As Pictou County hockey fans crowded around their television sets these past few days to watch the Canadian Olympic women’s team in Pyeongchang, South Korea, their eyes were constantly focusing on Stellarton’s Blayre Turnbull.
We can count on that.
You don’t just send an extremely talented young woman to the other side of the globe to compete in the biggest of all global athletic events. When she’s one of your own, it’s mandatory to follow her every move, her every pass, her every check, her every rush down the ice.
In this year’s Games, however, there’s someone else.
While hockey-conscious Pictonians watching the action might not know a great deal much about Turnbull’s head coach, Laura Schuler, that can’t be said about assistant coach Troy Ryan.
For good reason.
Not only was he the bench boss of the Pictou County Weeks Crushers for the first five years of the franchise’s participation in junior A hockey, he was the man who guided the locals to the 2008 Fred Page Cup — right in New Glasgow at John Brother MacDonald Stadium.
For his prominent role, Ryan was awarded the league’s coach-of-the-year honours, an achievement he later duplicated as bench boss of the Campbellton Tigers.
There are a lot of stories that can be told about Ryan — and he told me many of them years ago when I interviewed him for hours one afternoon. I got so much information out of that chat that I wrote a series of four columns on him.
I’m not repeating — or even summarizing — all the tales we shared that day. You’ve likely heard many of them.
He’s been around, no doubt about that.
Among coaching stints, he was with Team Canada East at a world under-17 championship event, and with Nova Scotia’s women’s team at a Canada Winter Games.
There is one chapter of his life I do want to mention again. It’s about the tough challenges he faced as a youngster growing up in one of Halifax’s toughest neighbourhoods in the 1960s and ’70s.
When many young people might have given up, might have used their circumstances as excuses to fail, Troy survived his situation with glowing results.
You see, he didn’t have a father taking him to games, early morning practices and weekend road trips. He didn’t have expensive skates to put on, or costly equipment to use. He didn’t have money to attend Nova Scotia Voyageurs games at the Halifax Forum, or junior matches in nearby rinks.
In our years-ago conversation, I can still see the look on his face as he talked about the most important thing he did have.
A loving mother.
As he spoke of her, I recall thinking to myself, wow, this guy truly overcame childhood obstacles that could have taken him down.
But it wasn’t the case.
His mom worked hard to put food on the table, to put decent clothes on him, and to have used skates on his feet so he could play hockey on nearby ponds with his friends. Maybe most of all, she taught him the rudiments of life.
I think this comment of Troy’s — which I hope he doesn’t mind me repeating — said a great deal: “My mother managed to find enough money to register me in the local minor hockey association. My mother was a kind of single mother almost the whole way through. My mother worked hard to make sure I had all the sponsors. It was the local gas stations and local corner stores that were donating money so I could play.”
And, wow, a grateful Troy Ryan never forgot.
He improved enough to play for competitive teams at every level in the Chebucto Minor Hockey Association. He improved enough to play AAA midget, first in Sackville, then with the Halifax McDonalds. He improved enough to play varsity hockey for University of New Brunswick and Saint Mary’s University.
Yes, Ryan had the appetite to advance.
Mike Johnson, who went on to coach in the NHL, was Troy’s coach at UNB. What’s he got to do with this? “What’s funny,” Ryan told me, “Mike was the one who gave me my first pair of brand new skates.”
But back to mom’s guidance.
“She didn’t care if I was the last guy in a race, as long as I always went to the line. No matter how bad you are, she taught me never to take a shortcut.
“She was life smart. She didn’t have a really great education, or wasn’t an athlete, but she taught me so many important things about life. My mother found it kind of funny that (I was able) to make a living at hockey, something that money almost kept me out of.”
Now it’s Pyeongchang and the Olympics.
I think it’s great Pictou County has one of its own to cheer for in Blayre Turnbull. Participating in any sport at an Olympics is a wonderful climax to many, many athletic careers.
I think it’s great, too, to cheer for someone with a story like Troy Ryan. He may have been in the county for only a few years, but he certainly made a significant contribution while he was there.
While many of us love watching professional, university and other levels of sports on our big screens at home, I think there’s something a little extra special each time an Olympics comes around.
We cheer our athletes and teams to do well, and we feel pride in our hearts when the Canadian flag is raised and our anthem is sung.
Having a Blayre Turnbull and a Troy Ryan there in the middle of it all adds more frosting to the global cake for Pictonians.
As for Ryan, I have a hunch, as he paraded into the opening ceremonies with the Canadian contingent, he was thinking to himself, “Thanks, Mom.”