Derek Ryan went years, more than a decade, without any kind of national recognition. He was an anonymous face at the lower levels of hockey for most of his career, and even after breaking through with the Carolina Hurricanes at age 29, he was no big star.
That changed this week when Ryan was announced as one of three finalists for the NHL’s Masterton Trophy, which honors perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. Suddenly, everyone in the game of hockey recognized just how long Ryan’s road to the NHL was.
Thirty players are nominated, one from each team by each chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. Being nominated for the Masterton is in itself an honor. Being a finalist a greater honor still.
The Hurricanes actually had two players this year worthy of being finalists; Bryan Bickell’s return to the NHL after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis became an international story, but his return to the NHL came after the deadline for Masterton nominees, and Ryan was a perfectly good candidate in his own right, as evidenced by the voting.
The Masterton is awarded based on what at times seems to be a constantly shifting set of criteria. Originally intended to be a sort of career achievement trophy, it morphed along the way into a comeback player award, to the point where it seemed to go to the player who suffered the most gruesome injury.
Last year’s winner, Jaromir Jagr, certainly epitomized the intent of the trophy. This year’s finalists lean even more heavily in that direction, with Ryan and active consecutive-games leader Andrew Cogliano on the perseverance side of it, while on the dedication side, Craig Anderson took time off this season to help his wife through cancer treatments and still managed to lead Ottawa to a playoff berth.
Ryan is the third Hurricanes nominee – each team nominates one player for the award – to make it this far, joining Ron Francis in 2002 and Manny Malhotra in 2014. Francis, who was honored not only for his longevity but coming back from the concussion he suffered in the 2001 playoffs, lost out to cancer survivor Saku Koivu. Malhotra, who made his comeback from a severe eye injury with the Hurricanes, lost out to Dominic Moore, who returned to hockey after taking a season off to care for his terminally ill wife.
Back in the Hartford days, iron-man center Doug Jarvis won it in 1987, the year he broke the NHL record for consecutive games played. (He played two more the next season to hit 964, a record that still stands – the closest active player is Cogliano, at 786.)
The Masterton, like the Lady Byng, which honors gentlemanly play, tends to get overlooked on awards night, but it’s one of the trophies that really matters deeply to players and voters, like the Hurricanes’ Steve Chiasson Award (voted on by the players; Bickell won it this year) or Josef Vasicek Award (voted on by the media for media cooperation).
Bickell might have won it, if nominated, given the attention his comeback received; Ryan, in a different way, would be an equally deserving winner on June 21 in Las Vegas. After fighting for years to get his chance in the NHL, and then making the most of it, he embodies perseverance and dedication whether he wins the Masterton or not.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock