Derek Ryan is a shining light for U Sports hockey.
The former Alberta Golden Bear now Calgary Flame is one of the few players to have carved out a successful NHL career after spending time at a Canadian University. Ryan’s journey has been a strenuous one and is not a pathway many take, as he combined school, as well as a trip to Europe en route to the NHL.
Once he became an NHL regular, Ryan broke a barrier that was previously very firm. He proved that a career in high-level pro hockey was possible for athletes out of Canadian university sports.
There are currently more former U Sports players playing professionally in North American than ever before, including Luke Philp, who is also in the Calgary Flames organization and a former Golden Bear himself.
Although there are many players making the move to pro hockey, the NHL remains a far fetched dream. While Ryan certainly broke barriers, he did not shatter them as his unique route is not one that is increasingly being used.
After a player’s U Sports tenure comes to an end, athletes have to make a decision. No longer are they considered young, nor have they considered NHL prospects; that leads many to seek out other hockey opportunities or give the game up altogether.
Like Ryan, most choose to continue playing hockey. “It’s not something you can do your whole life,” said Ryan when explaining his reasoning to continue. However, while most players opt to remain in North America, that pathway was not satisfactory to Ryan.
“When I didn’t get drafted, my family and I looked at options,” said Ryan prior to the Flames game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. “One of those options was the CHL’s education package, so we toured schools and landed on a great program with the Golden Bears and [U of A] the University of Alberta.”
The Golden Bears have had a long history of success and for them, it was no surprise that they were able to land a guy like Ryan. However, the rise in skill that the American brought was not expected. As a freshman, he averaged over a point per game- something he ended up doing in each of his four years.
Choosing Edmonton for school was a pretty simple decision for the forward, “They get some of the best players and they’ve always had success. It was also closer to home than some of the schools out east, so we knew it was right.”
Going from junior to Canadian college hockey is a big change. No longer are you playing against NHL prospects, rather against older men who are in similar situations as yourself. All of that, combined with the lack of exposure for the league leads to a very minimal following and subdued enthusiasm.
“We didn’t get many Crowds, the biggest ones would have to have been the games against the [Edmonton] Oilers Rookies or even sometimes Saskatchewan [Huskies/U Sports].
What the Canadian schools present is the opportunity to continue playing the game they love, while also preparing for a career after the take off their last hockey jersey.
Unhappy with options in the ECHL or other small North American leagues, Ryan took the jump that few players ever make; he went to Europe. He didn’t go to the top leagues in Russia, Sweden or Switzerland, rather he went Hungry, a country not known for it’s ice hockey prowess.
“I wanted something different and Hungary offered that.” Ryan played two years for Fehrvar AV19 in eastern Europe, an experience which he will never forget. “The crowds were always loud, there was pyro [pyrotechnics], it was insane,” said Ryan when asked about what the culture was like. Fehrvahr’s arena only holds 3,500 people, but to the American who went over to play there, it was one of the best hockey experiences of his life.
After two seasons in Hungary, he left and got himself a contact in Austria, which was seen as a step, albeit small up the professional hockey pyramid, as he joined Villechar SV for two years which not only changed his career, but his entire life.
“We had our first kid in Austria, our kid is Austrian,” he said, before continuing on to say how the lifestyle of European hockey is much more pleasant than in North American. “We got a house with a car [from the team] and only played 40 or so games a year,” said the Spokane native, who was grateful to have that time from fewer games to help out his wife in the early days of parenthood.
That fact is agreed by many players who have gone to play away from North America, however, there is a flip side; money. If we take the second division of hockey in America (AHL) and look at the average salary, its $90,000 USD. Compare that to the Austrian league, where the highest-paid player makes $135,000 and you can see why so many players dream of playing in Canada or the United States.
Although it pays less, there are many more advantages to playing in Austria. For Ryan one of those reasons is it’s proximity to Italy. “After practice, we would drive 40 minutes and be in Italy eating pizza, you couldn’t have anything better.” A free house, a car and a 40-minute drive to Italy, what more could you ask for?
Well, there’s one thing: The NHL
“It’s the dream of every player, lots don’t make it, I know how lucky I am to be where I am today,” said Ryan, who took one more European stop in Sweden before he came to North America.
After a handful of successful seasons oversees, a business degree in his back pocket, and a fully formed family, Ryan had finally made it. On March 1st, 2016, Ryan got his first game in the NHL with the Carolina Hurricanes and ever since then, he has become a bonified NHL player.
Now with Calgary, he is playing third-line minutes in one of Canada’s largest hockey markets. Hockey took him around the world, gave him special experiences, things which made him the person and hockey player he is today.
“It took me a bit longer, but I made it.”
Derek Ryan 2019
Cover Art by Ben Chandler