Born in Western Hockey League country and drafted by the Portland Winter Hawks with the 23rd overall pick in the 2003 WHL Bantam Draft, one would expect Saskatoon native Eric Gryba to go the major junior route, but the big blueliner has taken the road less-traveled with a detour to boot.
At 6’4 210 pounds, Gryba has the size the WHL loves to see in defensemen. He’s also had both team and personal success. With 11 goals and 29 assists in 32 games with the Midget AAA Saskatoon Contacts, Gryba helped lead the Contacts to the Canadian National Midget Championship in Gatineau. By the end of the tournament, the Contacts were the TELUS Cup champions (formerly known as the Air Canada Cup) and Gryba was named the Top Defenseman of the tournament, ahead of even current University of Maine Black Bear Simon Danis-Papin. Gryba was also named the Top Defenseman of the Saskatchewan Midget League.
Despite possessing the WHL requisite size, physicality, and skill, Gryba decided to go the collegiate route, but the current Green Bay Gambler did not initially plan on moving south of the border and playing in the United States. He had hoped to play for the Nanaimo Clippers of the British Columbia Junior Hockey League, but a new Hockey Canada rules disallowing Inter-Branch (inter-provincial) transfers for players 17 and younger dashed Gryba’s hopes of playing in the BCHL despite gaining British Columbian residency, partially transferring his guardianship to his aunt, and preparing to attend Malaspina University in Nanaimo.
However, Gryba was allowed to transfer to the United States, and he landed with the USHL Green Bay Gamblers. Since then, he’s played in the USHL All-Star Game and has 1 goal and 11 assists in 52 games. His +11 rating is behind only Jeremy Dehner among Green Bay defensemen. Not only has Gryba provided Green Bay with fairly steady defense, he’s also served as the protector of the Gamblers numerous skilled, small forwards. With 175 penalty minutes, Gryba is second only to Cedar Rapids’ Phil Axtell, but he is far from a goon. It has not been uncommon in 2005-06 for opponents to take their shot at the highly-rated prospect.
Gryba decided against playing major juniors to avoid goons and focus on skill development, and his development will continue at Boston University starting this fall under the guidance of Jack Parker, one of the winningest coaches in NCAA college hockey.
Hockey’s Future recently caught up with Gryba via phone and discussed his winding road to the USHL, his choice to play college hockey, and his desire to play in the NHL.
HF: You initially were looking to play for the Nanaimo Clippers in the BCHL, but you ended up coming to the USHL, what were the circumstances surrounding that?
EG: I wanted to play out in BC, and the rule is you’re not allowed Inter-Branch transfer, from province to province, for junior hockey. So, I actually went down to BC in the summer and became a BC resident by getting a driver’s license. I went to school and graduated in BC this summer, I worked in BC, I had my guardianship partially transferred to my aunt, who lives right in Nanaimo. I was a full BC resident, and I really shouldn’t have been able to play in Saskatchewan, since I would have been an Inter-Branch transfer, and I was planning on going to college, to go to Malaspina University, and it would have been this year, and that was my special circumstance, no other junior program in Saskatchewan could offer me that same opportunity, to take college courses while playing junior hockey at the same time.
HF: Would you say that the USHL compares favorably to the BCHL, at least what you know of it?
EG: I think so. I never played a game in the BCHL, so I couldn’t say firsthand, but I think it definitely the leagues are equally par, for sure, maybe even the USHL might be a step up, because they give out more scholarships. I would say they are the two elite leagues in North America for junior hockey players.
HF: You were drafted by the Portland Winter Hawks in the 2003 WHL Bantam Draft, what was your reaction when you learned you had been drafted, how was your experience at training camp there, and what made decide to keep pursuing the college route?
EG: Obviously it was nice to get drafted 23rd overall. It was nice, but, nothing against the Winter Hawks, they had a very, very outstanding program there, they’re well coached, the owner’s great, they have a nice facility there, nothing was wrong with that, it was just that the WHL was not what I was looking for. I wanted something a little bit more. And that’s why I decided to hold out for a college scholarship.
HF: From the experience you gained at training camp with Portland, how does the USHL compare with the WHL?
EG: I think it’s just the skill, I think obviously the WHL is a lot more physical, a lot bigger players, more fighting, it’s more of a physical league. So that’s what I really could tell from training camp.
HF: Afterwards, you played two years of midget hockey with the Saskatoon Contacts, what was midget hockey like in Canada?
EG: I think Saskatchewan’s midget hockey is probably the best midget hockey league in Canada. They’ve had tons of major junior players, they’ve had a lot of junior players who’ve gone the college route and eventually went on to play pro. So, I think it’s a very, very good league, and I absolutely loved it playing there. I had a great team, well-coached, I loved everything about it. It’s my best two years playing hockey so far.
HF: How did Midget AAA hockey help prepare you to play Junior A?
EG: I think it takes time to develop. I don’t think I would have been ready for this league after one year in that league, because I think I needed two to really fine-tune my skills and to make the proper jump and come in and actually play a role on a team. It’s a very competitive, hard-working league. That’s really what it came down to. If you took a night off, you were going to get beat. Especially since we were always the top dogs in that league, and everybody was always gunning for us, if we took a night off, we were going to lose.
HF: What was it like to win the Midget AAA championship with the Contacts?
EG: That was an absolutely amazing experience. We were treated absolutely unbelievable in Quebec. Everything about the whole experience, from winning Westerns and going to Gatineau was amazing. Great hockey, great town, just everything about it was top notch.
HF: You won defenseman of the year at the tournament, right?
EG: Yeah, I won national midget defensive player of the year.
HF: What do you feel are some of the parts of your game that helped you achieve that honor?
