Road less travelled leads former Golden Bear Derek Ryan to NHL dream

Road less travelled leads former Golden Bear Derek Ryan to NHL dream

Evan Daum, Canada West Communications

If you're reading this story, no doubt you've already heard about Derek Ryan's unique path to the NHL.

From the Western Hockey League, to the University of Alberta, Europe and eventually back to North America, Ryan's journey to hockey's biggest stage hasn't been the most direct route.

Nonetheless it serves as a powerful reminder that the road less travelled can still be the right one.

It all paid off Tuesday night for the former Spokane Chief, as the 29-year-old made his NHL debut for the Carolina Hurricanes against the New Jersey Devils, potting his first NHL goal on the power play in a 3-1 win.

“I’m coming down from cloud nine a little bit and putting things into perspective. The emotions I’ve had in the last 24 to 48 hours have been pretty crazy, but it’s been a huge blessing just to have this opportunity. To score a goal in my first game was a thrill to say the least,” Ryan, who was an American Hockey League all-star this season with the Charlotte Checkers before his NHL call-up, said Wednesday evening.

For fans of Canada West hockey, the goal was textbook Ryan.

Patience, poise and a quick finish.

Golden Bears fans at Clare Drake Arena became accustomed to the shifty forward's offensive ability during his four years at Alberta, where he racked up 146 points in 109 Canada West regular season games.

Opponents became accustomed to fishing the puck out of their net.

“I think I scored a few goals like that at the UofA,” said Ryan of his first NHL marker.

While Bears fans knew all too well who Ryan was when his named flashed across the highlights, the rest of the hockey world must have been reaching for their smartphones, searching to see where the oldest player in Hurricanes franchise history to score his first NHL goal had come from.

“Most North Americans are pretty uneducated about CIS hockey and European hockey for sure. They just don’t really understand the different leagues and the level of play in the CIS and some of the top European leagues,” said Ryan, who started his pro career with Sapa Fehérvár AV19 in Austria’s Erste Bank Eishockey Liga.

“I definitely try to take the opportunity to educate them and tell them about where I’ve come from.”

As the 14th Golden Bear to crack the NHL and the 54th Canada West player to make it to such hockey heights, Ryan's story isn't unheard of, but it’s undoubtedly a rarity.

“I think the only thing I can say to that is just how lucky and blessed I feel,” Ryan said when asked about being the latest CIS player to crack the NHL and first CW player to suit up in an NHL game since former Dino Bracken Kearns laced up with San Jose during the 2013-14 season. 

“When I was playing (CIS), the NHL was the furthest thing from my mind. You’re pretty much a full-time student and a part-time hockey player at that point, so your focus isn’t really on making it to the bigs. You’re just trying to survive school and play hockey at the same time.”

Ryan not only survived those four years as a student-athlete while earning a Science degree, he flourished.

“I don’t think I’d be here playing in the NHL without the UofA. It was a critical point in my life when I grew as a person, as a hockey player and it was through those Golden Bear connections that I got my first job in Austria,” explained Ryan, who played for former Golden Bear Kevin Primeau during his first season in Europe.

“Literally I probably wouldn’t be playing hockey without those connections, so it was obviously pivotal in my hockey career and I’m forever grateful to the Golden Bear community for that.”

Thanks to those connections Ryan’s career continued, as his path took him to Austria, the Swedish Hockey League – where Ryan was named league MVP a year ago – the AHL, and now the pinnacle of pro hockey.

“It’s been a long journey including just this season to get to where I am now,” Ryan pointed out. 

“I knew that I’d have to prove myself in the American League and I’ve had a pretty good year down here and proved that I can adjust pretty seamlessly to the North American style game. I’ve had to have a little bit of patience to wait for that call-up.”

Not surprisingly, for fans of Golden Bears hockey, Ryan's debut meant a great deal. It was a reassurance of sorts that dreams do come true and that ultimately university hockey is about achieving your goals - whether they be in a boardroom, or walking off the half-boards.

“It means a lot,” Ryan said of the support he’s received from the Golden Bear community and hockey fans in Edmonton. “A lot of my phone calls, texts and social media was from former players or acquaintances in Edmonton who were obviously super excited for me.”

“It just goes to show the great hockey community that’s up there. Edmontonians live and breathe hockey. Whether it’s CIS hockey, NHL, or WHL, whatever it is, they’re excited about it.”