Words and Photography by Ryan Dixon in Mount Pearl and St. John's, Nfld.
Words and Photography by Ryan Dixon in Mount Pearl and St. John's, Nfld.
Rocking the Canadian Ball Hockey Association Nationals with actor, author and ex-NHLer Terry Ryan

Things are about to get loud inside dressing room No. 6 at Glacier Arena, where a full-blast dose of AC/DC serves as backup for the frontman of the moment. It’s Day 1 of the Canadian Ball Hockey Association Nationals and Terry Ryan’s Newfoundland and Labrador Black Horse are looking for their second victory in the span of about seven hours. Coach Ian Moores doesn’t feel the need to bombard the boys with instructions, so he wastes little time before turning things over to Ryan with a simple, “Terry…”

The floor his, Ryan flips open the cover on his phone, fires up “Rock ‘n’ Roll Train” on a standalone speaker with a disco ball mounted on it and leaps off the top rope: “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to beautiful Mount Pearl, Newfoundland, for Game 2 of the national baaaaaaaaaaaaallllllll hockey championship! Tonight’s game features the North York Hitmen and your Newfoundland Black Horse!”

Around the room, a group of men mainly in their 20s grin, clap and hoot, urging the 42-year-old to keep finding higher gears. “This should be a good one,” Ryan continues, “featuring young prospects such as ‘Michael-Michael Motorcycle’ Dyke, Thomas ‘Happy Hour’ Hedges and Alex ‘Pow-Pow Power Play’ Powell!” Wearing a black tank top that gives his tattoos a chance to shine, Ryan rocks back and forth as he speaks, while his face contorts, fists clench and muscles pop. The routine has been a staple for years and always closes with roughly the same ending: “And ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls we have a treat for you tonight: 1996 WHL second-team all-star and 1991 elementary spelling bee champion in St. John’s, Terry Ryan Jr., is back, and Ryan wants one more championship before he calls it a career!”

That Ryan is the epicenter of excitement before a game he isn’t even playing in speaks to his unique standing on the team and within the ball hockey community. A long-ago first-round NHL draft pick, author and relatively recent addition to the film and television world, he has been a high-volume raconteur all the way through. For all the yarns he’s spun and passions he professes, though, few topics are closer to Ryan’s heart than the sport that helped get him back onto a positive life track when he was broken down and mad at the world in the aftermath of his NHL dreams evaporating. Ryan is one of many Newfoundlanders who embrace ball hockey, and the game has its own story to tell about relentlessness and teamwork.

Exploding to his feet, Ryan tees up the final burst. “Are you ready?” he howls. “Let’s do it!”

The entire room knows it’s time to join in. “Let’s. Play. Hockeeeeeyyyyy!”

Even when he's not playing, Ryan is often the centre of attention before a game

The night before the tournament, Ryan is indulging one of his other loves while walking across Harbour Drive in the heart of St. John’s. Music isn’t just a tool to fire up the lads, it’s something that saturates every corner of his life — he has The Beatles’ logo tattooed on his right forearm and named his daughter Penny-Laine. A minute ago, Ryan was in the Mill Street Brew Pub, clanking glasses and reminiscing with a group of guys he won a world masters title with in 2018. Now, headed to the night’s next stop, he’s belting out Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know,” a song that was just being performed with a touch more grace by a duo playing covers inside the bar.

On the walk, when he’s not singing, Ryan recalls how his one-time Montreal Canadiens teammate, Mark Recchi, handed out mixtapes back in the mid-’90s, and how none of the younger Habs had the heart to tell him they had all moved on to CDs. Ryan also remembers being impressed that Recchi wasn’t ashamed to declare his love for a young, female singer like Morissette in a dude-dominated setting.

Ryan Dixon and Rory Boylen go deep on pucks with a mix of facts and fun, leaning on a varied group of hockey voices to give their take on the country’s most beloved game.

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If the only thing you ever heard Ryan talk about was his time in The Show — eight games and 36 penalty minutes, all with the Habs — you might assume based on how spirited he gets that he’s still stuck on being a never was. The reality, though, is that Ryan’s rich voice becomes animated regardless of the topic, from acting gigs to things a visitor should experience in and around St. John’s. Tipping one back at Yes B’y’s, a cozy dive named for the famous local slang, Ryan relives the time in his life when it still seemed an NHL career was a real possibility. Whether in person or in the pages of his book, Tales of a First-Round Nothing, he’s not afraid to say, “I know I f—ed up” here and there, especially in reference to his decision to hold out from training camp one September in the hopes of leveraging Montreal into dealing him.

It would have been nice to get that clean slate somewhere. Instead, 20 years before Michel Therrien seethed over the exuberance of P.K. Subban in Montreal, the then-fledgling pro coach bristled at Ryan’s full-throttle approach to life at the American Hockey League level. It’s too bad, because the relationship really could have been one made in hockey heaven. Ryan represented something precious in his heyday, a goal-scorer with an edgy streak to his game that was no less rugged than the stark, enchanting island he emerged from. The fights probably delighted Therrien; it was Ryan’s emphatic fist-pumps and willingness to sport a blue mohawk that made the coach’s brain smoke.

How Ryan’s career could have worked out with the benefit of some different choices or coaches is impossible to know. Regardless, within five years of being picked eighth overall by Montreal, he was crashing out of minor-pro leagues, getting divorced and saddled with injuries, chiefly a high-ankle sprain that lingered for years and really hampered him. “Then I was old news,” says Ryan, who remains the highest-drafted born-and-raised Newfoundlander. “Around here, I felt that. I don’t know if I would have admitted that at the time or if I was even conscious of it, but everywhere you go, people [were] asking, ‘What happened?’”

Joining the national team on Gortsos's invitation, Ryan found ball hockey didn't aggravate the ankle injury that ended his career on the ice

A multi-sport star as a kid, Ryan had played high-level ball hockey dating back to his early teen years, but the game kind of popped in and out of his life and certainly wasn’t top of mind when he found himself at the bottom of the mountain. George Gortsos, who was set to coach Canada’s entry at the 2003 World Ball Hockey Championship, saw Ryan play at a national tournament and, knowing his extensive ice hockey background, made a last-second decision to offer the then-overweight ex-NHLer a spot on the squad. “Skating hurt [because of the sprain],” Ryan says. “But for whatever reason, when I put on a sneaker, it cut under my ankle so I didn’t even feel the pain at all.”

Ryan played only a single shift in the gold-medal game — won by Canada — at the ’03 worlds in Switzerland. As always, though, he made an impression on people. Gortsos’s first memory of Ryan is seeing him at Pearson Airport, completely consumed by a book about The Beatles. He also recalls Ryan, once the event got underway, showing his patriotism by stripping down to his Canada-themed boxers and jumping on stage to dance while a band wailed.

Gortsos, who’s done it all in the sport and is now president of the International Street and Ball Hockey Federation, felt he understood the mould Ryan was cast from, that being the freewheeling NHLers Gortsos grew up loving in the ’60s and ’70s. “These guys were all renegades, but they came to play,” he says, refencing characters like Johnny “Pie” McKenzie and Phil Esposito. “To me, Terry was one of those guys. I was quite comfortable with it.”

In the NHL, with millions of dollars on the line, a coach might have a hard time just getting out of a player’s way. Gortsos, though, gave Ryan some space, and the results followed. He started melting pounds and soon became one of the fittest players associated with the national program. The world championship is held every other year and Ryan was part of the 2005 champs (though he was sidelined by an injury) and an absolute stud on the crew that grabbed gold in 2007. “In the back of my mind — I don’t know if I ever said it to anybody — but I’m like, ‘I can be [one of] the best in the world at something,’” Ryan says. “So then it just became all about ball hockey.”

Ryan's parents, Gail and Terry Sr., are among the loudest fans in the crowd at Glacier Arena

Terry Ryan Sr. estimates there are about a thousand albums in his basement collection. Somehow, though, with everything else happening in this space, a vinyl collection on that scale almost gets lost in the mix.

The Ryan family basement is a museum of music and hockey plastered with artifacts, and the curator, who everyone just calls “Senior,” tops them all in terms of originality. Senior was a fine hockey player himself, a scorer who left Newfoundland to star in the Ontario major junior ranks. He was drafted by the NHL’s Minnesota North Stars in 1972 and played one season for the World Hockey Association’s Minnesota Fighting Saints, but wound up making his living as a French teacher. He retains a thick shock of grey hair with strands that shoot off in every direction; his crackling storytelling cadence follows similar trajectories.

Most of what populates the basement is jerseys and pictures and pucks and sticks from various portions of Ryan’s long, winding hockey road. But there are also items from Senior’s playing days, including a banana-blade Bobby Hull stick given to him and signed by King Slapshot himself. As Senior ping-pongs from one side of the room to the other, Ryan’s mother, Gail, keeps reminding him they’re going to be late for Terry’s next game if they don’t get moving.

Gail is a superstitious woman, so mom and dad — sometimes joined by Penny-Laine — always sit in the same spot at Glacier. They are certainly among the most vocal supporters of the home side.

“I’m a goalie. That’s why I can smoke.”

