Flyers prospect Steve Downie slouched back in his locker room stall, simultaneously kicking off his skates and unraveling the tape from his stick blade while fielding questions from a small circle of intent reporters.
Sweat beaded off the forehead of the intense 20-year-old forward, who spoke at first in short, bated breaths, still trying to catch his wind following a spirited Team Canada practice just days before the team was set to begin defense of its gold medal at the World Junior Championship in Sweden.
"The key to us repeating?" he asked rhetorically, echoing one reporter's query. "It all starts from the top, with leadership. You look at the guys who were here last year, the guys who have to carry the team.
"You look to some of the unsung guys, like [defenseman] Ryan Parent," Downie continued. "He doesn't get all of the attention, but he goes out every night and just gets the job done. That's what this team is all about."
Canada did go on to capture its third straight WJC crown, thanks in large part to the contributions of Downie and Parent, OHL rivals when they are not performing as teammates on the international stage. Little did either realize at the time, however, that they would become members of the same NHL organization just a short time later.
Parent, acquired along with forward Scottie Upshall and a pair of draft picks last week from Nashville in the Peter Forsberg trade, brings with him an impressive list of credentials and a reputation as one of the top shut-down defensemen in the major junior ranks.
The 6'2, 205-pound Guelph Storm blueliner has also been widely praised for his natural leadership abilities and maturity both on and off the ice.
"He's a player that leads by example out there," continued Downie. "He's a warrior and a guy the [veterans] and young players all admire. He's a pleasure to play with and a pain to play against."
A native of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Parent (pronounced like the word used for one's mother or father, not the former Flyers goaltender) and his family moved to Sioux Lookout, Ontario when he was four. He put himself on the map as a legitimate NHL prospect by captaining Team Ontario to the gold medal at the 2003 Under-17 Hockey Challenge.
He made his major junior debut for the Guelph Storm in 2003-04, after being selected in the first round of the OHL Priority Draft. The Storm, a veteran-loaded squad, would go on to capture the league championship that year and compete in the Memorial Cup tournament.
"It really couldn't have worked out any better for me," explained Parent. "Having the opportunity to join a team that was on the cusp of something special. You don't want to get spoiled, but you always want to win. It was a great situation to come into."
Parent played sparingly at times during his rookie season, but still appeared in 58 games, recording six points (one goal, five assists), 18 penalty minutes and a very respectable +10 rating. He also played in all 22 of the Storm's postseason games, notching a single minor penalty.
"It was a great experience, to be able to be a part of winning a championship in my first year in the OHL," added Ryan. "I didn't get the big minutes right away, but my rookie season was a real learning experience. I knew more [opportunities] would come down the line."
The Storm fell short in its Memorial Cup bid, finishing last among the four teams competing in the tournament, but Ryan came away from the experience with a positive outlook.
"Sure, it was disappointing that we didn't win it all. But, still, that was a thrill, just to be there", he said. "We didn't win, and that was our goal, but there were many positives to be taken from it.
"We had a great run, and it's something I'll never forget."
Becoming a Force
In August of 2005, Parent was chosen to captain another Canadian international entry, this time leading his team to a gold medal at the World Under-18 championships.
He followed his strong performance in the tournament with an outstanding second season at Guelph, developing into a force to be reckoned with on the Storm's blueline.
"You could see the maturation process taking shape," explained Storm general manager and former NHL forward Dave Barr, who also took over the team's head coaching duties in 2004-05.Ryan understands his strengths as a defensive player, and is developing a real presence in his own end.
"He came back to us after the Under-18 tournament and played with even more confidence and poise than we saw in his first season."
The Storm endured a trying season on the whole, finishing with a losing record for the first time in five years and losing to the eventual-OHL champion London Knights in a first round playoff sweep.
Parent, though, was a true bright spot, proving to be a player on the rise with his outstanding defensive play and emerging leadership qualities.
His heightened role also resulted in a point increase, as he tallied 19 points (two goals, 17 assists), 36 penalty minutes and a +5 rating in 66 games.
"I felt as if I was really coming into my own," he said. "I started taking more initiative and everything just kind of fell into place. That second year was tough for the team, as we did not repeat as OHL champions. But for me, personally, I think I made a lot of strides in my game."
In addition to the strides he made at Guelph, Parent continued to gain the attention of scouts. He was chosen to play in the 2005 CHL Top Prospects Game, where he won both the 60-yard dash and full-lap competitions.
"Ryan deserves the recognition. He plays with a high level of confidence, and that has been one of the top factors in helping him elevate his game," explained then-Guelph teammate and fellow defensive prospect Kevin Klein. "He's very smooth with the puck and never panics. He's always on top of things back there."
A World of Praise
As his breakout sophomore season in the OHL, Parent was acknowledged as a top defensive prospect heading in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. He was ranked as the eighth best North American skater available in the Central Scouting Bureau's final report, and was ultimately taken 18th overall by the Nashville Predators.
"We have been following Ryan during his two years at Guelph, and are very impressed with the poise and presence he has developed, particularly in the defensive end," explained Nashville General Manager David Poile following the draft.
For Parent, getting drafted was a dream come true.
"It was an amazing day," he remembered. "Just the whole thing, it went by so quickly. When I heard my name called by the Predators, it was actually a little bit of a surprise. Maybe it was just the importance of the moment. It was hard to believe."
Parent quickly picked up where he left off in his previous season with the OHL, continuing to develop as a dominant stay-at-home blueliner for the Storm. He added a little more offense, with 21 points in 60 games and an aggressive streak, increasing his penalty minutes total substantially to 122.
