At some point shortly after Mark Morris was named coach of the Charlotte Checkers in July, he had a chance to assess his potential roster.
One of the names likely to play for him in 2015-16 was Derek Ryan, a free agent the organization signed in mid-June. At the time, his assessment was pretty simple.
“Never heard of him,” said Morris, who had coached eight years in the American Hockey League and nearly two decades in the NCAA ranks.
There was good reason for that. Ryan, who turns 29 years old later this month, has taken a non-traditional route to reach the AHL. He spent four years playing Canadian college hockey and four years in Europe before joining the Carolina Hurricanes organization in June.
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Canadian college hockey is typically the end of the line for players who played in the Canadian junior system but couldn’t find a spot on a professional team. Ryan had a chance to play in Austria, and ended up spending three years there.
“When I was in Austria the last two years, we lived 20 minutes from Italy, 20 minutes from Slovenia and about an hour and a half from Germany,” Ryan said. “When my wife and I were hanging out after practice, we’d say, ‘Hey, want to go to Italy for lunch?’ Not everyone gets to experience that.
“We have big map in our living that has all the places we lived and visited together. It’s pretty cool. It’s a good conversation piece for when people come over to the house.”
He spent last season with Orebro HK in the Swedish Hockey League, which is a big jump up in competition from Austria. Ryan led the Swedish league with 60 points, and suddenly the idea of playing in the NHL was no longer a pipe dream.
“That’s one of the best leagues in the world, probably the third-best league,” Ryan said. “There were a lot of people looking, a lot of scouts in the stands. I’m 28 so I figured now was my time to take a shot at playing in the NHL and come back to North America.”
One reason the Hurricanes were attractive is because the team has struggled in recent seasons, and a lot of guys had a chance to make the trip from Charlotte to Raleigh last year. Another was the team’s head coach.
Ryan played for Hurricanes coach Bill Peters for two years with Spokane in the Western Hockey League in 2005-06 and 2006-07.
“I know he will and would go to bat for me if I need it to have the opportunity (to get called up),” Ryan said. “That familiarity is huge to know what the coach expects and to have already played for him if I make it up there.”
It didn’t take long for Ryan to make an impression on Morris. When the team returned home from a 10-game road trip to start the season, he named Ryan the team’s captain. Ryan leads the Checkers with 24 points in 26 games.
“He’s a quiet guy, and I had to wait a little while for his personality to emerge and to admire his consistency before naming him captain,” Morris said. “His actions speak volumes, and he’s been a catalyst for us for sure.
“He is a rarity. You don’t see many guys coming back from Europe and jumping right in like this. He’s not that far from playing hockey at the next level. For now, we’re going to enjoy his leadership and his play on both sides of the puck for us.”