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Spokane’s Derek Ryan, Kailer Yamamoto, Tyler Johnson fulfilled NHL dreams along different paths

By Kevin Dudley For The Spokesman-Review

It was a special night one year ago today for hockey fans and followers in Spokane.

It was Oct. 14, 2017, and for the first time, three Spokane-born and -trained hockey players suited up in a National Hockey League game on the same night.

Kailer Yamamoto, Tyler Johnson and Derek Ryan all grew up in Spokane and played for their hometown Spokane Chiefs. They each paved their way to the NHL on three different paths, fulfilling a dream they had as young hockey players – a dream two of them once thought was out of reach.

The Spokesman-Review talked to each player in recent weeks. These are their stories.

The 29-year-old rookie

Ryan wasn’t the oldest rookie to suit up in an NHL game, but his path might be among the most unique in the sport.

The traditional path to the NHL in North America is typically to play in the Canadian Hockey League – the umbrella league in which the Western Hockey League falls under – or at an American NCAA school and be drafted into the NHL.

Ryan’s path wasn’t anywhere near traditional. After playing three seasons with the Chiefs, Ryan didn’t garner any attention from NHL teams. Instead, he moved on to play college hockey at the University of Alberta, winning Canada’s collegiate national championship in 2008.

From there, Ryan went overseas and played three seasons in Austria before moving up to the Swedish Hockey League, which has a rich history of churning out NHL talent.

In his only season in Sweden, Ryan led the league in scoring and came away with the Gold Helmet Award, given to the league’s most valuable player.

“It was such a wild progression of years,” Ryan said. “There were so many years that the NHL was not really on the radar or an option.”

Thanks to his breakout season in Sweden, everything changed. Suddenly, NHL scouts were noticing Ryan’s skills.

“It changed from, ‘OK, this can be a really good European year, I can make great money and have a good life with my family,’ to, ‘OK, now there are NHL teams calling and maybe I can come back over and make it in the NHL,’ ” Ryan said. “That’s kind of when the mentality for myself changed.”

Soon, multiple NHL teams were courting Ryan, looking to bring him back to North America on a two-way contract, which means he’d be paid a certain amount if he found himself on the NHL team’s roster and a lesser amount if he was on the team’s minor-league roster in the American Hockey League (AHL).

It was a dream come true at an age – 29 – when many players already have five or 10 years of NHL experience.

“To have NHL teams calling me wanting to bring me in as a depth player in the organization, it was surreal,” Ryan said. “It just changed my mentality. I was going to have to take a pay cut to be on a two-way contract and prove myself in the American Hockey League because I hadn’t done that yet in North America. I knew I had to come over here, start from scratch and prove myself. There were a lot of emotions in the recruitment process of the NHL teams. It was a big summer for sure.”

Ryan eventually signed with the Carolina Hurricanes, who were coached at the time by Bill Peters, Ryan’s coach when he played for the Chiefs.

Ryan began with the Charlotte Checkers, Carolina’s AHL affiliate. His ultimate dream became reality one night when he was flying home from a road game. That’s when Charlotte’s equipment manager tapped him on the shoulder and instructed him to grab his gear once they landed and get to New Jersey, where the Hurricanes were playing the next night.

“Your emotions are crazy and you want to let everybody know, but I was in the air and didn’t have any Wi-Fi so I had to wait another hour to let my wife and family know that I was going to be playing in the NHL the next day,” he said. “It was pretty crazy and pretty cool.”

It was March 1, 2016, and Ryan skated in his first NHL game in New Jersey against the Devils. If that’s where Ryan’s story ended, it still would be one to remember. But like his hockey career, Ryan’s story got better: In his first NHL game after four years of Canadian college hockey and four years overseas, he scored his first career goal on the power play in the second period to tie the score. The Hurricanes went on to win 3-1.

Ryan became a full-time NHL player the next season and signed a three-year, $9.375 million contract this past offseason with the Calgary Flames, reuniting him again with Peters, who was hired as the Flames’ head coach this past summer.

The undrafted free agent

With 31 teams and seven rounds, the NHL draft allows 217 teenage hockey players to achieve their dreams. That wasn’t the case for Johnson, who played four seasons with the Chiefs, winning a Memorial Cup in 2008 and a World Junior gold medal with Team USA in 2010.

As Johnson’s Chiefs career neared its end, he faced a crossroads. His point totals greatly increased each season in Spokane, culminating with a 20-year-old season in which Johnson scored 53 goals and had 62 assists for 115 points. Prior to his 20-year-old season, there wasn’t a ton of professional interest.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed,” Johnson said. “I kept going to NHL camps and got some invites to main camps and talked to some GMs, which was great and I was progressing, but for whatever reason there weren’t many people who wanted to take a chance on me. It was a disappointing thing but at the same time, I didn’t really let it get me down. I kept on playing, having fun and kept on working.”

Johnson admitted that, at times, he thought his NHL dream was out of reach. Before his last year of junior hockey, he started exploring colleges in the United States, where he wasn’t eligible to play for a varsity hockey team per NCAA rules, and in Canada, where he was allowed to play.