In January, Parent received what he called the ultimate honor, getting the chance to play for Team Canada at the 2006 World Junior Championships in Vancouver. The selection seemed only natural, given his pedigree as a contributor for and captain of numerous Canadian International teams in recent years.
At the tournament, Parent was paired with fellow 2005 draftee Marc Staal. The duo dominated the competition, effectively shutting down players such as Russian star Evgeni Malkin, en route to helping Canada capture the gold.
"It was an amazing ride," Parent explained. "I don't think anything in my career could compare to it, getting to represent your country and win the gold medal. It was just unbelievable, but it was definitely another experience that helped me grow as a player."
Added Team Canada coach Brent Sutter: "Parent was outstanding for us, in what was, overall, a great team effort. He was very solid in our end and showed why many are excited about his [NHL] chances. You have to love the kid's character and dedication."
The 2005-06 season ended again in disappointment for the Storm, who were again eliminated from the OHL playoffs by the London Knights, this time in the conference finals. Parent enjoyed a strong postseason, however, playing his usual brand of solid defense while recording five points (one goal, four assists) and 24 penalty minutes in 15 games.
After Guelph's season ended, Parent had the opportunity to join Nashville's minor league affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals, for the team's Calder Cup playoff run in the AHL. He appeared in 10 games for the Admirals after signing an amateur try-out, recording four penalty minutes in limited duty.
"That was a great opportunity for me to take advantage of," he explained. "The coaching staff in Milwaukee really prepared me well, and everyone there was very helpful. The speed of the game was much faster and the players were bigger and more physical, but I think it was good to get a feel for all of that. Definitely a worthwhile experience."
Returning to Guelph for his fourth and likely final OHL season, Parent struggled early on in the campaign with a back injury that was later diagnosed as a bulging disk.
He played through the often-excruciating pain, however, and proudly reassumed his role on the blueline for Team Canada as the team returned to defend its goal medal at the WJC in Sweden. Parent again was paired with Staal, and the duo was even more cohesive and unbreakable than it had been the previous year, helping the program capture its third straight tournament title.
"[Parent and Staal] move the puck quickly and that may sound like it is nothing, but it gets you out of a lot of defensive problems," said Canada coach Craig Hartsburg. "There is no panic in either one of them, especially when things start to happen. They sort it out quickly."
"Ryan's such a great player, and plays with such a comfort level," added Staal. "He's an outstanding skater and is so good at supporting the rush and allowing me to take more chances. We're given such specific roles, and that really helps. We're told to shut down players and both of us play that game really well. We talk a lot away from the ice and that makes us more comfortable with each other when we are on the ice."
As was the case last year, Parent and Staal again drew the assignment of covering and shutting down the oppositions' top players. In 2006, it was Malkin. This year, the duo rendered projected top 2007 draft selection Alexei Cherapanov of Russia a non-factor in the gold medal game.
"[Parent and Staal] were unbelievable for us," noted Downie. "They're not overly physical or anything, they just know how to play great D. Watch them out there, they both fly. They take away everything the other team throws at them because they control the puck so well, especially on the larger ice surface."
Parent did not record a point in six tournament contests, but again earned praise from all circles for his smart, aggressive play and suffocating defense performance.
"Well, this one was even sweeter than [last year]," explained an elated Parent after the tournament. "To get back here and do it again, what a great moment. Especially to be able to [win my second gold medal], this is an accomplishment I will always be incredibly proud of."
Added Hartsburg: "[Parent] did it all. Not in terms of putting points on the board, but he doesn't have to be that type of player. He was a true leader for us, in every sense. He just doesn't make mistakes, and plays with so much energy and fire and smarts. It was great getting the chance to coach him here."
A New Beginning
Returning from the WJC, Parent refocused on his goal of helping the Guelph Storm (28-18-3-8) back to the OHL playoffs, and into contention for another shot at the league championship. He has continued, at times, to be hampered by the back injury that impeded him earlier in the season, but appears to be fighting through it.
Parent was named captain of the Storm prior to the season. He has nine points (three goals, six assists), 62 penalty minutes and a +3 rating in 32 games thus far, and is hoping for a strong finish to his OHL career, as he is expected to turn pro next season. He had originally expected to do so, however, as a member of the Nashville Predators'' organization.
All of that changed with the Forsberg trade, but Parent certainly isn't complaining.
"It's a great opportunity for myself," he explained. "In Nashville, they were swamped on the blue line with a lot of young [defensemen] coming up in their system so that makes it very tough for myself.
"I'm coming to a team like Philadelphia that is really looking towards young guys and headed more towards the future. There is a great opportunity there. It's something I am excited [about] and looking forward to."
While the Predators gained a world class player in Forsberg for their playoff push, the move was a difficult one to make for Nashville G.M. David Poile. He noted his regret in parting with Parent and Scottie Upshall at the press conference announcing the deal.
"Clearly, we have paid a high price for this," he explained.
Following the trade, Parent's addition to the Flyers organization was met with near-universal praise. Analysts around the hockey world acknowledged that the Flyers were gaining a potential franchise cornerstone defenseman in Parent.
"I love Parent," said former Flyers goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck, who is now an analyst for HDTV. "He's a tremendous skater and he's nasty. He's an excellent all-around defenseman."
Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren stated thathe believes the 19-year-old rearguard could challenge for a spot on the Flyers' roster as early as next season. Much of that will depend on Parent's performance at training camp in September.
"I think because of the way he skates, he's probably a guy who looks like he's ready next year," Holmgren said. "The question we'll have to face at that time is what's best for his development, but he's a big-time skater and a big-time defender."
Either way, Parent is anxiously looking forward to the new opportunity.
"[The Flyers] have a lot of young talent on their team this year and in their system as well," he said. "The future looks pretty bright, too."