Mike Van Ryn remembers the day his dad, who happened to also be his coach, told him he wanted him to play defence.
Van Ryn was 14, playing minor hockey in London and bagging goals by the bushel.
“I was complaining and moaning because I used to score a lot,” he said Thursday. “I thought I was never going to score. My dad brought me home a videotape of Bobby Orr.”
And that’s when Van Ryn saw what he was never going to become.
“Obviously none of that rubbed off on me,” he laughed. “That’s just god-given talent that nobody but the Crosbys and the Ovechkins have.”
Van Ryn would however, find where he fit in, what would get him to the NHL and keep him there. “When you come to the NHL you have to find out where you fit in,” he said. “You have to adapt.”
Where the 29-year-old Van Ryn has fit in as an all-arounder. He hit double figures in scoring once but has 124 points in 335 games. He pinches judiciously, you can use him on the power play if you like, but mostly, he’s a top-six defenceman you can depend on. His six points leads all Leafs blueliners.
Van Ryn and the Maple Leafs play the New York Rangers Saturday at Air Canada Centre. The Rangers are a surprising 10-2-1 so far this season. The Leafs go into the game 4-4-3 and winners of three of their last four.
"Mike has played very well,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “He’s been one of the more pleasant surprises on the blue line for us.”
This is precisely the kind of bounce-back season the Leafs were hoping for when they landed Van Ryn for Bryan McCabe in the off-season. Van Ryn had been battling through hand surgery. A depth player on a bad Florida team, he was easily overlooked.
“I never thought I wasn’t a top-four defenceman. It was other people,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of people knew what I could do since I played in the Southeast.”
Van Ryn’s average ice time of 21:14 is fourth among the Leaf defencemen behind Tomas Kaberle, 25:46, Pavel Kubina, 21:51 and Luke Schenn
“He can move the puck really well,” Wilson said. “We want our defencemen to be offence starters. That comes with identifying someone who is wide open and delivering the puck. Our defence does it well.”
“Over the years the game has changed,” said Van Ryn. “If you’re just an offensive guy, you don’t play 25 or 30 minutes a night, you’re too much of a liability. You can’t be that big, slow defenceman who just chips pucks off the glass and moves guys. That guy is gone. Over the years, everybody is becoming two-way defencemen.”