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A pleasant surprise

by Jeff Paterson / Vancouver Canucks
As recently as four years ago, Ryan Stanton wasn’t sure he had a future in professional hockey.

That may seem hard to believe given the way the 24-year-old has seamlessly settled into a regular spot on the Vancouver Canucks blueline. In fact, the St. Albert, Alberta native has been one of the most-pleasant surprises on the team in the first 10 games of the 2013-14 National Hockey League season.

Claimed on waivers from the Chicago Blackhawks two days before the Canucks October 3rd season opener, Stanton has stepped in given the Canucks everything they could have hoped for from a depth defender.

But during his final year in the Western Hockey League, Stanton spent time making sure his grades were in order because he figured he was headed for university when his days with the Moose Jaw Warriors were over.

“I wasn’t enrolled in classes, but I was right there picking schools and was set on U of A (University of Alberta),” he said in a recent post-practice interview. “I actually took a course in my 20-year-old year to upgrade my english so that I could get into a good university. I hadn’t thought about what I was going to take if I went to school because I was still pretty focused on my hockey and wanted to play pro. But I knew I had to plan just in case.”

Fortunately for Stanton, the education he’s getting these days is on-the-job training in the best hockey league in the world. He has steadily improved since his days in Moose Jaw and hasn’t looked out of place in his first full month in the NHL. The 6-foot-2, 196-pounder skates well and has demonstrated hockey sense that allows him to keep the game simple and make good decisions with the puck.

Stanton scored his first NHL goal on October 17th in Buffalo and has added three assists while averaging 13:49 of ice time per game. The offense has been a bonus for a guy who was added to the roster to shore up the team’s defensive depth.

But the offensive contributions aren’t a shock to Ryan Stanton. It was his production in that final year of junior that started to attract the eyes of the National Hockey League. Although Stanton is willing to admit that the scouts were watching the Warriors to see his teammates and he benefitted from being on a team with top prospects.

“When you’ve played three or four years in the (WHL), you get a little bigger, a little stronger, you get more confident,” he explains of his development. “Throughout the first half of the season I had almost a point a game and I’m not even really too much of an offensive guy. So the points were coming. I was playing with Travis Hamonic (of the New York Islanders) that definitely helped because he’s a heck of a player and we worked well together. And I think that got attention. It also helped that we had Dylan McIlrath and Quinton Howden were both first round picks that year so there were lots of scouts at our games. Basically a lot of chips fell into place for me to get signed.”

At the end of that season, Stanton inked a free agent deal with the Chicago Blackhawks and spent the past three years with their American Hockey League affiliate in Rockford, Illinois. On April 27, 2013, he got the opportunity he wasn’t sure would ever arrive. He was recalled by the Blackhawks and made his NHL debut in St. Louis.

Six months later, he seems to have arrived as an everyday defenseman in the league. And even he marvels about how things have worked out since his days in junior when playing in the National Hockey League was the furthest thing from his mind.

“I didn’t think too much about making the NHL -- I was just so happy to be playing in the Western Hockey League,” he recalls. “My draft year, I had no chance of getting picked. I don’t think I was on anyone’s radar and I didn’t even talk to any NHL teams up until my 20-year-old year. I was just happy to be in that league, playing there, working hard and I was getting a scholarship out of it. So I was happy about that. And my game kept progressing and I started to get some interest from pro teams and it’s worked out nicely.”

For both Ryan Stanton and the Vancouver Canucks.

Head coach John Tortorella had the chance to see Stanton at one practice before he inserted him into the line-up. And the coach continues to like what he sees from the newcomer with every passing game.

“Just the way he plays within himself -- he’s not flashy, but I think he understands positioning,” Tortorella says. “He comes from a pretty good organization and he’s been taught well. I like his presence. That is the toughest position to play. Goaltending is the most important. But defense is the toughest. He has a little jam to him. I like his moxy and his positioning.”

Ryan Stanton is living proof that persistence pays off and it’s a message he’s happy to share with any player wondering about a future in professional hockey. In fact, it’s advice he’s already dispensed to his younger brother Ty – an 18-year-old defenseman with the Medicine Hat Tigers and teammate of Canucks prize prospect Hunter Shinkaruk.

“It was just his draft year and I told him you can never give up,” Stanton says. “There are going to be NHL teams at every game watching no matter how old you are. If you don’t get drafted, it’s not the end of the world and if you do get drafted there is still plenty of work to do to sign with an NHL team.”

Only a few short years ago, Ryan Stanton figured he was destined to hit the books. Instead, he’s now hitting opponents and, although somewhat unconventional, his path to professional hockey has worked out perfectly.

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