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Carolina Hurricanes Underdogs: Derek Ryan

A journeyman that was nearly 30 when he made his NHL debut, Derek Ryan battled for years to reach his NHL dream.

Jamie Kellner

Editor’s Note: It’s “Underdog” week at SB Nation, and, here at Canes Country, we’re going to be taking a look back at some of the more memorable underdog players in the team’s history. The Hurricanes have had a number of players who exceeded expectations as a low draft pick, undrafted player, bargain free agent or seemingly minor trade to carve out a role and become a fan favorite. Today, we feature a player whose journey to the NHL was a long and winding road.

Not every path to the NHL is the same. While some guys go from junior hockey standouts to top prospects to NHL stars, others trek a harder path to prove they have what it takes to play with the world’s best.

Noone embodies that more than former Canes forward Derek Ryan, a player who was nearly 30 when he made his NHL debut after four years of college hockey and another four trying to prove his worth in Europe.

From Spokane, Washington, Ryan played junior hockey for the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs where he racked up 67 goals and 100 assists over four years. Fairly small at just 170 pounds, Ryan wasn’t selected in the NHL draft and went to play college hockey for the University of Alberta in 2007.

With the Alberta Golden Bears, Ryan tallied double-digit goals and assists four years in a row, earning a league MVP crown and All-Canadian first-team honors. At the age of 24, Ryan’s college career came to an end and he made his way to Europe to continue his hockey dream.

Ryan’s first stop in Europe came with Hungarian team Fehérvár AV19, a member of the Austrian League. Ryan’s first coach in Europe was Kevin Primeau, a fellow University of Alberta alumnus who had a cup of coffee in the NHL in the early ‘80s.

With Fehérvár AV19, Ryan scored 25 goals and distributed 24 assists in 50 games. After one season with the Hungarian squad, Ryan moved within the EBEL to Austrian club Villacher SV. With Villacher SV is where Ryan really blossomed, scoring 65 goals with 85 assists over two years with the club.

Ryan’s second year with Villacher SV was his most productive in the Austrian EBEL. He led the league with 38 goals, winning the MVP trophy at season’s end. His performance earned him a move Swedish club Örebro HK, where he spent his age 28 season in 2014-15.

In Sweden Ryan was great again, leading the league with 45 assists and 60 points to earn another MVP trophy and lead Örebro HK to the playoffs. After four great seasons in Europe, Ryan caught the eye of the Carolina Hurricanes and made his way back home to the United States.

Ryan signed a two-way deal with the Canes in the summer of 2015, and began his AHL career that fall with the Charlotte Checkers. Ryan played in 70 games with the Checkers that year, scoring 23 goals to go along with 32 assists to lead the team in goals and points.

On March 1, 2016, two months after turning 29, Ryan finally made his NHL debut after getting called up by the Canes for a meeting with the New Jersey Devils. Ryan was kick to find an NHL score sheet for the first time, netting a second-period power-play goal past Cory Schneider for his first-career goal.

Ryan played five more games for the Hurricanes that season, finishing his first short stay in the NHL with two goals and no assists. Ryan played nine games for the Checkers the next year before making his permanent move up to the NHL in November.

In that first full NHL season, Ryan scored 11 goals and added 18 assists over 67 games. He became a vital piece for the Canes on both special teams units, letting his versatility help him to establish his place in the NHL as a 30-year-old.

Ryan played another full season for the Canes in 2017-18, scoring 15 goals and dishing out 23 assists while playing in 80 NHL games. After three seasons in the Hurricanes organization, Ryan followed Bill Peters to Calgary as a free agent.

Ryan never stole headlines with the Canes, but his story truly is that of an underdog. A small forward that grinded for nine years in college, Europe and the minors before reaching that ultimate goal of playing in the NHL.

Ryan earned the moniker “The Doctor” from Canes fans and media during his time, and his story captivated the fan base.

Not only did Ryan make it to the NHL, but he stayed in the NHL. His story is a heartwarming one that can make anybody feel good. He’s never been an NHL superstar and he probably never will be, but he’s in the NHL, something that probably didn’t seem likely for him in his early 20s.