Ryan Hayes Feature: His Journey

Monday, 03.17.14 / 3:46 PM
By admin

When you hear a professional hockey player tell their story about how they got to where they are now, it usually begins something like this. Player X starts skating at three years old and takes to the ice like a duck to water, loving every minute of it and developing a bond between himself and the ice that he’ll keep for years to come.

That is not Ryan Hayes’ story.

“First time I went skating was at the Fairgrounds in Syracuse,” Hayes said. “I went skating and I hated it, I wanted to get off and I was crying.”

From that inauspicious start, skating started to grow on Hayes and he began playing and watching hockey as a kid. While moving up the ranks in hockey in central New York he caught the eye of a local coach that helped him make the jump to the next level with the Syracuse Stars, a team then playing in the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League.

Before eventually coming to Stockton, Ryan Hayes got his start playing hockey in his hometown of Syracuse, NY

“There’s a local coach by the name of Don Kirnan who took me underneath his wing,” Hayes said. “I played two games [with Syracuse] when I was in Bantam-Major when I was 14-years-old. I was kind of nervous, I was playing against 21-year-olds but it helped me develop and led to me wanting to turn pro.”

He joined the Stars the next season in 2004-05 and put up 45 points on 27 goals and 18 assists in just 34 games. Good enough to be the team’s third-leading scorer as a 15-year-old.

“That year I also played in the OPJHL Young Stars game and was named MVP by Don Cherry,” Hayes said. “At that time I was really young, and I had no idea what was the next level but I knew he was a big deal. It was a big year for me.”

The strong first season of Junior “A” hockey had teams from the OHL in major-junior hockey as well as colleges inquiring about Hayes future plans, which he described as “overwhelming”

“If you know my family, they sit by themselves at the games, they don’t like to be by the other fans, they just like to sit and watch me play,” Hayes said. “When we started getting calls from teams and colleges that wanted me to go there at 15, we didn’t know what was going on, it was overwhelming that’s for sure.”

One potential team stood out from the rest, the U.S. National Development Team. The program, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan brings in players for their U-17 and U-18 teams that get a chance to play in a league while also competing against college teams in scrimmages and other countries in international tournaments. It’s an alluring choice for many players, but Hayes almost didn’t get the chance to go there.

“I wasn’t one of the top guys on their radar, and it was a top 40 camp at that point,” Hayes said. “They kind of waited and waited and I finally got the call I think a week before the camp. Up until that point I thought there was one route and that was to go to the OHL. The major junior influence is definitely big in Syracuse with Rob Schremp, Dustin Brown and all those guys I watched growing up.

Hayes and his family headed out to Ann Arbor for the tryouts. He performed well enough in a few practice games that he received an offer to join the U.S. National Development program. That meant leaving his friends and family behind while he moved to Michigan, a daunting proposition for some teenagers but one that didn’t make Hayes hesitate.

“Those times playing street hockey, playing as the USA in the Olympics, it’s not the same thing but putting the sweater on with a whole bunch of guys representing your country was always a goal of mine,” Hayes said. “I don’t think leaving home crossed my mind, I already said yes.”

It was whirlwind change for Hayes as he adjusted to being in a 24/7 hockey-centric environment in the program. From learning how to work out to maintaining his body over the course of a long season, there was a lot for him to learn. In Hayes’ time the USNTDP was playing in the NAHL (they now play in the USHL), along with other junior teams. When they weren’t at international tournaments or playing against colleges, players competed in league games.

That first season, Hayes was second on the team in points with 33, only one point behind and four points ahead of players who would go on to become the number one and two overall picks in the 2007 NHL Draft: Patrick Kane and James Van Riemsdyk.

Hayes with James Van Riemsdyk and Colin Wilson after winning gold at the 2006 U-18 World Championships

“Playing with those guys, I had really good line mates, but I wanted to be a two-way player,” Hayes said. “It took me awhile to adjust. It was always fun trying to compete with Kane and Van Riemsdyk, Colin Wilson and all those guys for points.”

Besides practicing and improving together with lots of other young, talented players, the real caveat of the U.S. development team was the international competition. In his first year, Hayes was selected to compete in the 2006 IIHF U-18 Championships in Sweden. He was part of a U.S. team that captured the gold medal with a 3-1 win over Finland. The next year, at the 2007 IIHF U-18 Championships in Finland, Hayes played a bigger role as team USA picked up the silver medal after losing 6-5 to Russia in the finals.

Hayes scored a goal in both tournaments tallying the final goal against Belarus in a 12-1 win in 2006 as well as against Latvia in an 8-0 win in 2007. He finished with five points in the two tournaments. That first international goal was something still fresh in his memory.

“They put me out there and I don’t think they wanted us to score anymore,” Hayes said. “The puck just hopped on my stick and I put it bar down I think, and everyone was laughing when I came to the bench. I apologized for scoring because I didn’t know we weren’t supposed to.”

After his two seasons in Ann Arbor, Hayes next faced the choice that every player who comes through the U.S. National Development program has to make, whether to follow the major junior hockey route in CHL or perhaps the USHL or go to school and play college hockey while continuing his education.

