Potential Flames fan favourite Ryan could exceed expectations

derek-ryan-flames

Derek Ryan, right. (Joe Skipper/AP)

If John Tavares hadn’t chosen to play in his hometown or if Steve Yzerman had made a simple summer phone call, Derek Ryan might not be a Calgary Flame.

It was widely believed the Toronto Maple Leafs coveted Ryan as their second choice up the middle amongst free agents, behind Tavares.
What wasn’t as well known was the fact Yzerman was Ryan’s childhood idol and that a call from Tampa Bay’s then-GM could have been powerful enough to sway the 31-year-old’s decision.

“I think (the Lightning) were in the mix, but I didn’t talk to him,” chuckled Ryan, remarkably unable to recall exactly how many teams courted him in June. “It would have been cool if he did call though.”

Instead, the Flames made his dreams come true, inking him to a three-year, $9.375-million contract he couldn’t have fathomed while playing for the University of Alberta, four years in Europe or the Charlotte Checkers.

“During the interview courting period there were five to 10 teams calling and I was talking to some pretty big names in the sport that were calling me and trying to convince me to come play for their hockey team,” laughed the undrafted native of Spokane, Wash., who made his NHL debut at the unlikely age of 29.

“You don’t envision that happening when you are playing CIS hockey or in the Austrian or Swedish or American hockey league or whatever it is.”

What he did envision was playing in Calgary ever since he first learned the Flames had been chasing him well before he became a free agent.

“It excited me this organization was interested in me last year in acquiring me at the deadline,” said Ryan, who spent parts of the last three years playing for new Flames coach Bill Peters in Carolina.

“Having Bill here knowing my game and knowing what I can expect makes it a little bit easier, but that was probably just a small piece of the equation in July making that decision. There were a lot of variables.”

He liked the fact Calgary is close to home and the fact it’s a Canadian market where hockey matters.

“This team is good right now – it’s not a team we’re going to and hoping they’ll be good in the second and third year of the contract,” he added. “That’s a big part of it.”

Ryan was brought in as the club’s poster boy for what was needed most here – offensive depth and versatility. A right-handed centre who is amongst the league’s top guns at the dot, he’s also able to play wing, kill penalties and contribute on the power play.

He put it all on display in China where he was arguably the Flames’ best player.

A 15-goal scorer last year, he has the chance to be a fan favourite if he comes anywhere near that number as a bottom six forward. It certainly seems plausible given he managed to follow up his first full year in the NHL with a stint at the world championships where he played early in the tourney alongside Johnny Gaudreau.

“Bill has expressed to me and the staff that he thinks I’m at my best in the middle, winning faceoffs and being up the middle,” said Ryan, a five-foot-11, 170-pound journeyman whose speed and smarts caught the attention of many Flames fans tuning in for the broadcasts from China.

“Whether that’s the three slot or the four slot, whatever happens I’m happy.”

No one should be surprised if he exceeds expectations, as that’s what he did over three years of progression in Austria before taking an opportunity in the Swedish Elite League where he won the Golden Helmet as the league’s top scorer.

As winding a road as there’s ever been to the NHL.

It was after Sweden he reconnected with his junior coach, Peters, in Carolina where he gave up great money and opportunity in Europe for a shot at his NHL dreams.

A pair of one-year deals at $600,000 led to a $1.4 million deal last year he parlayed into the windfall in Cowtown.

Ryan returned from China with the Flames in the wee hours Thursday, yet was back at the Dome Friday despite the fact all travellers were given two days off.

Locals will likely get their first chance to see him live Monday when the Flames host the Winnipeg Jets, and he’ll undoubtedly be one of focal points of fan interest.

“There were definitely a lot of cool moments in that week that I was blown away,” said Ryan of the summer courtship. “It was a little surreal and hard to put into words.”

So is his path – a road he’s far from finished navigating.

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