An event like the CBHA Nationals exists in a wonderful space, somewhere underneath the high-stakes world of pro sports but significantly apart from pure recreational sport when it comes to intensity. Three different competitions are taking place in Newfoundland: The men’s draw, the women’s draw and the men’s masters, comprised of players aged 40 and up. Not every province is represented; some send multiple teams in a single draw. Hosting this year, Newfoundland is in the multiple-teams camp, something that’s not usually possible as travelling to most national competitions is a big, expensive deal thanks to simple geography.

Before any given men’s game, the corridors are filled with NHL-worthy bodies — lots of these guys have junior, major junior or pro backgrounds — going through extensive stretching and warm-up routines. You might see someone on a table getting worked over by a masseuse. Outside, you can find competitors engaged in an exercise where they jump straight up in the air, then blast into a sprint the second their feet touch the ground. That exertion occurs one smoky exhale away from the spot where the odd masters competitor — many of whom have their own impressive ice and ball hockey resumes — puff cigarettes to close out the day. (“I’m a goalie,” one says. “That’s why I can smoke.”)

Every contest at Glacier — the larger of two tourney venues — is available via webcast and regardless of which teams are on the floor, the blood certainly gets flowing. Talk to anyone about the differences between ball and ice hockey and the first thing that comes up is the fact there’s no gliding on cement — if you want to get somewhere, you’ve got to pick up those sneakers and run. “I don’t think there’s better cardio you can do than ball hockey,” says Zach O’Brien, a Black Horse centre and former Quebec Major Junior Hockey League star who just won the ECHL’s Kelly Cup with his hometown St. John’s Growlers in the spring.

Ask anyone in town: Terry Ryan Sr. is as unique as any of the music and memorabilia in the family basement

In terms of format, ball hockey features two stop-time periods of 20 minutes. It also has what’s referred to as a “floating blue line” that allows teams to stretch the attacking zone by bringing the ball all the way back out to the red line once they’ve crossed the offensive blue line onside. All of a sudden, shots from the middle of the floor can be dangerous, both because players can shoot for a rebound and because the ball is prone to dipping and fluttering like an off-speed pitch.

There aren’t a lot of one-on-one dangles because the ball is tougher to manoeuvre than a heavy, flat puck, sometimes getting topped by the blade and sort of wedged between the stick and ground. That makes teamwork all the more critical, and there are similarities to soccer in the sense a ball is often chipped into a space where someone else can burst onto it. There’s no body checking, but all kinds of bruising contact, which sometimes leads to the same heated back-and-forths you get on the ice. Naturally, it’s those encounters that further stir already-feisty members of the crowd. Ontario teams can definitely expect to hear derisive comments — “Go ride the subway!” — and anything that escalates to the level of pushing and shoving is probably going to bring calls of “Trow ‘im out, ref!”

That’s the 2019 version of the scene Ryan grew up in, when his Mount Pearl youth sports teams would come watch ball hockey action in the 1980s. “You could drink in there, you could smoke; it was a rowdy atmosphere, there were fights,” he says. “But that’s Newfoundland.”

The flag-bearers for the province in those days were the Best Western Travellers, who won back-to-back national titles with skill and four lines that were coming to get you. Their success allowed Newfoundlanders a rare and relished chance to thump their chests for a lightly-populated home province that was often outclassed at national gatherings. “By and large, we went to any sporting event on the mainland and we were always last or didn’t do very well,” says Paul Barron, one of the Newfoundland and Labrador Ball Hockey Association’s founding fathers. “For ball hockey, we started winning. We won a few championships and people said, ‘Hey, this is great stuff.’ So they started to support us.

“Any time Newfoundland plays against a team outside of their own province and plays well and can beat them, the fans just love it.”

One of the things that’s helped Newfoundland compete is the fact ice hockey players seem far more likely to cross over than in other parts of Canada. Moores grew up with former Detroit Red Wing Dan Cleary and both men played in ball hockey leagues from a young age. In 2010, when Newfoundland was in the midst of an extended dry spell on the national scene, Moores, Barron and Ryan were part of a small group that created Black Horse to resurrect the province’s chances.

The nationals were in St. John’s that summer as well, and Black Horse kicked off a now decade-long period of success by winning gold on home soil thanks in no small part to the participation of NHLers like Teddy Purcell and Adam Pardy. “We get our top hockey players, they actually play ball hockey,” says Steve Power, who has coached all kinds of teams in Newfoundland and is also president of the Canadian Ball Hockey Association. “And we also find a few diamonds in the rough, people who don’t play ice hockey. Frankly, they can’t afford to play ice hockey. It’s such a different game, ball hockey [versus] ice hockey, it’s so much cheaper: Helmet, gloves, stick and off you go.”

