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van Asten living his NHL dream

by Aaron Vickers / Calgary Flames

All I want to do is win. I don’t care about anything else. That’s the goal. All we want to do is win.Ryan van Asten

CALGARY, AB -- He fantasized, like so many young Canadians do, of one day making it to the National Hockey League.

Eating, sleeping, and breathing the sport to the point he eventually became one of the rare few to accomplish the goal.

But not in a traditional fashion.

“As a kid my goal was to play in the NHL,” started Ryan van Asten.

“It’s what I wanted to do. It’s the only thing I wanted to do. In my household, hockey was secondary to schooling. Both my brother and I were always really good in school. That’s an extension of my parents putting a huge priority on that.

“Eventually you realize it’s not going to happen from a hockey standpoint so my goal all along was to work in the NHL. This was a way to do that. I didn’t make it as a player but in my opinion, this is the next best thing.”

This being strength and conditioning coach of the Calgary Flames.

It wasn’t an immediate connection for the 35-year-old, though.

Coaching, and strength and conditioning, wasn’t an avenue the Oshawa, ON native fully explored until he was playing hockey at Queens University, and a teammate put his fellow players on notice with a workout program -- van Asten’s first.

“We’re talking the mid-90’s when it wasn’t a huge thing for younger hockey players," he said. "Everyone trained, but there was no real structure to it. Once I got to university, one of my teammates, Anthony Slater, actually gave the team a real training program. It was the first time I ever had a real program … I was probably the only guy on the team to actually do the whole thing perfectly. I loved it.

“I really knew I was always interested in science and biology. I started taking life sciences, and human anatomy and physiology was always a part of that. I was really interested in it. I always liked to work out but didn’t know anything about it.

“That’s how it all started. I really enjoyed the training side of things and the programing and the science behind it.”

From there, van Asten completed his Bachelor of Science degree in Life Sciences and a Bachelor of Physical and Health Education degree from Queens, and looked further into his options.

He considered McGill, Western Ontario, and McMaster before settling on the University of Calgary to earn his Master's of Science degree in Neuromuscular Physiology.

With good reason.

“I looked around the whole country at every school and went through all the faculty in kinesiology and physiology to see who was doing stuff that I really liked,” van Asten said. “I narrowed it down to four or five different universities and the University of Calgary was one of them with Dave Smith and Stephen Norris.

“The other thing I looked at too, was what’s actually going on in that particular city when it comes to sports. All these places had some pretty cool things going on from a sports perspective, but Calgary was unique in the sense that almost all the winter Olympians train in Calgary. That sealed the deal for me. I though if I ever wanted to work in sport, I need to go where sports happen.”

Hockey Canada. The Flames. The Calgary Hitmen. Canadian Sport Institute.

All available to van Asten.

But not before a critical internship in Florida.

“I did an internship in the United States in my late 20’s for free,” van Asten said. “It was an unpaid internship, but it gave me exposure to professional athletes, mostly NFL guys. It gave me exposure to some really bright people in the field, and it made me think about the way I train people way differently than I ever had before.

"It was a life-changing thing for me to do that.

“Most of my friends had full-time jobs for a long time, and I’m the 26, 27-year-old doing an internship for free … not making anything and struggling to buy groceries. It’s just the way it is.

“You’ve got to get out there and work and network and talk to people. If you’re not asking questions or if there’s anything available or if you can help, the answer is always going to be no.

“You might as well ask.”

Van Asten did.

The internship left him with plenty of opportunity back in Calgary.

And a golden opportunity.

As a member of the national women’s hockey team, van Asten won gold at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver.

“I did my grad school, stuck my neck out there, did testing for the Flames, did testing for Hockey Canada, and then I graduated, did the internship, and then immediately when the internship was over I came back and got a job with CSI with the Canadian luge team,” van Asten said.

“Within a couple weeks I picked up the Hockey Canada side of things.”

Within months he had an Olympic championship on his resume.

Soon thereafter he added his first of two Stanley Cup rings with the Los Angeles Kings.

“That’s one of the questions they asked in the interview,” he said. “You’ve worked in women’s hockey. How does that compare and how is it different from the men’s game and how does it prepare you at the NHL level? Are you prepared to do that?

“The women’s team centralizes in Calgary. In 2009-10, we played over 65 games. It was very similar to an NHL schedule. There’s really not a lot of difference besides it’s women’s hockey … it’s women. It wasn’t that much different.

“It was harder, to be honest, because you aren’t traveling in a chartered jet. You’re traveling commercial … you’re on a bus…you’re doing all that stuff. I would say it was pretty comparable to an American Hockey League situation.”

The NHL situation was good to van Asten.

Three years; two Cups.

“Olympic gold was my first championship … on home soil in Vancouver was amazing. I never thought anything could top that,” he said.

“Then the Stanley Cup rolls around. My first year in the NHL I won a Stanley Cup. The season was tough … the playoffs for us we rolled through it. Going into the final we lost two games.

“The following year we lost in the conference finals to Chicago, and the next year was the hardest playoffs you could ever imagine. Three Game 7’s on the road against San Jose, Anaheim and Chicago. Game 7 in Chicago was double-overtime. And then New York in the final. That, for me, the second one, was pretty special. It was so much different than the first one. The grind … it was so much harder to win.”

“I look at them all as they’re all their own individual things and they all have their own place for me. But that last Stanley Cup … what we had to go through to win made it special.”

A return to Calgary has proven to be special, too.

But it hasn’t yielded van Asten the same success.

Yet.

“All I want to do is win. I don’t care about anything else. That’s the goal,” he said. “All we want to do is win. I’m upset when we lose a game. If it’s Game 4 of the regular season I’m not happy if we lose. As a support staff, you try to be status quo all the time. You don’t want to show your true colors on your sleeve too much just because you’re supposed to be positive all the time. Losing … is not good.”

But it is motivating.

And it's helped form the drive that’s helped van Asten go from student to strength coach in less than a decade.

The same drive that’s landed him in the NHL.

His dream job.

“In my field I feel like I’m an NHLer,” van Asten said. “If you’re a Canadian strength coach … grew up in Canada … it’s a very highly coveted job. To work in the NHL … there’s 30 head strength coaches in professional hockey in North America.

“I get to go on the ice with the guys. I practice. I’ve skated with NHL players.

“For sure, I definitely feel like an NHLer.”

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