NHL players accept the opportunity to play at the Ice Hockey World Championships for any number of reasons, but for Derek Ryan there was one big one: April is no time to stop playing hockey.
“I want to get used to playing till late May, early June,” Ryan said.
If the NHL playoff bracket had gone according to seed this year, Ryan, the former Spokane Chiefs player and Shadle Park High School graduate, might still be playing – in the Stanley Cup finals, that is, with the Western Conference’s top-seeded Calgary Flames.
He might even be playing against former Chiefs forward Tyler Johnson, whose Tampa Bay Lightning matched an NHL record with 62 regular-season victories and were the overwhelming favorite to win the Eastern Conference title.
But as it happened, both the Lightning and Flames lost in the first round, ending Ryan’s first season in Calgary in mid-April.
So he talked to Bonnie, his wife, about the invite to play for Team USA for the second time in his career.
“That’s the biggest hindrance, actually,” Ryan said. “There’s a lot of positives, but when you have a family it’s pretty tough to be saying, ‘Hey, honey, I know I’m gone a ton, but now I’m gonna go to Europe for three weeks.’ ”
It worked out, Ryan said, and Bonnie was able to leave their two children behind with her parents and join him for the last week in Slovakia, capping the latest hockey adventure in a career full of them.
“The last seven, eight years, I’ve been all over the world,” said Ryan, who estimated he has played hockey games in 15 countries.
This year, though, and if his contract holds, for the next two, he’ll be playing professionally as close to home as he’s been since leaving the Chiefs in 2007, coming off the best of his three full NHL seasons.
In the first of a three-year, $9.375 million contract, Ryan, 32, recorded the seventh-most points (38) and had the sixth-best plus-minus (21) on the Flames last season.
Ryan’s path to the NHL is notably unique. Even in Slovakia, Ryan got more questions about his journey to the NHL than he did about the games he played in, he said. (He had a goal and three assists in seven games for Team USA, which lost to Russia in the quarterfinals on May 23.)
No NHL teams drafted the 5-foot-10, 170-pound Ryan out of the WHL, so, standing at what he said was a crossroads in the fall of 2007, he opted to enroll at the University of Alberta. There he played four years of hockey and got a degree in human physiology.
After that he played in Europe for four seasons, the first three of which were in the EBEL in Austria, where he scored 90 goals and had 109 assists in 158 regular-season games.
All the while, Bonnie was with him. And it was great, Ryan said.
“How many people in their mid-20s get to travel the world?” he said. “The city I played in was 20 minutes from Italy. We could say, ‘Hey, practice is over, how ’bout we go over to Italy and have a pizza for lunch?’
“I think it makes it a lot easier to have your wife to come live with you because it can be pretty lonely by yourself, just a few guys on the team that speak English,” Ryan said of playing in Europe. “I could talk for another hour about the ways Bonnie has pushed me. No one goes the route that I have gone without the full support of her and what she’s done for our family while I’m gone.”
They took it one year at a time, and Ryan said he was making a fine enough career out of playing abroad. His performance in the Austrian league earned him a contract with Orebro of the Swedish Hockey League, and in 2014-15 he had 15 goals and 45 assists in 55 games.
The NHL wasn’t even on the radar at that point, he said.
But his performance that season in Sweden – for which he was named league MVP – got the NHL’s attention.
Still, though, the offers were just for two-way contracts, meaning he would have to start in the American Hockey League and earn a chance to play in the NHL.
“I could have said no at this crossroads, but then you have the childhood hockey player in you saying this is your chance,” Ryan said.
Tim Speltz, now the head amateur scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs, knew that childhood hockey player. Ryan, playing for the Spokane Braves, had excelled in the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League. In 2003-04, he had 68 goals and 57 assists in 49 games.
Speltz, then the Spokane Chiefs general manager, said he knew other people thought Ryan could play in the Western Hockey League. But as he sat in the Ryans’ living room 15 years ago, Speltz wanted to know what Ryan thought, so he asked the teenager plainly: Can you play?
“He was adamant that he could play, and that’s the biggest thing,” Speltz said this week, recalling that conversation. “He loved playing hockey, so he never pouted when he was not drafted. For him, it was the passion to play the game.”
Ten years later, weighing a few NHL offers, Ryan signed with the Carolina Hurricanes. His head coach was Bill Peters, Ryan’s coach his last two seasons in Spokane – and his current head coach in Calgary.
After one year primarily in the AHL, he played 67 NHL games in 2016-17. He then spent the entirety of 2017-18 in the NHL, recording 67 points in 147 games those two seasons.
Each of those seasons he played on one-year contracts, so he’d pack up every offseason not sure whether he’d be back.
But the last year has been different. Bonnie could drive with their children the 7 1/2 hours down from Calgary to see family whenever she wanted. Their families could do that trip in reverse.
This summer, Ryan is actually spending less time in Spokane than usual. That’s because they are building a new house in town, and so they are spending more time in their rental in Calgary.
But eventually they plan to end up back in Spokane, he said, once his playing days come to close.
“I love Spokane,” Ryan said. “It’s always gonna be home. It’s my roots.”
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