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Derek Ryan's journey to the NHL was incredibly unique

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

Derek Ryan didn't merely take that proverbial road-less traveled you always hear spoken of.

"I like to call it the road never traveled," dad Tim noted, nailing the spirit of the thing, in a 2017 Sports Illustrated profile of his son.

From junior hockey in his hometown of Spokane, Washington to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, to Székesfehérvár, Hungary, to Villach, Austria to Orebro, Sweden to Charlotte and then Raleigh, N.C.

And now here, to Calgary.

Ryan didn't make his NHL debut until he was 29 years old.

So no airs. No entitlement. No taking it for granted.

"I think,'' says the freshly-signed Flames' centreman, en route home to Spokane from attending a wedding. "I have a different perspective from a lot of the guys in the NHL.

"I mean, yes there are guys from all walks of life and don't want to say anything bad about other players. But lot of them get to play at a young age, maybe don't even have to spend any time in the American Hockey League at any point in order to get where they've always dreamed of being.

"The fact I was a university student and then playing in the minor leagues in Europe, not making a ton of money … I've gone through a lot of different things in my hockey career. I get on the charters flights now and I'm like: 'Oh my gosh. This is unbelievable.'

"I remember hauling my own gear around in Hungary. Flying commercial to U of A games and being stuck in a middle seat with a layover.

"But they were great experiences. They make it all the more special to be where I am now.

"I just don't take anything for granted. It's a different perspective, that's all.

"I treasure my life. I feel lucky. I feel blessed.

"That's how I look at it every day that I'm in the NHL."

Video: Derek Ryan on his decision to sign with the Flames

Ryan addressed a need, bringing in a right-handed pivot capable of playing in all situations who put up a nifty 56.5 percent face-off efficiency last season for the Canes.

"It opens up a whole bunch of different things,'' said Calgary GM Brad Treliving. "Faceoffs is one part of it but he does more than just take faceoffs.

"It's much easier to go from the middle to the wall than it is to take a winger and put him in the middle. You go back as far as Craig Conroy and we've lacked a right-shot centreman.

"At critical points in games, ends of periods, ends of games, to have given the coaches the arsenal where you have lefties and guys on the right side.

"These days if you hit 30, I guess, you just walk outside and it's over. He's 31 but there hasn't been a 31-year-old grind on him. This is a productive player in junior, a productive player in the CIS, went to Europe and was an all-star and MVP in Sweden. Came back to North America was a top scorer in the American Hockey League.

"The career path has been a long one, a unique one but there's been production and success everywhere. He just needed an opportunity. And he's gotten it."

Ryan's ties to Canada, to Alberta, deepened during his four winters on the U of A campus, coming into sharp focus during tragedy.

During his second year on the Edmonton campus, Ryan's mom, Nancy, passed away unexpectedly in her sleep. The 22-year-old son, in mourning, stayed to play a game the night he received the news before flying home to grieve with loved ones.

"In that difficult situation, the people of Edmonton, at the U of A and the Golden Bears hockey program basically became my family,'' says Ryan now.

"So when I say we're excited about getting back to Alberta, one of the reasons is because of the people there.

"Just … unbelievable

"It was a really hard thing for me to go through. I was really close to my mom. I was a bit of a momma's boy, I'll admit that.

"For them to take me under their wings and become my family … I made lifelong friends out of that. They've always been in touch with me. I'll always be close to them. The bond we have will never go away.

"It's something I cherish.

"That's what we love about Canadians and Albertans."

He looks back fondly on his days in Europe. From a personal standpoint, first-born son Zane was born in Austria to Derek and wife Bonnie. Professionally, he led the Swedish league in scoring at 60 points and was selected Forward of the Year and the SHL Most Valuable Player.

In joining the Flames on a three-year deal with an AAV of $3,125,000 Sunday, the first day of unrestricted free agency, Ryan re-connects with Bill Peters, his coach in Spokane and then again in Carolina.

"Going through the decision-making process you try and look at all the different variables,'' he said.
"Bill for sure was a part of that.

"We thought it was a good fit for me personally, as far as the roster, where I'm going to fit in the and what I can provide in the lineup. At the end of the day, we're looking for the best opportunity, the best term and the best money, weighing in the other factors.

"Opportunity being the most important."

Back in Alberta, seven years later.

"It is, in a way, kind of a coming home,'' he protests good-naturedly. "Calgary's probably the closest you can get in the league to Spokane other than Vancouver, and quite frankly it's probably the same in terms of driving distance.

"As I said, we love Canadians in general and Albertans specifically. I throughly enjoyed my time in Edmonton and on a fly-up last week we could see Calgary's an amazing city.

"So, Happy Canada Day. Haven't been able to celebrate that day in a while.

"Looking forward to again in future."

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