After Golden Bears glory, Derek Ryan’s journey comes full circle with Oilers

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Fresh off signing a two-year, $2.5-million deal with the Oilers, the first order of business for Derek Ryan was getting his family settled in Edmonton, getting school sorted out for the kids, getting himself ready for training camp. But one of the first nights in town saw the family check another essential off their list, too: a visit to Clare Drake Arena.

Ryan knows the rink well. He spent four years flying around the sheet within its walls, back before his big-league tenure with the Flames and Hurricanes, before the spins through Sweden, Austria and Hungary, when he was a standout for the University of Alberta Golden Bears.

It’s why this new chapter with the Oilers is less a Battle of Alberta defection and more a homecoming, the veteran returning to play 15 minutes away from where his Canadian hockey adventure began a decade-and-a-half ago. And that return’s already brought a new perspective on his old barn.

“I obviously played a lot of games there, but hadn’t actually watched a lot of games there,” Ryan says. “So it was cool to be a spectator and see where I played for four years, and show the kids where I played for four years. And to give them a sense of the journey that I’ve taken to be where I am now in the NHL, where I’ve come from.”

Eric Thurston remembers the early chapters of Ryan’s journey well.

The former Golden Bears head coach was behind the bench for all four of the centreman’s seasons on campus. In fact, it was Thurston who first travelled to nearby Red Deer to assess Ryan’s game, to see what he could bring to the program, back when the pivot was just a junior prospect visiting with his hometown team out of Spokane.

Even then, the well-rounded skill-set separated Ryan from the pack. Before long, he was in a Golden Bears sweater, dizzying opponents left and right.

“We were playing at home and I had him out against the University of Lethbridge on a five-on-three,” Thurston remembers of one such game with the young penalty-killing aficionado. “He got the puck in our own end, and coaches, you know, sometimes we speak before we think — I kept yelling, ‘Get it deep! Get it down, get it down!’

“And Derek, in our own end, toe-dragged and beat a couple guys, kept the puck through the neutral zone, then he completely undressed the defenceman, comes in and — on a five-on-three — just forehand, backhand, shelf.

“And I go, ‘Well, I guess that’s one way to get it deep.’”

Ryan during his time with the Golden Bears. (Courtesy of the University of Alberta)

He wasn’t all brash end-to-end displays, though. Ryan carried himself then much the same as he does now, even with a future in the sport then seeming far from guaranteed for those at the university level like him.

“The thing that I admired the most about Derek at that time was just his maturity,” says Stan Marple, an assistant coach during Ryan’s years at the U of A, and now the program’s general manager. “He was only 21 and had just come out of junior, but, you know, first guy on the ice, last guy off the ice. He always wanted to be better.”

The Golden Bears were better for that approach, too. Ryan’s first season with the team culminated in a national championship for Edmonton. The next three weren’t so bad, either.

“That’s one of the main reasons I chose to go to the U of A, I wanted to have a chance to win, which I did every year,” Ryan says “I went to Nationals every year, won our conference every year. And that first year, winning the national championship and getting to hoist the University Cup, it was a pretty special moment.

“I was a younger player at that time, so I wasn’t quite sure if that would happen every year. … I remember every guy that played on that team with me and, you know, you hear all kinds of cliches, but when you win a championship like that with some guys, you form a brotherhood.”

The bond of that championship run kept Thurston and Marple following Ryan’s career closely as he moved on from the U of A and began his tour through Europe. Proud as they were of the career he’d put together up to that point, both remember where they were as they watched Ryan finally crack the NHL with the Hurricanes.

And to hear them beam about their former star centreman, there’s little doubt Ryan’s impact on the hockey community in Edmonton hasn’t faded in the decade since he left the U of A.

“He scored in his first game he played,” Marple’s quick to point out. He was watching on his phone at one of his kids’ soccer practices. “It was just a great feeling for me because he’s just a real great team guy and a real unassuming guy. Just goes about his business, works very hard. He’s a great teammate and just a great person above all, and so to see him have that success in his first opportunity, I was pretty happy.”

“It really does give you goosebumps to see a player that you had, with your team, was able to be successful, you know?” Thurston says of watching that first Canes game. “We certainly as a family have followed him. And, you know, being from Edmonton, I’ll be honest with you, sometimes it wasn’t easy cheering for Calgary.

“But the only reason why it was, was because of Derek Ryan.”

The Thurstons will have an easier time now after free agency brought Ryan home to the Oilers, bringing his journey full circle. The meaning of that homecoming, for him and for all those players currently plying their trade at the university level, dreaming of the big leagues, isn’t lost on Ryan.

“I just remember, you know, going to school here and idolizing the guys that played for the Oilers,” Ryan says. “Watching the games, watching the Battle of Alberta, all those things.”

But it’s about more than hockey, more than what transpired on the ice.

“I lived here over four years,” he says. “I lived here during the summers and was working on a framing crew, so I traveled around the city quite a bit, got to see different nooks and crannies of the city. So, basically everywhere I go is a little bit of nostalgia and memories of little stories here and there.”

Driving around Edmonton in the weeks since he first made his way back, it’s those little things that have hit him, he says. It’s those memories of his parents making long road trips to watch him play, of his then-girlfriend (and now wife) Bonnie doing the same. It’s remembering the spins through West Edmonton Mall, and all those favourite study spots on campus.

“It’s just a picture of how life has kind of come full circle for me now with the wife and two young kids and raising a family here in Edmonton, and playing for the Oilers. It’s really cool,” Ryan says. “It’s a special experience for my family, and we’re trying to help the kids understand it a little bit more, understand how special this place is to my wife and I. … Edmonton’s basically a second home.”

But the chance to return to the city where so many of his greatest hockey memories are rooted was only part of the equation for Ryan signing on with the Oilers this season. He had a few options after establishing himself as a solid, stable depth presence in Raleigh and Calgary. He chose the Oilers because they were among the teams that showed the most interest early on.

And because it would give him the chance to try to do he what he did in Edmonton all those years ago, when he first arrived in the city, and ended up lifting silver.

“I know, being a Golden Bear and living here before, how big the Oilers are to this city, and how everyone lives and breathes Oilers hockey,” Ryan says.

“I think the Oilers are in striking distance of being a true Stanley Cup contender. So, I think that would be a pretty special thing to come in here and do something special, and make a run at things.”

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