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RYAN'S ROOTS

BY JAMIE UMBACH

It's a rare occurrence finding Ryan Strome indoors during the summer months at his home in Mississauga, Ontario, but you wouldn't be hard-pressed finding him nearby.

His schedule, contrary to popular opinion surrounding NHL players and the off-season, is packed enough as is training for the new season and making up for lost time with his brothers and extended family that now includes his fiancée Sydney.

"We're actually a lot busier with training and family commitments than during the season," the Oilers centre said. "I train with a bunch of ex-Oilers like Sam Gagner and Taylor Hall, and also John Tavares and Jeff Skinner. We got a good group. It's pretty close to here and we skate and work out together. We kind of keep our group small, stay under the radar a little bit and do our thing.

"Then we're over at her parents' place for dinner at least twice a week, and Sunday nights are usually for Strome family dinners."

Luckily for them and Ryan's parents Trish and Chris, they're never far away during the summer in their own small pocket of Mississauga near the shores of Lake Ontario after putting down roots no more than five minutes from both their childhood homes.

On the same streets and in the same arenas he and his brothers Dylan and Matthew grew up skating in as members of the Toronto Marlboros, Ryan puts the finishing touches on preparing to depart for his sixth NHL season and second as an Edmonton Oiler.

Our scheduled rival at their home on a Sunday afternoon in August is already a deviation from the regular routine of the self-proclaimed homebodies who like keeping it contained within their own sphere of friends and family. That's usually enough work in itself.

"It can be a lot to handle," said Sydney, whose family lived close to the Strome's before she met Ryan four years ago and became engaged earlier this summer. "We both love our families and friends a lot, spending as much time as we can with them."

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The morning we arrived, Tavares, one of Ryan's training partners and former New York Islanders teammates who lives just around the corner, had been over that morning to make the couple breakfast. His younger brothers, who live with their parents in the summer, had also left 30 minutes earlier for the golf course.

Even on a quiet Sunday in August, their house can be as busy as Highway 401 during rush hour.

Earlier in the summer, their engagement brought their extended circle of family, friends and hockey to their home to celebrate the occasion. Any opportunity for everyone to get together is a good one, and they like to entertain.

"We've made a lot of hockey friends along the way," Ryan said. "Probably my favourite thing about playing in the NHL has been the amazing friendships we've made through New York and Edmonton - lifelong friends you'll stay in contact with forever no matter how far apart you are. The great thing is we have friends with three kids, no kids, single friends - a wide range of hockey people that when we get together we always have a riot.

"It's nice to see all the hockey guys in the summer because it's a bit of a different vibe. Everyone's a bit more relaxed."

The house was clean and the car was packed that morning, ready to be shipped to Edmonton as the end of summer and plans to return for the upcoming NHL season quickly approached. This time around, they knew they could pack lighter and leave the summer stuff at home after experiencing their first year in Alberta.

In the backyard airing out in the sun lays Ryan's hockey gear marked dominantly with Oilers crests and colours. During the off-season it's his duty, and not that of Equipment Managers Jeff Lang or Brad Harrison, to make sure his equipment is washed and his bag is packed.

"Langer and Harry would probably be proud of me for airing it out," he joked. "I usually put it on the front lawn, but I knew today that I should probably tidy up the front area."

But it's a sanctuary for their dog Miller in the backyard, equipped with a deep hole dug at the side of the deck and a hot tub with a cover that spends more time being used as a place for his summertime naps over its intended purpose.

"He is honestly the main part of this household," Ryan said, with Miller sprawled out on the grass. "The world revolves around this guy right here."

All roads lead back to Mississauga for Strome when the skates are off and the busy NHL schedule dies down, and it's not hard to see why with friends, family and familiar surroundings all in one place.

"Mississauga, Ontario - the humble abode," Ryan said.

If you said the basement resembled that of a small Brooklyn condo, Ryan would tell you that your observation is true.

After being traded to the Oilers, everything from his home during the season in New York was sent back to Mississauga and put downstairs, including items such as a couch, TV, Xbox One, and a ping pong table. Impending renovations to the space meant the bottom floor had been relatively unaltered as of late.

The walls were barren with the exception of two Islanders and Oilers jerseys, along with a rectangular frame featuring his Toronto Bulldogs home and away jerseys from The Brick Invitational Hockey Tournament at West Edmonton Mall, which had yet to be fully mounted on the wall beside the stairs.

Ryan's first memory of coming to Edmonton didn't begin in the NHL - you have to go back to July of 2003 when he was 10 years old and a member of that very same Bulldogs team competing in the city's prestigious youth tournament.