The major-junior route offered the chance to play in the WHL, OHL or the QMJHL and play a longer schedule with more games, similar to a professional season. On the other hand, the college route meant a free education to prepare for life after hockey, but was a four-year commitment and meant playing a schedule of only around 35 games.

Hayes had already somewhat made the decision before he arrived in Michigan. The Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), another Michigan-based team, had already selected him in the sixth round of the 2005 OHL Priority Selection Draft after his standout season in Syracuse.

“It took me a while to get into liking college,” Hayes said. “Obviously seeing all the guys I was playing with commit to colleges kind of pushed me to watch more and got my mind off only playing in the OHL. I had an opportunity when I was 15 to go to Plymouth but decided to take my time and develop more as a player.”

However, after checking out colleges like Michigan and Boston University, Hayes ultimately chose to go to Boston College to play for the Eagles in Hockey East. Led by future NHLer Nathan Gerbe the Eagles looked primed for a strong season.

By the numbers, Hayes freshman season looks like it started very well with two goals and one assist in six games, but if you look deeper, you see that it was hard for Hayes to crack the line-up as a first year player. Those six games were spread out over the course of three months. The lack of playing time convinced Hayes that he had made the wrong choice and he decided to leave school mid-season to go to the OHL.

“I didn’t play many games and being 18 years old it took a toll on me mentally to not be in the line-up,” Hayes said. “A lot of adversity there I didn’t know how to deal with. I just felt I needed a change, a different opportunity, and my family and I chose to go to Plymouth in January. We made it as a family and everyone was on my side for it, and I never really looked back.”

Hayes at the 2010 OHL Awards with his mom Karen, girlfriend Christy and billet dad Steve Kowalkoski

Hayes officially joined the Whalers on January 10, 2008 and proceeded to put up 22 points in 27 games in his first half season with the team. The next season, Hayes linked up with another future second overall NHL draft pick as he played with Tyler Seguin. That led to Hayes’ best offensive season in Plymouth as he posted 45 points and finished second on the team in goals with 26.

Hayes’ third and final season with the Whalers didn’t go quite as planned as he battled injury and only played in 50 games. He still managed to tally 35 points and also had a strong playoff showing with 14 points (7 goals, 7 assists) in 9 playoff games as Plymouth was knocked out by Windsor in the second round, the eventual OHL and Memorial Cup champions.

While he may have been disappointed with the on-ice product, Hayes was exemplary off-ice, as he was honored with the Dan Snyder Memorial Trophy in 2010 as the OHL’s Humanitarian of the Year. Hayes went back to Plymouth during the summer to teach the Learn to Play program when he found out there was no instructor. He also worked with the Friends of Jaclyn program, which brings athletes together with children who have brain tumors. That paired him with Johnny Muller and his brother Aidan.

“That family, they’ve done unbelievable things for me,” Hayes said. “They always stay in touch and follow me. Their family showed me the other side of things that you can battle through anything. When I was in junior and thought I had a bad night, no points maybe got scored on a couple times, I come in and he’s still smiling after the game. Knowing what he’s going through, guess what, you just lost one game so you can be a better person.”

Hayes started his pro career in the ECHL with the Trenton Devils in 2010-11

Hayes turned pro in 2010-11. He went to the New Jersey Devils Prospect Camp and ended up signing with their ECHL affiliate the Trenton Devils, finishing his first season second on the team with 50 points in 63 games. In his second year he started the season briefly with the Greenville Road Warriors before returning to the newly renamed Trenton Titans. Same team, nearly same result as he posted 48 points in 65 games.

Then came the 2012-13 season last year, which saw Hayes play for three teams get traded twice during the year including his eventual landing spot in Stockton. He started the season with Trenton where he posted 6 points in 12 games. Next up was a 16-game stint in South Carolina where he had 10 points for the Stingrays. Finally, he came to Stockton in early March and put up 11 points in 12 regular season games.

“When you get traded, you can’t get down,” Hayes said. “Getting traded twice in one season doesn’t really help your self-esteem, but you’re playing hockey for a living, you have to enjoy it.”

Hayes vented some of those frustrations as he exploded in the postseason, leading the Thunder with 24 points in 23 playoff games as the team advanced all the way to the Kelly Cup Final before falling to the Reading Royals.

This season started even better as Hayes raced out of the gates with 17 points in just the first 13 games. But a roadblock popped up in the form of a shoulder injury that put him on the shelf for a long recovery.

“I’m not going to say I wasn’t frustrated,” Hayes said. “It was the best start I’ve ever had in my pro career. For a guy that’s never played in the American Hockey League, always hoping for a call-up, it was definitely very hard for me to not get down, but I had my family and my girlfriend and everybody helping me out.”

Now back on the ice, ahead of schedule, Hayes is looking to find his form and have another great postseason display. His first game back was on March 2nd, the same day and the same opponent, the Ontario Reign, as his first ever game in a Stockton uniform, perhaps a good omen. Plus, Hayes also had the same result, recording an assist in the game.

“Everyone was so positive here, pushing me to be a better player and making sure I was doing the right things,” Hayes said. “I can’t thank everyone enough for getting me back out there. Missing 39 games it’s kind of tough for him [Rich Kromm] to put me in those situations. I want to put that time back in and hopefully get back to the way things were going.”