The whistle blows and Troy Ryan skates over to address team members huddled at centre ice. Even with skates on, he’s a foot shorter than most of them. Ryan stops and players drop to one knee. His voice is calm and reassuring as he gives final words to the players.
“That’s it boys; be ready to play tomorrow.”
Ryan definitely will be ready.
Hours before practice starts at the Lady Beaverbrook Rink, and hours after, he’s preparing: everything from sharpening skates to cleaning the dressing room to doing the players’ laundry. Those may not sound like regular coaching duties, but Ryan isn’t your average coach.
“I know it is rare for coaches to do those sorts of things,” Ryan said, finally sitting down in his coach’s office. “But it is so important for me to show my players that I care. I want them to know that I am willing to do the little things to eliminate excuses so we can have the success we all want.”
After years in the wilderness – where there was sometimes more discord in the dressing room than wins on the ice – the varsity men’s Tommies have a new coach. And he’s not only cleaning house, he’s building a whole new foundation – one he hopes will build a much stronger bond with the St. Thomas University community.
Growing up wasn’t easy for Ryan. Raised by his mother in the crime-filled community of Spryfield in the Halifax area, Ryan had to fight for every inch.
“It was a very poor place. I saw and experienced things that kids shouldn’t have to see. Staying out of trouble wasn’t easy. With alcohol and drugs on every corner, it made staying on the right path difficult. Being a kid is hard enough, but add in the lifestyle in Spryfield and the odds are stacked against you.”
And without a father figure in his home life, hockey became Ryan’s saving grace. The relationships he had with coaches provided him with guidance.
“If it wasn’t for hockey, I would have gone down a much different path. It was the coaches I had that I looked up to. They were my father figures. They taught me life skills and how to be successful. They gave me a place of solitude.
“No matter what I was going through in life, when I got to the rink and walked through those dressing room doors, all life’s problems disappeared and I was able to be a kid.”
As a player, Ryan never stood out, but he says his hard work, dedication and love for the game caught the eye of all his coaches.
One coach, Mike Johnson, his coach at the University of New Brunswick Reds, has a special place in Ryan’s heart. He gave him the opportunity to join the university team in 1993, although Ryan admits he may not have had the raw talent to earn that spot.
“Mike would bring me into the office and ask my advice on the game or practices. He made me a key player off the ice even though I wasn’t a key player on the ice. He exposed me to the management side of hockey as well as communication skills with players.
“Watching and picking up on things that he did as a coach was 100 per cent the reason I got into coaching.”
With his coaching success at the junior level, most recently with the Metro Marauders of the Maritime League, the phones started ringing from the pro level. When the opportunity came to join the St. Thomas family, it was an easy choice. With the team struggling with their image in the community as well as their on-ice performance, it was an ideal fit. Ryan thinks in terms of programs, not seasons.
“I am excited,” he said. “A lot of people don’t want to take over positions that need a rebuild, but I love the challenge. It’s easy to take over a team at its high point, but that’s not for me.
“I feel that by changing the atmosphere and expectations of our team and making players proud to be a Tommie will create success and change our team’s image.”
Fourth-year forward Brad Gallant, who’s seen the ups and the downs of STU’s hockey team, has already noticed a huge difference in a few short months. He says the image in the community and school has changed, and he believes Ryan’s new philosophy and coaching methods are behind it.
“Already this year, we have done the Terry Fox run as well as hosted a [TSN Insider] Bob McKenzie [dinner] to give advice to hockey parents,” said Gallant from his dressing room stall.
“We, as a team, have really bonded. We are proud to represent St. Thomas and the city of Fredericton; and the vibe around the rink and around the school is much better.”
When the last player leaves the dressing room, coach Ryan gets back to work. The vacuum is out and the gear is being organized. Each day he says he goes to the rink wanting to make a difference in the St. Thomas program.
Ryan takes one day at a time. His long-term goal is very simple: “Fix this,” he said with a smile.
When the work is done, Ryan sits down in the dressing room and looks around. During his 14-year coaching career, he has seen and been through many rebuilding situations and has always been successful.
“You have to be willing to step outside the box in order to be successful and reach your goals. Take your own unique path to where you want to go and no matter what, always love what you do.”
Chris Morehouse is a first-year player on the men’s varsity Tommies. He’s taking journalism courses at STU and is interested in pursuing a career in journalism.
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