He scored five goals against the Detroit Jr. Red Wings in the semi-finals, earning a deserved Most Valuable Player award in the game before eventually winning it all.

"He has put on a show here unparalleled in the history of this tournament," the commentator said in a YouTube highlight pack of his goals. "I don't recall any player getting upwards of five goals in a tournament game."

Returning to the rink for the first time after arriving in Edmonton brought back a tonne of memories for Ryan, and it was one of the first connections he made to the city as a full-time member of the Oilers.

"Not to humble brag but I got to meet Jay Bouwmeester and I got a free pair of skates, so it was pretty neat," Strome said. "I'm pretty sure Nuge was in the tournament and Dougie Hamilton was on my team. You play against some interesting names, and if you go back and see the history it's unique. It's cool to look back at some of the names and some of the people, and I was lucky enough to win it.

"When we got traded to Edmonton, we went back to West Edmonton Mall and it was the first time I'd ever been back there."

A palpable sense of excitement always seems present in Ryan, even after letting us into his home to get insight into what makes he and his family tick.

"I wouldn't say I'm a goof, but I like to keep it light and fun," he added.

Despite having experience being traded before, going from the Barrie Colts to the Niagara IceDogs in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), the feeling wasn't immediately there when adapting to a new and unfamiliar Oiler dressing room.

"The first couple days it was weird," Ryan said of joining the club last year in a trade for Jordan Eberle. "I was telling Sydney that I'm usually loud and sometimes can't shut up, but at first I was so quiet and didn't know how to react. Once I settled in with the guys it was great. It was definitely a change, but especially when you know a few guys already it makes it a lot easier for sure."

His former opponent at the Brick Tournament and 2013 World Juniors teammate Ryan Nugent-Hopkins helped break the ice.

"Any time you play with a guy, you develop a relationship," he added. "Nuge is one of the most easy-going guys around and he and I click pretty well, so he's one of my close buddies. Any time you go to a new team it's pretty different, but our dressing room has a lot of guys that welcomed me with open arms."

Relationships in the dressing room extend far outside of Rogers Place for both Ryan and Sydney, along with their dog Miller and many of the other furry friends around the Oilers. Edmonton's river valley lets all the dogs in the group, including Matt Benning's dog Moose and Nugent-Hopkins' Sophie, run for miles.

"The outdoor space was the biggest surprise about Edmonton," Ryan said. "Miller likes to be outside, and Mississauga doesn't have as many spots.

"Any time you can get out of that game environment and take a load off and relax and have fun, we have a pretty good team for that. We have a lot of guys who like to keep it light."

Settling into Edmonton was a process Ryan and Sydney tackled together, proving a lot more seamless than expected. Ryan says he was lucky to have the support of his then-girlfriend turned fiancée who keeps the couple on track with the sense of homeliness she brings anywhere they go.

"I think at first it was a bit of an adjustment, but for the most part it's about getting your roots down," Ryan said. "She brings a strong family bond and keeps our house together. She's the glue. I think wherever we are together we try to be pretty stable. Once that was established everything else just fell into place. She works her job, has her friends, and she's out there doing her own thing too. In Edmonton we got pretty comfortable quickly."

Growing up in a passionate Canadian hockey family, the idea of playing in a hockey-crazy market like Edmonton helped with the process.

"Hockey fans in Edmonton and Canada are like no other," he added. "You see the way they support the team and come out no matter how we're doing. At community events they're always there and it's cool.

"We'll drive down the street in Stony Plain and people will wave to us. That's unique. Some people might not like that, but the way I look at it as a hockey player who grew up in Canada, that's the coolest thing ever that people know who you are and that's pretty special. For me I try to embrace it. It's a unique opportunity to bond with people that way."

From his very first minutes on this earth, Ryan's life was influenced by hockey.

The Hockey Night in Canada theme, hummed by his parents in the delivery room, gave a pretty good indication that he'd be on skates as soon as possible.

The moment is preserved in his grandma's extensive family video collection that's been gathered over the years and put onto hard drives for each of the family members to enjoy. For Ryan, it sits in their living room and can provide hours of endless enjoyment.

 "There's almost too much to watch," Ryan said. "They mean a lot to us. Those are childhood memories you remember, but when you see them it feels like yesterday."

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A majority of those memories would come from the rink, where Trish and Chris spent almost every Friday night of their kids' youth as proud hockey parents of three talented sons playing for the Toronto Marlboros. Matthew was entering his first year with the club when Ryan graduated from Midget AAA in 2009, meaning their parents spent nearly every weekend for 15 years supporting their boys' love for hockey.