But his hard work paid off. During the second half of his last season with the Chiefs, Johnson started to hear from NHL teams. Once the NHL’s free-agent window opened for players in Johnson’s situation, things heated up.

“As soon as that free-agent period started, I pretty much had talked to just about every team and had a lot of different offers,” he said. “It was overwhelming in a way because at one point there wasn’t any team that wanted me and now there were several.”

Not being drafted ended up being an advantage for Johnson. He was able to study different teams’ depth charts and find the best fit for him. The best fit ended up being the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Johnson spent his first professional season in 2012 with Tampa’s AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, where he won a Calder Cup, the AHL version of the Stanley Cup. Tampa moved its AHL affiliate to Syracuse the next season, and Johnson played 62 games before being called up to the Lightning.

Johnson made his NHL debut on March 14, 2013, against the New York Islanders. For him, it was a surreal moment.

“I remember looking across seeing (the Islanders) and thinking, ‘Holy cow, this is it,’ ” he said.

Johnson scored his first career goal two nights later in a 4-1 win over the Hurricanes. He came close to winning the Stanley Cup in 2015, but the Lightning fell in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks.

Johnson is on year two of a seven-year, $35 million contract.

The first-round draft pick

Yamamoto took the more traditional path to the NHL.

The Spokane native scored 105 goals in four seasons for the Chiefs and was selected by the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the 2017 NHL draft.

Unlike Ryan and Johnson, Yamamoto spent his entire draft year in the spotlight and found his name on a number of mock draft boards. Yamamoto also got to attend the NHL Draft Combine, a grueling event for draft hopefuls that involved fitness testing and interviews with NHL teams.

With all the attention, Yamamoto tried to focus on his game and his team.

“I tried not to pay attention too much,” he said. “If you pay too much attention, it creeps into your game and you hold your stick too tight. You start to make plays that you normally wouldn’t. I think the guys who were in the locker room really helped me out a lot. If I was struggling or nervous they’d always be talking to me, keep going and keep pushing.”

Yamamoto had a big season in his draft year, totaling 42 goals, 57 assists and 99 points. But nothing could prepare him for the combine, the team interviews and the draft itself.

Yamamoto interviewed with 26 teams, and as is the case with these events, he got some odd questions, including one team that asked if he’d been to jail. When he paused before saying no – clearly caught off guard – the team representative asked rather pointedly, “Well, why’d you hesitate?”

When the Oilers took him in the first round, his childhood dream had come true.

“I especially remember walking up and meeting Wayne Gretzky,” Yamamoto said. “I think I blacked out when I went up on stage. It’s a crazy experience and a little blurry because you’re so nervous, but it was unbelievable and I had the time of my life there.”

Yamamoto surprised some when he made the Oilers’ opening-night roster out of training camp last season. He played nine games before being reassigned to the Chiefs. He made the Oilers roster out of training camp again this year and looks like he is a full-time NHL player at the age of 20.

Trio adds chapter to Spokane’s hockey history

Ryan, Johnson and Yamamoto share the commonality of being NHL players who were born and developed in Spokane. They played at different times, but the hockey community in the Spokane region is tight and all three of them knew each other growing up.

Johnson’s mom was Yamamoto’s skating coach, and Yamamoto’s family had season tickets to Chiefs games, allowing Yamamoto to grow up watching Ryan and Johnson. Ryan knew Johnson during his Chiefs career when Johnson was moving up the local hockey ranks.

Ryan also recalled helping out at a local hockey school when Yamamoto was a youngster. All three of them know each other well now that they’re all professionals. The three have trained together during the offseason, too.

All three have played a role in inspiring each other.

“(Ryan) had a lot of success and kind of made me realize that I can do that too as long as I kept working at it,” Johnson said. “He kind of opened those doors for me.”

“When you see that there’s that high-level competition in your hometown and you see two hometown kids who you’ve watched grow up and play for the Chiefs, it really makes you want to strive to make the team and follow in their footsteps,” Yamamoto said.

Ryan, Johnson and Yamamoto all agreed that the hockey community in Spokane is more of an underground community, one that is close-knit, quiet and bigger than most people think. Their paths to professional hockey could inspire younger players from Spokane.

Players like Zach Frye, who is one step from the NHL as he plays with the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda after playing four years in the United States Hockey League and four years at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, or current Chiefs defenseman Luke Gallagher.

Or even Dawson Tritt and Carter Jones, who are playing in the British Columbia Hockey League – a league that has sent its fair share of players to the NHL – for the Alberni Valley Bulldogs and Trail Smoke Eaters, respectively.

Ryan, Johnson and Yamamoto weren’t the first Spokane-born players in the NHL – that honor goes to Scott Levins in 1992. But the way each of them achieved success on their way to the NHL is noticed around the league and in the hockey community. Their stories just add to Spokane’s hockey history.

“I really do believe Spokane is a really good hockey community,” Johnson said. “You can go just about anywhere and know someone just because of hockey. Everyone really sticks up for one another. It’s a family, in a way.”

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