back on that every day,” he said. “Again, I was so lucky to play in Spokane and have mom be at all my games. Even when I went to the U of A, I might have gone out east, but I didn’t. I wanted to be closer, and they were able to come up a few times that year. I consider myself blessed for that time.”
He also considers himself blessed to have his high school sweetheart and wife Bonnie by his side now that he’s in his sophomore year as a European pro, playing on a team with former Chief Michael Grabner in Austria (VSV) while Grabner awaits the end of the NHL lockout.
“I’ll be very well traveled by the time I’m done,” said Ryan. “I came over here at first with low expectations and was just doing it for the experience. But we’re seeing Europe and have made a little bit of money.
“As long as I have success over here, I’ll keep coming back.”
And if not – he knows he can always come home again, back to where it all began.