"Parents do a lot for their kids. It's a big commitment," Ryan said. "Our parents didn't have much of a social life because of us. Their social life was the hockey parents."

A reserved approach in supporting their sons' on-ice ambitions eventually translated to the Strome brothers and their professional careers in the NHL.

"It may make them sound crazy, but they were actually the most modest hockey parents," Ryan added. "They just wanted us to work hard. My dad would say if we didn't want to play, we didn't have to. Just work hard and put your time in. They definitely didn't force us at all and it worked out to our advantage.

"If you're loving what you do and your parents are doing all this work for you sacrificing their time and vacations so you can play hockey, put your best foot forward. If it works out, it works out. Not everyone is going to play in the NHL, but if you get an education out of it or play junior, that's a huge accomplishment."

Making the NHL came with the opportunity to repay their parents by buying their mom a white Ford pickup truck - something she'd always wanted but never expected to get.

"We surprised her with one with the big bow and everything," Ryan said. "She was bawling."

If you went into the basement of their parents' home, you'd find a treasure trove of draft jerseys, memorabilia, and everything in between relating to their success as hockey players. Their grandfather went beyond that and kept everything from first game sheets, pucks, to pictures of his grandsons Ryan and Dylan facing one another on the ice for the first time back when the Arizona Coyotes visited the Oilers on November 28, 2017.

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Ryan's opinion on being on the ice at the same time as his brothers, however, is a love-hate relationship. With Matthew being drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers last year, things could become more complicated in the coming years.

"I hate playing against [Dylan] because it's such a weird experience," Ryan laughed. "I'm trying to watch him but I'm still worried about the game. I don't want to be on the ice at the same time as him, because it's weird."

As their age grows higher they've become closer as friends and brothers, celebrating more in one another's accomplishments or rubbing them in one another's faces.

Matthew's Ontario Hockey League championship victory last season with the Hamilton Bulldogs before winning the Memorial Cup made Ryan the only Strome brother who didn't win a league title in junior, and he's reminded of it regularly.

"They both won the OHL Championship the past two years and I never won it, so they definitely give me a hard time," he said. "That's kind of their jab to me. I got some things on them but they've definitely got some on me as well. Even in lacrosse they both made Team Ontario and I never did, so they have some accomplishments they always remind me of."

In the summer the trio can go back to their Mississauga roots and unwind after long seasons by visiting with family and playing video games and plenty of golf, but they'd be lying if they said the competition between them takes a break. On the golf course, where tensions can reach a breaking point, it's as if they all revert back to the in-season versions of themselves.

"My brother Dylan is probably the most competitive person I've met," Ryan said. "We keep each other honest, especially on the golf course where it's insane. Others have said they can't play with us. One hole we're serious and yelling at one another, then the next high fiving and cheering for each other."

Ryan wouldn't want to have his summers any other way.

"Seeing them is literally the best thing about summer for me," he said. "There's no two guys that would have my back quicker than those two guys."

Ryan was used to putting holes in the fence as a kid when practicing his shot on the family's backyard net with his brothers.

A Shooter Tutor draped over his garage today means he can continue to pelt pucks at home during his free time, but now he's denting his own property to the relief of his parents.

On a normal day in the summer, Ryan will set up his music and spend hours fine-tuning his release for the season to come. Miller is a puck retriever-in-training chasing the pucks when they rebound off the net and away glove side.

Here on his driveway, after re-signing in Edmonton for two more years earlier this July, Ryan thinks ahead to playing a role for the Oilers on the third line and special teams after a productive switch last February yielded five goals and five assists in 14 games.

"I wasn't [an unrestricted free agent], but I definitely knew I wanted to be back in Edmonton," Strome said. "For me it's somewhere I felt, for the first time in my career, that the coach really trusts me. I've played for good coaches but I just feel like here in Edmonton with [Head Coach Todd McLellan] he values what I do and what I can bring.

"I think when you have such great players like Connor, Leon and Nuge you want to try and fill a role because you know guys like that are going to do something special in their careers."

In addition to scoring the Oilers 10,000th goal in franchise history last season, Ryan can also boast about scoring an overtime goal on foreign soil in a 5-4 win over the Cologne Sharks during the NHL Global Series. He continues to search for his first goal of the season, playing significant minutes on the penalty kill and leading a second power-play unit with an Oilers team that's powered through a difficult opening 2018-19 schedule with an 8-4-1 record through 13 games.

With playoffs firmly embedded in the aspirations of the Oilers, Ryan's next summer in Mississauga will hopefully have to be delayed a month or two.

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