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WANDERLUST

By George Johnson - CalgaryFlames.com

Those second two years overseas, life in Villach, Austria, was an intimate slice of Frommer's travel-guide, fairy-tale heaven.

"We lived in a little red cottage," Derek Ryan is recalling, not a trifle wistfully, of the seasons spent wearing the eagle of EC VSV in the Erste Bank Hockey League with his wife Bonnie. "Not kidding. An actual little red cottage. Brand new but so European.

"We have all those fake kinda German cities in Washington (state). But this was the real deal.

"No kids yet, just a dog. Twenty minutes from Italy. 'Hey, honey, want to go Italy today for a pizza lunch?'

"Half an hour from Slovenia, an absolute hidden gem. Beautiful.

"We're learning German. Diving into the culture. Travelling. You just don't have those kinds of experiences with your wife early in many marriages.

"We cherish those memories."

Ryan, understand, is asked about his rather circuitous route to the NHL more often than Franco Harris is asked about the Immaculate Reception or Diego Maradona about The Hand of God goal for Argentina against England at the 1986 World Cup.

The man's had his passport stamped more times than Jason Bourne (in all his various nationality guises). Has trekked around Europe more often than the late Anthony Bourdain.  

His tale, of course, has been oft told, by, among others, Sports Illustrated.

The under-sized centre from the Spokane Chiefs of the WHL moving to the campus at the University of Alberta as a student/athlete, then to Székesfehérvár, Hungary, followed by Villach before Örebro, Sweden, back across the ocean to Charlotte, N.C., to Raleigh, and now here, to Calgary.

The world map he and Bonnie have back at home back in Spokane, pins stuck there to remind them of every place they've visited, is a virtual forest of pins.

But it's been a journey, in more ways than just geographical.

An incredible odyssey of perseverance and overcoming many difficult situations.

 

The death of Ryan's mom Nancy while he was far from home, off in the northern Alberta hinterlands, playing a second year for the Golden Bears.

Beating the odds, trumping the skeptics, making his NHL debut at age 29, etc., etc., etc.

So he's done this interview before.

"Oh, yeah," he replied.

Then a smile.

"But it's my story. And a good story."

A story that began to take shape during his time at the U of A, focused on education, earning a degree and maybe starting a career in pharmacy, doling out prescriptions instead of defence-splitting passes.

"Ending my junior career, I didn't have a lot of NHL interest," he recalled. "It was more the bigger-slower NHL, not today's smaller-faster NHL then. So I was overlooked pretty quickly.

"I explored the Canadian university route. And, I mean, the U of A's hockey program speaks for itself. Eric Thurston was the coach. I visited Edmonton on a fly-up, liked the city and it was closer to home, to Spokane, than, say, a U in the Maritimes or McGill.

"Big family guy, big education guy and I wanted to go somewhere and win. In my opinion, if you want to win in CIS hockey, U of A's the place.

"So, no brainer."

Then, in the second year, shattering news from Spokane.

"Totally unexpected," says Ryan. "My mom didn't have any underlying issues. One day, she just didn't wake up. Got a call from my dad. I was in Edmonton, just getting out of class. I remember the call. I probably will the rest of my life.

"My dad said mom had passed away and I needed to come home and get ready for the funeral."

The 22-year-old son, in mourning, stayed to play a game the night he received the shattering news before flying home to grieve with loved ones.

"Obviously it's been long enough now that I … don't want to say I'm 'over' it, because you never really are … but I understand it a little more, am a little more at peace with it.

"It was painful at the time. So painful. I felt so bad for my dad. My mom was like any mom, the rock, the keystone. His life had to change. Our lives had to change.

"But it brought us closer together as a family, my dad, my sister and myself."

 

Following the four-year stint at the U of A, options narrowed by a lack of NHL interest, Ryan embarked on the European journey.

"Luckily, the first couple of years were very positive experiences over there for my wife and I. To be able to make a decent living and travel the world was awesome.

"Our first year, in Hungary, was good, which kind of set the tone. Spent a lot of time in Budapest, a fantastic city. I was making good money, more than I ever could've in Spokane, in 'the real world' - as my dad would say."

Ryan's second season at Villach, he topped the Austrian league, scoring 38 times and finishing with 84 points in 54 games, en route to the Ron Kennedy Trophy as MVP.

His one year in Sweden saw further growth in his game, 45 assists and 60 points and selection as the league's Forward of the Year along with the SHL's Most Valuable Player award.

Through the journey, Bonnie was right there, beside him in the carriage, for the whole ride, from the moment Ryan's train left the station.

"We talk about all the cool places we visited over there and the cool life we led," he says now, "but bouncing around as much as we did … she sacrificed a career in North America as a hair stylist to follow me to Europe, dropped everything to come and live in a small town in Hungary.

"That's showing a lot of faith in someone, I'd say.

"We'd been dating when I was playing for the Spokane Chiefs back in the day, making $50 every two weeks. So she's been there the entire way.

"Obviously she's a big part of the reason I stuck with it and why I'm here today."

His success in Orebro triggered overtures followed by an NHL contract offer from the Carolina Hurricanes.

So on March 1, 2016, against the New Jersey Devils, Derek Ryan, aged 29, played his first NHL game, scoring his opening top-flight goal in the process against Cory Schneider.

"Look, it's a big deal, your first game, however you get there. But for me, maybe tenfold because of the path I'd taken. So rare, so many legs. It wasn't until I got to Sweden that NHL teams started to watch and notice me. That's pretty late on.

"My dad flew out from Spokane for my first NHL game. My sister flew out from Spokane. My wife and our son, Zane. He'd have been just over one at the time.

"I guess the longer you play at this level, it doesn't have the same … lustre isn't the right word, it always has lustre … anxiety, I guess would be as good a word as any.

"As a call-up, you're nervous at every touch of the puck in every practice. Soon, you get a lot more comfortable.

"At the same time, there's lot of guys who take it for granted pretty quickly, pretty easily.

"Having fought my way up the ladder, I think, made everything sweeter. I guess I just have a different perspective. I didn't come here at 18, 19, 20, 21, straight out of junior or college and step right into the league. I had to make my way, weave my way, jump my way.

"You know, I never considered it a fight to reach the NHL, as nice as that might fit into the story. I just thought of it as a fight to continually play at a better level, do better for my family, and this is where it's led me."

 

Here in Calgary, that family - Bonnie, Derek and the two kids - don't live in an authentic little red cottage, and 'Hey, honey, want to go to Cochrane for a pizza lunch?' may not carry have the same sweeping romance as, say, Venice.

Still.

"Whenever you go to a new team, new city, new job, it's an adjustment. We really like Calgary. It's a nice city, big, pretty spread out. We're living in a nice area west of the city, lots of families, kids, good schools.

"We're more comfortable now, this is December. Feels more like home.

"The hockey's been great. The team's really good. We're just starting to really play the way we can. I've got no complaints.

"I've been blessed."

It's a story oft-told. Experiencing the ups, the downs and along the way a nice chunk of the world in the bargain.

And there is, in his view, a reason in making sense of the whole improbably winding journey.

"Your family's most important, for sure," says Ryan. "But my faith is right there alongside them. We're in it together. We're members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

"It's the classic biblical parable, I guess: Build your house on a sandy formation it can be blown away in a storm. Build it on a rock, and you're going to be safe. To me and my family, that rock is the church.

"My faith is my foundation and it's put me here, where I am today.

"You look at my whole story, the one we've been talking about, and everything worked out so perfectly for me.

"I mean, I don't feel all this stuff happened just by chance."

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