Every year, on NHL draft day, young men in new suits sit anxiously with their parents in stiff-backed arena seats, waiting for older men in more expensive suits to decide their fates. Some wait for hours before hearing their names called. Some leave in tears of disappointment. The first-rounders have been wined and dined, measured and tested, and their wait is a short one. Watching at home, Terry Ryan has flashbacks.
Ryan toils for the Corner Brook Royals in the Newfoundland senior hockey league. At 33, he's still one of the best players on the ice, with 13 points in his last seven games. These days, though, hockey comes second in a life that includes a day job, a family and a budding career as an author.
His forthcoming book is called "Tales of a First-Round Nothing," and it says something about the comfort Ryan now feels in his own skin that he's able to write his story with such honesty. The draft, for him, isn't just a great memory. It's the highlight of his pro hockey career.
"A lot of people would say it's a whirlwind and they don't remember," he smiles. "I remember every second of it. I remember walking down out of my seat. The first thing I did was look over at my buddy, my linemate, Daymond Langkow, who had just gone fifth overall to Tampa Bay. I was walking up to the podium and we made eye contact and nothing was really said. We were just smiling, and it was a really weird moment. It was kind of like a baseball player getting drafted and going to the Yankees. I think if I'd gone to the Nashville Predators, or to Columbus...not to knock those teams, but...it wouldn't have...I didn't have time that day to accept that I was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens."
He knew he was going to go high in the first round. His stock had been rising fast during his draft year. It was, he recalls, a perfect season. He had 110 points in 70 games, and most of the pro teams were knocking on his door.
"I know I could have played my whole career in the NHL," he reflects now. "All those scouts weren't wrong. At the same time, I also know everything has to go right. There's a bit of luck in this. There's a lot of injuries in hockey. If you get injured in your draft year, you're behind the eight-ball right away. You have to be put with good players. You have to be in the right environment. Your schooling has to be going right. All those things went right in my draft year."
The Bruins, choosing ninth overall, had been in contact. They assured Ryan they'd pick him in the first round. Other teams called too. The Washington Capitals flew him and some other prospects down south and put them through three hours of I.Q. tests and physical training. The Oilers flew them back up north and tested them again. There was no question Ryan would become the highest-ever NHL draft pick from Newfoundland. The only thing left to wonder about on draft day was how high he'd go, and which team would own him.
He never dreamed he'd be chosen by his favourite NHL team, and, even as a cocky kid minutes away from hearing his name called, had no reason to think the Habs were his destiny.
"I was in the elevator on the way to my seat with my dad and a couple of more, and Doug Robinson, who was the head scout for Montreal. Montreal was one of the only teams that didn't interview me at all. Nothing. So, I didn't really expect to talk to them. San Jose was picking twelfth and they told me they were picking me," Ryan remembers. "So, anyway, in the elevator, the draft was just starting and I was actually late to my seat. Doug Robinson said "Congrats on a good year. Western Hockey League power forward. I like to see that." I said, "Thanks Mr.Robinson. I think a lot of your organization." And on the way off the elevator he said, "Congrats on a good Memorial Cup." And I said, "Jeez, I didn't play in the Memorial Cup." So, I went a little closer to try and get a read on him, and I said, "Okay, Mr.Robinson, I'll see you." And he said, "Okay, thanks Shane." So, fifteen minutes before they drafted me, the Canadiens thought I was Shane Doan, by appearance."
The team got the name right when the Canadiens staff took the podium to announce the eighth overall pick. Terry Ryan was overwhelmed. He'd been taken by his favourite team in the first round, and life couldn't have been better. He says now, that's as good as it got. Ryan spent the next year back in junior where he had a decent season, despite some injury problems. During the following campaign, the second after his draft, he finally got the phone call of his dreams and made his NHL debut. It didn't work out the way dreams are supposed to.
"The guys who drafted me got fired," he recalls. "I was a long shot for them. I wasn't the best skater. I had a lot of character. And I could score. But the times I was called up, it was because someone was hurt, it wasn't because they wanted me. I got maybe three shifts a game. In the minors, I was rookie of the year. I had 20 goals, I lead the league in fights. Everything I was doing in the minors was, if not on pace, then above expectations from what anybody thought. Years later, I look back and I'm not as bitter as I was. At the time, I was pretty upset. I was getting called up, getting one shift and I'd fight Tie Domi. I'd do it. I'd fight these guys because I wanted to make the most of my opportunity. There were over ten games in the NHL when I didn't even get one shift, and they don't even count as a game played. That happens to a lot of people."
After the first few games in the NHL, injuries struck. First, concussions, then a busted ankle. Frustrated at never getting a real shot with the Canadiens, he took his agent, Mike Barnett's, advice and sat out training camp. He never played in the NHL again. He's not bitter now, but getting past the feeling of being a disappointment to himself and his family was a long trip down a bumpy road.
"It was hard at first," Ryan admits. "It's a long story, which is why I wrote the book. I got to see the world from the other side for a while, and it was wild. I was the biggest prospect in Newfoundland. I was talked about as the best player on the island. I had all those things going for me. When I got hurt, I felt like I let the whole province down. It took a while. I got divorced the same year I was told I couldn't play anymore. I put on sixty pounds and went on a reality show and lost it. It was a long, long, long story. It was hard to deal with, but at the same time, my dad, who played pro hockey, said, "Hey, you could have got injured when you were 14 or 15. But you played in the NHL. You played for the Canadiens.""
That's what matters to Ryan now. He regrets skipping that last training camp, but he's come to terms with the way his NHL career panned out...or didn't. And he's still a Habs fan.
"Recently, in the last couple of years, I've flown up and gone to the Habs games, and you're reminded when you go to the building. There's six or seven hundred names there outside. The players. I was one of them. When you think about it like that, it's kind of mind blowing," he muses.
He says his story shouldn't be a sad one. He's had a good run in hockey, even if it hasn't been in the NHL. He likes the Corner Brook Royals.
"One thing I would tell young players is there's so much more than the NHL. There's so many opportunities, and the small percentage that make the NHL...they're to be commended and looked up to. But there are a lot of avenues that young players can take. I look at my whole experience as "Wow! This all happened to me!" And I can't believe it," Ryan marvels now, fifteen years after he became a first rounder. "The draft ended up being the highlight of my career. That and my first NHL game. Those things still happened and they were still great."
When Terry Ryan watches the draft now, he can still feel those teenage emotions; the hope, trepidation and wonder of it all. The thing he feels most now is quiet satisfaction. He made it after all and for the rest of it, we'll have to read the book.