Carolina Hurricanes forward Derek Ryan was jabbing at the puck, fighting to score Tuesday against the Vancouver Canucks, when he encountered a major roadblock.
It was the Canucks’ Nikita Tryamkin, a 6-foot-7, 265-pound defenseman who sent Ryan sprawling.
But Ryan got back up and kept pushing. So did the Hurricanes, who were all but flattened in the second period, only to fight back for a rousing 8-6 victory.
The Canes scored six times in the third, and Ryan had the primary assists on two of the goals. Jeff Skinner scored a power-play goal off a pass from Ryan, and Ryan later found Victor Rask open for a goal that tied the score 5-5 and had PNC Arena rumbling.
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“You could definitely feel that energy climb in the building,” Ryan said. “That’s hockey right there.”
It’s the kind of hockey Ryan envisioned the past few years as he played in leagues in Austria and Sweden, as he played with the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League. It took persistence, perseverance. It took a belief in himself that he could play hockey at the highest level.
“It’s quite a story,” former Checkers coach Mark Morris said this week. “Derek has done it the hard way. He took the road less traveled.”
Ryan, who turns 30 on Dec. 29, is not a big guy. At 5-11 and 170 pounds, he gives up size to many players, not just a 6-7 D-man with size-15 skates.
Ryan once played junior hockey for Canes coach Bill Peters with the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League. Undrafted by the NHL, the Spokane, Wash., native next played for the University of Alberta.
After college, it was on to pro hockey leagues in Austria and Sweden. At each stop, he made his mark. With Orebro of the Swedish Hockey League, the center was named the league’s most valuable player in the 2014-15 season.
“A very professional hockey player, taking care of his body off (the) ice,” Orebro team manager Lars Andersson said via email. “A very skilled player, (helping) his wingers be great hockey players.”
Ryan could have stayed in Sweden but wanted more. He wanted the NHL and signed a two-way contract last year with the Hurricanes, believing he might get his chance with Peters.
Ryan did get that chance. At age 29, he made his NHL debut for the Canes late last season, scoring a goal March 1 in his first game against the New Jersey Devils, and getting in six games with the Canes.
Ryan played 70 games for the Checkers, the Canes’ AHL affiliate, being named team captain and finishing with 23 goals and 32 assists.
“He was the main cog on our team,” said Morris, now head coach at St. Lawrence (N.Y.) University. “He was a leader in every capacity. Great on draws, centered the top line, go-to guy on the power play, key penalty killer.
“When he was called up late in the season we were making a push for the playoffs. We quickly realized how valuable he was to our team, how many hats he wore.”
He’s a very smart young guy, so when I said, ‘Have you ever played wing?’ his answer was yes. It was a shaky yes, but playing wing in the NHL is better than playing center in the American Hockey League. He’s got that part figured out.
Canes coach Bill Peters on Derek Ryan
Ryan stayed on the move. He was called up by the Canes, then reassigned. Called up, sent back.
“It was wild,” he said. “I think I had 11 games in 14 nights, including five (games) in five days. It was tough, flying wherever the Canes were, then flying back to wherever the Checkers were. They told me at the beginning of this year they weren’t going to do that to me again.”
Ryan again began the season with the Checkers but was recalled Nov. 11. He has 11 points in 16 games, picking up 10 in the past nine games after his career-high three assists against the Canucks.
Ryan, called “Doc” by Peters and his teammates, also has a new position. Peters moved him to right wing on Rask’s line opposite Skinner during the San Jose game Saturday and kept him there Tuesday. The Rask line was responsible for three goals and six assists in the comeback victory.
Ryan said he has played the wing only once before in his career, for one season in Austria. Not that he’s complaining.
“He’s a very smart young guy, so when I said, ‘Have you ever played wing?’ his answer was yes,” Peters said, smiling. “It was a shaky yes, but playing wing in the NHL is better than playing center in the American Hockey League. He’s got that part figured out.”
Ryan’s family has stayed in Charlotte, which makes it difficult for him. FaceTime with his wife, Bonnie and his young kids, Zane and August, can only help so much, he said.
To be reassigned to the Checkers, Ryan would have to pass through NHL waivers. Given how he has played, the Canes might not risk that, meaning he could be in with the big club for a while.
“I think I have proven I can play in this league, and that’s what I have to continue to prove every day,” Ryan said.
WASHINGTON CAPITALS AT HURRICANES
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: PNC Arena, Raleigh