The major turning point in Derek Ryan’s professional career came during his one season (2014-2015) in the Swedish Hockey League.
He was the league’s top scorer and its most valuable player. It didn’t take long for NHL teams to start calling.
But the true turning point, in Ryan’s mind, came shortly before then, when he decided to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“There is no doubt that the turning point was when I began to make the church a priority in my life,” he said. “When I look back, it’s amazing to see the correlation between making good spiritual decisions — or choosing the right as I like to say to my kids today — and the positive trajectory of my hockey career. Heavenly Father has blessed me so much since I’ve made him a priority and I’ve chosen to follow his commandments, including the Word of Wisdom.”
More than seven years later, the NHL’s lone Latter-day Saint is only one series from playing in the Stanley Cup Final.
Ryan’s Edmonton Oilers fell to the Colorado Avalanche 8-6 in Tuesday’s Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Western Conference finals in Denver, Colorado, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort.
Ryan scored a goal early in the third period to bring the Oilers within two at 7-5. With three defenders and the goalie watching the puck being played by a teammate behind the net, Ryan set up in front of the goal and when the pass went off a skate right to him, he knocked it into the upper right corner of the net.
Edmonton scored again to close within one point late but failed to tie the score before Colorado added one final goal in the final seconds of the match.
One of Ryan’s jobs as a center/right wing is to take faceoffs, which happens at the beginning of games, periods and play when refereed drops the puck between the sticks of two opposing players and one secures possession. Ryan won eight of 10 faceoffs in Game 1.
Ryan spoke with the Deseret News ahead of Tuesday’s Edmonton-Colorado game about the playoffs, how joining the church changed his life, mentors in his life and hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.
Defeating the Calgary Flames
Edmonton advanced to the Western Conference finals by defeating Ryan’s old team, the Calgary Flames, 4-1.
“It was an entertaining series, but it felt great to come out on top,” Ryan said. “I think the biggest difference was that we found a way to win all of the really close games. Obviously, our top players are elite and they have been playing unbelievable.”
It was an emotional series for Ryan, who spent three seasons in Calgary.
“In my opinion, one of the best moments in sports is when NHL teams shake hands after a playoff series. It’s the upmost sign of respect after battling against the opponent,” he said. “During the post-series handshake, I was able to have some great moments with my former teammates.”
Facing off with the Colorado Avalanche
Unlike Calgary, Ryan has zero connections to the Colorado Avalanche. His Oilers will be the underdog but Ryan believes the series will be competitive.
“We were definitely the underdog against Calgary, so it’s OK to be the underdog,” Ryan said. “I think the biggest storyline of this upcoming series is the fact that it will have some of the best players in the world going against each other. Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Nathan MacKinnon are some of the most offensively gifted players that hockey has ever seen. It should be very entertaining in that regard.”
This is the first time the two teams will meet in the playoffs since 1998, when the Oilers came back from a 3-1 deficit to upset the Avalanche in Game 7, according NHL.com.
The Avalanche and the Oilers met three times in the regular season. The Avalanche won the first two games and lost to Edmonton in the third game on April 22.
What happened when Derek Ryan gave up coffee
One question Ryan is often is how his life changed after he joined the church.
One significant change for him involved giving up coffee as part of the church’s recommended health code, also known as the Word of Wisdom.
“Coffee was totally my pregame ritual,” he said. “In the NHL and most professional hockey leagues, that’s a pretty normal thing for guys to drink a lot of coffee in order to get ready for a game. So for me to give that up was a huge sacrifice.”
The first game Ryan played without coffee was in Austria. He remembers going out and how he just “felt terrible, lethargic and tired.” That’s how he also played, he said, and afterward he was upset. “Why am I doing this?” he said.
Despite the discouragement, Ryan didn’t give up. Within a few games he began to notice a feeling of increased energy, especially in the third period. He also played better overall.
That sustained energy throughout the game was just one way Ryan felt blessed after joining the church.
“I became closer to my Heavenly Father, close to the Savior,” he said. “I think I became more confident to just make decisions and not worry about what other people were thinking around me. ... My life changed hugely after I committed myself to the church.”
How do people react to Ryan’s Latter-day Saint faith?
Ryan was initially unsure how teammates, coaches and others might react to his Latter-day Saint faith. But the truth is that “99.9%” of them have been professional, supportive and respectful.
“It’s usually not that big of a deal,” he said. “People either have no idea what The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints even is or they only know the falsities that have been portrayed in modern culture. This usually leads to me explaining that I’m not allowed to have multiple wives, explaining the origins of the church, why we believe in the Book of Mormon and why I don’t drink coffee or alcohol. All of these are great avenues that help me teach people more about our church.”
Mentors, ‘guardian angels’ and Ryan’s ‘rock’
Ryan credits wife, Bonnie, his parents and his wife’s parents with having the greatest influence on his life.
- “My dad, Tim Ryan, is a big one for sure. Although he isn’t a church member, he has a profound love for our Savior and the gospel. He’s also the reason I got into hockey and I talk to him every day. I lost my mom in my early 20s, so my dad has definitely been a rock for me since then.”
- “Bonnie’s parents, Jed and Debbie McKinlay, have certainly been guardian angels for me, both temporally and spiritually. They are great examples to what it means to live a gospel-centered life, and they’ve always inspired me.”
- “My wife, Bonnie, is the rock of our family. The life of a professional hockey player is always a bit of a roller coaster ride and she has been there by my side through all of it. She picks me up when I need it and settles me down when I need that as well. Heavenly Father put her into my life for a reason and I’m so grateful for it.”
In the shadow of Wayne Gretzky
Wayne Gretzky, one of the greatest hockey players in NHL history, won four Stanley Cup championships during his playing days in Edmonton. Fans have have not forgotten “The Great One,” Ryan said.
“Oh goodness, yes,” he said. “He’s a huge deal.”
Ryan has met Gretzky a few times. His son goes to the Gretzky Hockey School every summer in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Gretzky also comes around the team in Edmonton from time to time.
Ryan and the Oilers would love nothing more than to carry on Gretzky’s legacy with another Stanley Cup title, if they can first get past Colorado.