Checkers’ Ryan has taken unconventional path in bid to land NHL job

By Sean Shapiro
Derek Ryan - Charlotte Checkers

Photo: Charlotte Checkers captain and Carolina Hurricanes prospect Derek Ryan is the leading scorer for the Checkers, posting eight goals and 16 points in 20 AHL games in 2015-16 (courtesy of Christina Shapiro/Texas Stars)



Derek Ryan and his wife, Bonnie, have a map hanging on the wall in their living room back in Spokane, Washington.

Places the couple have lived and visited are on the map, including Austria – where their son Zane was born – and Orebro, Sweden – where Ryan won the Swedish Hockey League’s MVP award last season.

“It’s kind of neat, I’ve gotten to travel the world and play the game I love,” Ryan said. “My son was born in Austria, he’ll always have that. Not many people my age have been able to travel the world like that. We’ve been to Rome, Paris — places like that we’ve already crossed off the list because of hockey before I turned 30-years-old.”

Now, Ryan is trying to add Raleigh, North Carolina to that map as he is working his way toward an NHL future with the Carolina Hurricanes.

The 28-year-old, who will turn 29 on Dec. 29th, isn’t the most traditional prospect in the Hurricanes organization.

Undersized and lacking the measurables after three years with the Spokane Chiefs, Ryan attempted to start a professional career with the Kalamazoo Wings in the now defunct United Hockey League and appeared in 13 playoffs games in 2007.

“I wasn’t ready for pro hockey, that’s when I went with a different route,” Ryan said.

That different route took Ryan to the University of Alberta, where he registered 146 points in four seasons. In his final season of Canadian college hockey, Ryan was named the Canadian Interuniversity Sport Most Valuable Player in 2011.

Ryan then played three years in Austria, where he had 199 points (90 goals, 109 assists) in 158 games and parlayed that success into a contract with Orebro HK in the SHL before the 2014-15 season.

In his one SHL season, Ryan had 15 goals and 45 assists in 55 games and was named the Forward of the Year and SHL MVP.

“I had a good year,” Ryan said. “Sweden is a tough league, definitely the third best in the world after the NHL and the KHL. It’s a real skilled game and there isn’t much space to hide and make mistakes.”

And his success in Sweden drew attention from North American teams. Ryan had a couple options this past summer from KHL and North American clubs, eventually signing a one-year, two-way contract ($600,000 NHL, $150,000 AHL) with Carolina on June 15th.

“He’s not the normal prospect, but I would still call him an NHL prospect,” an NHL Western Conference scout said. “Even though he’s older, he can still put together a nice NHL career.”

So far the move has paid off well for Ryan and Carolina’s AHL affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers.

Ten games into the season, Checkers coach Mark Morris named Ryan the captain before the team’s home opener at Bojangles Coliseum on Nov. 7th — a move that Morris said “was an easy decision,” after Ryan’s leadership on and off the ice.

Ryan is also stuffing the stat sheet for a Checkers team that is lacking offensive punch.

Through 19 games, Ryan has a team-high eight goals and 16 assists. The center is positionally sound and can make plays in tight spaces. He doesn’t have an overly powerful shot, but he has a quick release, and looks to pass first.

“This is my chance to make the NHL and prove I belong here,” Ryan said. “That’s why we came to North America.”

Ryan credits much of that success to his time in Sweden. He said there are times he takes a more European approach to the game to create chances, rather than the consistent “chip it in, chase it down,” style of game in the AHL.

“If you watch here, everything is very cyclical and happens in a constructed way,” Ryan said. “If you can take a different approach at times it can disrupt the game and you can create more chances.”

While the European approach is helping on the ice, off the ice Ryan has been enjoying life back in North America. It has been easier for extended family to see him play, and his family has been enjoying the Charlotte area.

“Even this interview in English, these are the types of things that you miss a little bit in Europe,” Ryan said. “Loved my time over there and it helped me grow as a player. But it’s nice to be back in North America and I’ll get to spend a Christmas at home for the first time in five years.”

Follow Sean Shapiro on Twitter via @seanshapiro