Some paths are rather winding, as a player grinds his way through minor leagues, looking to catch a pair of eyes that will lead him to the show. Some paths are more direct, a high-profile draft pick jumping straight into the NHL as a teenager. Most who dream of it don’t even get to experience the NHL at all.
So for Derek Ryan, the long road filled with question marks and uncertainty makes the end result – his NHL debut with the Carolina Hurricanes at age 29 – all the more memorable.
“It’s the moment every kid dreams of when they’re playing hockey growing up,” he said after the Hurricanes morning skate. “It’s pretty amazing. I definitely feel extremely blessed and excited for the opportunity. It’s unbelievable.”
“It’s a real great story. He’s a passionate hockey player who has done everything asked (of him) at every level,” head coach Bill Peters said. “He believes in himself, and the next thing you know, here he is in New Jersey making his debut tonight. It’s an exciting time for him and his family.”
Ryan and the Charlotte Checkers were traveling back to the Queen City on Monday, all eyes dialed in to trade deadline happenings.
The Checkers were on their last leg back from Winnipeg when Ryan got word of his first ever NHL call-up.
“I obviously couldn’t text anybody because I was on a flight, so that was a little frustrating, but as soon as we landed I was on my phone,” he said. “Pretty crazy mass of emotions going over me. It feels great.”
Next on the to-do list was to make sure his family would be in New Jersey to see his NHL debut. His wife and son are flying up from Charlotte, and his dad and sister are flying in from Spokane, WA, not exactly the most direct route to Newark, NJ.
“We had to get on Expedia right away and get on some flights,” Ryan said. “It’s obviously a huge moment for myself and my family, so I wanted to make sure they were here to experience it with me. That was very important.”
At 29 years and 63 days old, Ryan will become the oldest player to make his NHL debut for the Hurricanes, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“I’d say I’m a bit of a late developer,” the American-born center said with a smile.
Ten years ago, in the 2005-06 season, Ryan was playing junior hockey for the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League. It was his second full season, one in which he led the team with 61 points (24g, 37a) in 72 games. Behind the bench was a familiar face: Bill Peters.
Ten years and a number of stops in Canada and Europe later, Ryan landed back on a team helmed by Peters.
“Yeah, that’s funny. He’s obviously grown as a coach. He’s grown through the ranks and progressed, but at the same time, I don’t think he’s changed all that much. He’s a really smart hockey mind. He knows what the game is all about, and he knows how to manage people,” Ryan said. “I think he’s really good at managing different personalities of different players. He’s probably one of the best coaches I’ve seen at that. He runs fast-paced practices, and that hasn’t changed either. I was excited to get on the ice with him again.”
It’s the 10 years in between Ryan’s time in Spokane and today in New Jersey that is perhaps most intriguing.
“I’ve changed a lot,” Ryan reflected. “I’ve grown to understand the game and what it takes to play pro and be a pro. I’ve learned the game, too, as I’ve progressed.”
After three full seasons in the WHL, Ryan played hockey at the University of Alberta and was his team’s leading scorer with 47 points (17g, 30a) in his senior year.
“The NHL probably isn’t even on the radar,” he said.
Ryan then spent three seasons in Austria, where he totaled 199 points (90g, 109a) in 158 games.
“Going from Canadian University to Austria, the NHL wasn’t even a thought in my mind; it was just, I’m playing pro hockey, can make good money and provide for my family,” he said. “You always have the dream of playing in the NHL, but it’s never a realistic dream when you’re seemingly that far away.”
His 2014-15 campaign in the Swedish Hockey League garnered attention from NHL eyeballs. Ryan tallied 15 goals and 45 assists (60 points) for Orebro, being named the SHL’s Forward of the Year and earning Most Valuable Player honors. He drew interest from a number of NHL teams and signed his first professional contract in North America with the Hurricanes in mid-June.
“Bill (Peters) was obviously a big part, but not the only part,” Ryan explained. “I thought Carolina would be a good fit. It’s worked out pretty well. I’ve had a good time in Charlotte, and hopefully I can take advantage of my opportunity up here.”
Following a 10-game road trip that opened the season, the Checkers returned to Charlotte in early November. During player introductions in the Checkers’ home opener at Bojangles’ Coliseum, Ryan was revealed to the public as the team’s captain.
“I didn’t expect to come in there and get a ‘C’ on my jersey, especially never having played pro in North America. It was a huge honor,” he said. “I think my coach and teammates in Charlotte would tell you that I don’t lead vocally – I’m not a huge vocal guy in the dressing room – but I lead by example. I work hard and try to do all the right things day in and day out in games and practices.”
“He’s an awesome guy. Everybody loves him down there,” Brock McGinn said. “He’s a great guy in the dressing room, on the ice and outside the rink. I don’t think you can think of anything bad to say about him. He’s just an all-around good guy and a great teammate.”
At the time of his recall, Ryan paced the Checkers in goals (17) and points (42). He also is tied for the team-lead in power-play goals with seven, and he’ll see some time on the man advantage with the big club, as well.
“It’s been earned,” Peters said of the call-up. “He’s been very good for us in the American League. They have a very good power play, and he’s a big reason why.”
“He’s been a big part. He plays at both ends of the rink, and he always brings the same effort every night. He stays positive out there,” McGinn said. “He keeps everybody comfortable and humble on the ice, and that makes a really big difference.”
From Spokane to Alberta to Austria to Sweden, Ryan has taken quite the journey to get where he is today: dressing for the Carolina Hurricanes in an NHL game.
“It’s just been unbelievable going from university, where you’re pretty much a full-time student and a part-time hockey player, to being a professional hockey player and making a name for myself in Europe. Now here I am for my first NHL game,” Ryan said. “It’s surreal. I don’t even know if it’s really hit me yet. I’m just trying to take it all in and make sure I thrive in the moment.”
is the Web Producer for the Carolina Hurricanes.Email