EG: You know, I’d like to take all of the credit, but it comes down to my teammates. We had a very, very skilled team and we had a great power play, and that’s where I think I got a lot of my points. I was very well coached, which helped me through the down times too, so that really helped me stay on track, to have a consistent year.
HF: Has your role with the Contacts changed with the Gamblers?
EG: I think it has. Last year I’d only step on the penalty kill once, I always played two minutes of power play and I would be shot. Defensively I play on the penalty kill, I play a normal regular shift. You have better players, better veteran figures. Last year I was the No. 1 d-man and I was used in most all situations. This year it’s not quite that way. Last year if I had an off game I still got to play. Here, if you have an off game, you’re not going to play, you have to sit.
HF: What do you feel you add to the Gamblers line-up?
EG: I think probably a physical presence. The team is not very big or a physical team for that matter, they have a lot of very skilled, hard-working players. I’m more physical. I think I’m third place in penalty minutes right now. I think I bring a physical element, especially to our d-squad and our overall team.
HF: What other things do you feel you do well?
EG: I feel I’m strong in the defensive zone, to make that first pass out of the zone, jump up into the play, play that trail d-man, there’s opportunities there, and try and finish here and there, even though I haven’t had my fair share of chances.
HF: What are some of the things you’ve been working on this year so that you can make an impact in college hockey?
EG: I’ve been really working on trying to improve my foot speed, my overall skating, because it is a very, very fast game in college. I’ve also gotten a lot stronger. I put on a lot of weight this summer, but now I’ve actually made that weight strong. The guys in college are bigger, stronger, faster.
HF: What size are you cruising at these days?
EG: About 210 to 212.
HF: I’ve seen you in a couple fights this year, do you have any strategy or do you just go at it?
EG: I actually usually come forward, I like to punch and then tie up and get in a couple in there. Usually, if I’m going to fight a bigger guy, I especially like to stay low, bob and weave and just try and avoid their punches and come up. But if I’m fighting a smaller guy, try and keep him out a little and use my reach as much as possible and come in at the right time
HF: Who are some of the USHLers who have given you some good bouts?
EG: I fought [Ryan] Scott, from Indiana, he’s about 6’6. I fought [Donnie] Hallmark, he’s a smaller guy but a very, very skilled fighter. [Alex] Laseen, very skilled, he’s a smaller fighter who’s good at tying up. I fought [Brandon] Bollig, but it wasn’t a very good fight, it was pretty quiet. I fought [Matt] Ambroz twice, those were both actually pretty good fights. I wouldn’t say that I really dominated anyone, but I don’t think I’ve really lost either.
HF: What was it about college hockey that you knew that was the route you wanted to take?
EG: I would watch college hockey when I was younger. Coming from Western Canada, all you hear about is the WHL, WHL games. People there say it’s not as tough of a league, difficult for defensemen to develop and what not. Watching college hockey, it’s a very, very fast physical game. You don’t have these big goons out there, guys who can’t play, who are out there to fight, that sort of thing. It’s very skilled, but yet very, very physical and very high-paced, high-tempo game.
HF: What was it that made you decide to commit to Boston University?
EG: I also had visits to North Dakota and Michigan. It’s just an overall comfort, I felt more comfortable there. They have a great facility, great coaching staff, a very good school, everything about it just seemed right.
HF: Do you think coming from Western Canada, not growing up around certain programs and developing biases in your childhood, helped you and was an advantage?
EG: Yeah, I think so. I play with a lot of Minnesota hockey players, and they all want to go play in Minnesota and what not. I think I had no real biases anywhere, I looked at them all equally and gave all of them a fair chance.
HF: Which Green Bay Gambler defenseman do you like playing with the best?
EG: Really, right now, I was playing with Chris Stansik and the beginning of the year, but he ended up being traded to Lincoln. Now, I’m actually playing with Kurt Davis, so I don’t get a chance to really play with anybody else. So, I’d have to say Kurt Davis. [Ironically, Gryba paired with Ryan Little in his next game, against Des Moines Mar. 10].
HF: Who are some of your Green Bay Gambler teammates that you feel are the highest skilled players?
EG: Our top line consists of Brian Roloff, who’s going to Vermont, Sean Backman is going to Yale, and Kevin Deeth is going to Notre Dame. They’re all very, very skilled, hardworking players. Also I’d say Sergio Somma. I don’t think I’ve seen a kid have a harder snap shot than that. He absolutely fires that puck. And Jeremy Dehner, he’s our No. 1 defenseman. He’s just a well-rounded defenseman.
HF: Do you ever think about the NHL Draft and your potential NHL future?
EG: Yeah, it happens. I’ve seen Central Scouting Report and what not, but I try not to concentrate on it. My real challenge is trying to win a Clark Cup, so I try to win a championship with them. I hope to be a Green Bay Gamblers as far as possible into the playoffs. So, that’s my No. 1 goal. So, if I get drafted, that’s great, but if I don’t, not everyone was drafted who’s playing in the NHL right now.
HF: What are your ambitions with hockey?
EG: I want to play in the NHL. That’s been my goal since I can’t even remember. So that’s what I want to do, I want to end up playing in the NHL.
HF: What type of defenseman do you think you’d be in the NHL?
EG: I think I’d be a strong defenseman who can play well, solid, and also contribute offensively when the opportunity arises.
HF: How long have you been playing hockey?
EG: I think I started skating when I was three. I started playing organized hockey when I was four.
HF: Who were your favorite players growing up?
EG: Well my favorite player growing up was Pavel Bure, but that’s when I was younger. I really liked his play. But now, I really love watching Rob Blake and Zdeno Chara. I love how both of them play.
HF: Are those two guys you like to emulate?
EG: Yeah, not overly skilled defensemen, but get the job done, very physical, a presence every night, but they also do have a little offensive upside.
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.