“As soon as you put ‘NL’ on your jersey, you just feel like you’re a hero.”

As such, for every high-profile participant, there are 50 whose talents are only known to their teammates, opponents and the people who pack the barn. Jeremy Bishop of Corner Brook is a sneaky, pint-sized scorer who was a staple on Black Horse for years before moving up with Ryan — his frequent linemate — to play at the masters level. On the women’s side Aprill Drake, Kristen Cooze and Dawn Tulk won gold with a Power-coached Canadian entry at the worlds in June in Slovakia. (Nowhere is ball hockey more popular than Slovakia and the Czech Republic.)

While all three gushed about that experience, you get the sense wearing their province’s colours provides an equal rush. “It’s a lot of pride,” says Tulk. “As soon as you put ‘NL’ on your jersey, you just feel like you’re a hero.

“For us, it’s been instilled that we’re always going to be the underdog, no matter where we are. We’re a little province with big hearts and I feel this is a way for us to be on the same playing field as everybody else.”

Ryan's younger than the average inductee, but the chance to enshrine him in the CBHA Hall of Fame on home soil was too perfect to pass up

Ryan was at the edge of a cliff on an unseasonably warm fall evening in Trinity — about three hours from St. John’s — when he heard footsteps behind him. It was the end of another long day on a film set and after doing all the stuff a “locations” person does — setting up cones for parking in the morning, making sure no cars or people pass through a shot, cleaning a toilet that overflows — Ryan had grabbed a half-consumed bottle of whiskey and a joint, and headed out to watch the sun set. He assumed whoever was approaching with the same idea likely held a similar post on the project. As it turned out, it was the male lead in the movie who plunked down. “He gets right in front of me and it’s Ethan Hawke,” Ryan says. “And he goes, ‘Is this spot taken?’”

A few days earlier, Ryan had broken with convention — people working on sets are usually discouraged from engaging the actors, especially genuine Hollywood stars — by tossing his book at Hawke and saying something along the lines of, “You won’t remember this, but we met over dinner one night in Montreal.” That original encounter had come when Ryan was still trying to make it with the Habs. Now that he was in Hawke’s company again on the cliffside, Ryan soon found himself in a discussion about the details of his more recent circumstances.

Around 2012, just for a laugh, Ryan had appeared as a background actor on the show Republic of Doyle, which starred a buddy of his, Allan Hawco. He was also just putting the finishing touches on a degree from Memorial University of Newfoundland majoring in folklore and minoring in English. His rough plan after graduating was to follow his father into teaching, but more than anything, he just wanted to make some money to help support Penny-Laine, his wife, Danielle, and his stepson, Tison.

After his twirl on Doyle, Ryan began getting work doing all the unglamorous things required to make a set run. Thanks to the disproportionately large arts scene in St. John’s, he kept stringing together decent-paying jobs, all while playing Sr. A hockey and working on his book. By the time he crossed paths with Hawke, he had spoken some lines on camera, done the odd stunt and made some connections with people in the industry. If you’re shooting in St. John’s, who better than Ryan to help you find a little fun for a night or two?

Hawke — who read Tales of a First-Round Nothing, partly because he couldn’t get much cell reception in Trinity — nudged Ryan toward seeking out more roles and a few months later he got real face time in the Netflix show Frontier, which stars Jason Momoa. The actor of Aquaman and Game of Thrones fame became a pal and Ryan took him to his first hockey game. He even tried to teach the big man how to skate at one of the oldest rinks in Newfoundland. Ryan later worked as a personal assistant for Momoa on a trip to England where he did whatever was required in the moment, from stunt work to fetching a 12-pack of Guinness for the star to enjoy after a long workday.

Ryan was part of a small group that created Black Horse in 2010, sparking a now decade-long period of success

Ryan took a sales job with Mill Street Brewery just one week before nationals started, but he retains the flexibility to pursue work in the arts. He’s a first-rate bad guy in a movie called A Fire in the Cold Season that’s premiering in mid-September at Halifax’s Atlantic International Film Festival; he’s slated to play a hockey player (his first time acting in that tailor-made role) on the television show Letterkenny later this year; he’s already released one short film and has designs on another; and he’s chipping away at a second book. Certainly there are gaps between gigs, but Ryan — who also co-hosts a hockey podcast called Third Man In — believes the network he’s building will help him continue to find new projects, big and small. Not that he’s one for counting chickens. “If I’ve learned to do anything, it’s take everything with a grain of salt and don’t start thinking about tomorrow yet,” he says.

