Not many NHL players make their debut at age 29, as Derek Ryan did last season for the Carolina Hurricanes.
Not many players are asked to play 11 games in 14 days, the ultimate grind, as Ryan did in earning his chance in the NHL.
Ryan’s determination and persistance have made him the Hurricanes’ nominee for the 2017 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy by the Carolina chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association.
The Masterson Trophy is presented annually by the PHWA to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. Jaromir Jagr of the Florida Panthers was the 2016 Masterton recipient.
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“It’s definitely an honor to be nominated,” Ryan said Friday. “A lot has been said about my journey, of how I’ve gotten to the NHL. It has been quite a ride.
“From a Canadian university to Austria to Sweden to the American Hockey League to the NHL, it almost seems surreal that I’ve been able to live out my dream, fulfill my dream.”
Ryan, a native of Spokane, Wash., had to prove himself at every level in his decade-long quest to reach the NHL, then become a regular in the Canes’ lineup this season.
He played junior hockey for Canes coach Bill Peters with the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League. Undrafted by NHL teams, he then played four years at the University of Alberta and considered staying in school to take graduate courses.
But a professional hockey career was what he wanted. He went overseas, first playing in the Austrian league, then moving to Orebro in the Swedish Hockey League.
“You have to be adaptable,” Ryan said. “The Austrian league was an offensive, run-and-gun league. The Swedish league was the exact opposite, a defensive, shutdown league where it was hard to score goals. Plus you’re adapting to the bigger ice surfaces.”
The 5-11 center was named the most valuable player in the SHL in 2014-15, drawing interest from NHL teams. Ryan signed as a free agent with the Hurricanes, rejoining Peters at training camp, but was assigned to the Charlotte Checkers, the Canes’ AHL affiliate.
For Ryan, that wasn’t viewed as a step back. He served as the Checkers’ captain — as former Charlotte coach Mark Morris said, “A leader in every capacity” — and was the top scorer before being recalled by the Canes on Feb. 29, after Carolina traded its captain, center Eric Staal, to the New York Rangers.
On March 1, 2016, at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., Ryan played his first NHL game against the New Jersey Devils. He also scored his first NHL goal against goalie Cory Schneider in a 3-1 victory.
After the game, Ryan said few words were spoken as he gathered with his family. There were, however, a lot of hugs.
“There aren’t many who get that opportunity,” he said. “Whether you’re 19 or 29, it’s special and it was special to me.”
Before long, Ryan was jumping back and forth between the Checkers and Canes, squeezing in the 11 games in 14 days, including one stretch of five in five.
“A lot of hockey,” said Ryan, who suffered a concussion against Montreal on April 7, missing the final regular-season game against Florida.
Signed to another one-year, two-way contract, Ryan began this season with the Checkers but was called up Nov. 11 by the Canes. His versatility has kept him in the lineup, allowing Peters to use him at center and on the wing, on the power play and penalty kill.
In 57 games, Ryan has 11 goals — including three game-winners - and 13 assists, winning 55.9 percent of his draws.
Ryan should again center a line Saturday with wingers Jeff Skinner and Lee Stempniak as the Canes face the Devils — at the Prudential Center, where it all began in the NHL.
“It will have a special meaning for me, forever,” Ryan said.