There was a chance to reflect at Day 3 of the tournament, when Ryan was inducted into the Canadian Ball Hockey Association Hall of Fame. The other inductees over the course of the week tended to be much older than Ryan, but Power said the chance to honour him at home was too perfect to pass up. Ryan was ready to walk away from Black Horse after his last spin with the team, not wanting to take the spot of a young player who deserved it more. But when it was determined Mount Pearl would be hosting nationals, the boys told him he absolutely had to be there in some capacity.

“I can’t say the name ‘Terry Ryan’ and not smile.”

During the ceremony, Ryan stood on the home bench wearing a Black Horse jersey, his hands pressed down on the top of the boards while Power rhymed off his myriad achievements. There was no big speech from Ryan, but rather a rare moment of prolonged silence as he stared down at the floor and listened to Power. After receiving a plaque and taking a picture with his family, Ryan was soon back to his giddy self, fist-bumping with the Newfoundland women who were prepping for their game and taking close-range pictures of the plaque. Power is fond of saying it’s Ryan’s world and we’re just living in it. “I can’t say the name ‘Terry Ryan’ and not smile,” he says.

That is a widely shared sentiment among friends, acquaintances and teammates who marvel at Ryan’s loquacious energy and respond to his sincerity. Just seconds after finishing up a preliminary-round win with his masters team, NL Colonial Masters Selects, at Goulds Arena, Ryan hot-stepped off the floor saying, “I have to get the music ready for the [Black Horse] boys!” Moments later, still sweating and wearing shin pads, Ryan threw on his shades and a hat, chucked the disco speaker — a “Party Rocker” according to Best Buy — in the front seat of a Mazda 3 with a punctured exhaust and rumbled over to Glacier.

“I kind of forgot about it,” says O’Brien, who’s known Ryan for about a decade and sometimes works hockey camps with him, of the Party Rocker. “Before our first game, I was the first guy to walk in and Terry was just sitting in his stall and I see the disco ball going. Even if he’s not playing, he’s the first one here, has the music going for the first guy who walks in. You can bounce anything off Terry — whether it’s ball hockey or anything — and he’s willing to talk and help you out.”

Newfoundland's success in ball hockey is at least partially thanks to the willingness of the province's ice hockey players to cross over

Ryan did eventually see action with Black Horse, filling in for a player who fell ill. Though he was limited to a couple second-period shifts in the win, he was shirtless and beaming in the hallway after playing his third contest — two with Colonial, one with Black Horse — of the day. You take (and give) a lot of whacks in the course of that much ball hockey and Ryan was on the receiving end of a few more even after the action ended courtesy of Penny-Laine’s plastic magic wand, the nine-year-old poking her dad as if to say, “Stop talking, it’s time to go!”

That was on the second-last day of the event, when Colonial, Black Horse and NL United all punched tickets to gold-medal games. It was a Super Saturday of sorts at Glacier, with roughly 2,000 fans pouring in to see home teams gun for the top prize. This family-and-friends sport really takes on a different feel in Newfoundland. “The crowd is something we’ve never seen before,” says Marc Petitpas, a veteran player and member of the Halton Leafs team that faced Colonial in the final. “Even at the masters level [here], we’re playing in front of almost a full rink.”

Unfortunately for the locals, the first two games went the way of the invaders, both from Ontario no less. Colonial fell to Halton 6–4 and NL United was blanked 4–0 by the Ottawa Capitals. Before Black Horse hit the floor, Ryan — who did not participate in the final contest — fired up the speaker once again. This time, though, he changed up the last line, deviating from the usual humorous Terry Ryan Jr. reference and instead shouting something about it taking all 20 guys in the room to win a championship.

They almost did, too, but a pair of late goals by the New Tecumseh Xtreme — another Ontario outfit — gave the visitors a 2–1 win over a Black Horse crew that carried the play most of the afternoon. As the Xtreme whooped it up, members of Black Horse slammed sticks before settling into a collective sag. The 1,000-yard stares lasted throughout most of the medal presentation, but started to break when the clubs shook hands and the moment came for the team to acknowledge the support of an equally appreciative crowd.

Fifteen minutes after the stinging loss, Ryan — still wearing a Black Horse jersey and sporting a silver medal around his neck — stood in front of the first row of seats with his back pressed up against the glass. Speaking with his signature gusto, he noted Black Horse has a history of getting to the gold-medal game, playing great but coming up just short, a fact that’s easier to take when you’ve learned to appreciate what happens when things don’t work out exactly as planned.

“The sun will come up tomorrow,” Ryan says.

Yes b’y.

Designed and edited by Evan Rosser.

Photo Credits

Photography by Ryan Dixon.