By Tina Comeau
Like many young hockey players do, Ryan Graves grew up playing minor hockey in Yarmouth dreaming of perhaps one day playing in the NHL.
And so there would be early morning trips to the rink. Late nights as well. And lots of time spent traveling on the road to rinks from one end of the province to the other. Yarmouth, after all, is anything but a central location when it comes to hockey.
Eventually the home rink in Yarmouth gave way to a home rink in Bridgewater for major midget, then, in more recent years, a home rink in PEI for major junior. All the while Graves kept hoping he was moving a step closer to every young hockey player's dream – the NHL.
On Sunday, June 30, the 18-year-old major junior player came a step closer to hopefully one day living his dream when he was drafted by the New York Rangers in the fourth round of the 2013 NHL draft in New Jersey. Graves was the 19th pick in the fourth round, which was 110th overall.
Heading into the draft he had been ranked 116th among North American skaters.
No doubt the nerves that Graves had told the Vanguard about the night before the draft – there was no guarantee he'd be drafted – had settled once his name was called more than five hours after the draft had begun. The first round was the longest. The subsequent rounds went faster with teams calling out names and handing out jerseys. In all, there were seven rounds in the draft and an overall 211 picks. The Graves family says the mood was jubilation, and also emotional, when the Rangers called Ryan's name.
Graves' family and friends are all thrilled with his hockey success, but when it comes to pride, no one is more proud than members of his family, including his parents Ron and Monica.
"Ryan getting drafted is a dream come true," his father Ron Graves told the Vanguard Sunday evening after Ryan had been drafted by the Rangers. "I always believed in his ability to take the learning and training opportunities he was offered and use them to make himself a better player.
"As a parent it was my job to provide the transportation and funding to those events," said his dad. "It's been a long road but the most satisfying road I have ever traveled."
Along with his father, Ryan’s mother Monica Graves and his stepfather Danny MacKenzie were also present at the draft. His mother says it is almost difficult to put into words the excitement and pride they felt when Ryan’s name was called.
“Ryan has had the passion for the game starting at age two-and-a-half years old when he and his friend Jared Murphy played on the backyard rink,” she says. Like many hockey families they had a backyard rink in addition to the driveway for shooting pucks. “The basement also took quite a beating,” she says.
Because hockey is a team sport, she credits her son’s teammates and coaches throughout the years. Family has also been important.
“Family is a key component of Ryan's life and he has been very thankful and appreciative of the support shown by his parents, stepparents, his stepbrother (Pat MacKenzie), grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles and billet families,” says Monica Graves.
And then there is Ryan’s other family, says his mom – the teachers, tutors and classmates who have helped him to maintain his academics when road trips, hockey camps and tournaments got in the way of school.
Overall, Monica Graves has been touched by everyone who has supported her son throughout the years. “Yarmouth truly is a wonderful hockey town,” she says.
Ryan Graves has played the last two seasons as a defenseman with the PEI Rocket, now known as the Charlottetown Islanders. Graves told the Yarmouth Vanguard the night before the draft that he felt he had stepped up his game even more so after joining the QMJHL, saying he was working hard both on and off the ice. He said he had especially been working hard on his off ice conditioning.
During his 2012-2013 regular season with the PEI Rocket, Graves posted 16 points with three goals and 13 assists in 68 games. The previous season he had nine points in the regular season with two goals and seven assists in 62 games.
News of Graves’ being drafted spread quickly on Facebook within seconds of his name flashing up on the television screen during the draft. At a local campground in Yarmouth County – Camper’s Haven – young children, many of whom are hockey players themselves in the Yarmouth County Minor Hockey Association, which Graves also played in – ran around the campground screaming, “Ryan Graves just got drafted by the NHL! Ryan Graves got drafted!” The excitement for the hometown boy was also an indication that it's not just Graves whose hockey dreams include the NHL.
Graves played hockey in the Yarmouth County Minor Hockey Association up to bantam AAA. Adam Churchill was one of Graves’ coaches for six years. He says Graves was always a skilled player that came through for his teams.
“I can remember going to the Legion tournament in Sydney in Ryan's last year of bantam AAA and we did not have a real good tournament as a team going 0-4, but Ryan was still named top defenseman of the tournament from 24 teams,” Churchill recalled Sunday evening, the night of the NHL draft. “That same year he was named top defenceman of the Mainland Bantam AAA league and I had a feeling he was heading in the right direction at this time to make something of himself.”
Churchill says Graves was a “really big kid that was not afraid to use body and had a pro-like shot at the age of 14.”
“It was the hardest I ever seen a kid shoot the puck at that age,” says Churchill about Graves, who saw a lot of time as a defenseman on the ice – once he played 30 minutes of a 45-minute game.
“One thing I was always so proud of Ryan for was his ability to block shots. He was never afraid to put his body in front of any shot coming from any direction,” says Churchill. “That is one thing that I always told my other defensemen through the years, that in order to go to the next level you need to be willing to sacrifice your body or whatever it takes to keep the puck out of your net.”
After Graves finished playing bantam AAA in Yarmouth he moved on to play major midget hockey with the Canadian Tire South Shore Mustangs where, during the 2010-2011 season, he was named the major midget league’s top rookie defenceman. He was also the top rookie of his own Mustangs team. He’s played on U16 and U17 teams at the Canada Winter Games and while he was in midget he played as an affiliate on a few occasions with the Yarmouth Junior A Mariners.
"The Mariners are so proud and happy for Ryan at this exciting time. Ryan has dedicated himself to become a world class defenseman and has worked hard to get this opportunity," says Mariners head coach Laurie Barron. "Luke Beck (PEI Rocket assistant coach) has nothing but good things to say about Ryan's work ethic and attitude. Now all his hard woek has paid off."
In June 2011 – the same year he was named Yarmouth County's youth athlete of the year – Graves was picked 9th overall in the first round of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) draft. The 6’04” defenseman was the PEI Rocket’s first draft pick. That year the number one Q draft pick was a player with a familiar name – Cole Harbour forward Nathan MacKinnon who was drafted by Baie-Comeau.
Nathan MacKinnon, who played with the Memorial Cup winning Halifax Mooseheads this past season, was also the overall number one draft pick in Sunday’s NHL draft as he was drafted to the Colorado Avalanche.
A few days before the draft, Ryan Graves had graduated from Yarmouth Consolidated Memorial High School, although he missed the ceremony, which was held at the Mariners Centre where Graves spent many years playing minor hockey.
The New York Rangers didn’t have a draft pick until the third round, during which they had three. Speaking with the media following the draft (a video of the scrum was posted on the New York Rangers website) Gordie Clark, the team's director of player personnel, said, “After the third round you’re looking for things that stand out. Ryan Graves, he’s a big 6’4” defenseman from Prince Edward Island and I would say he had an average first half and then the second half of the year his play just went up hill.”
In all, the Rangers picked up six players on draft day, five in the draft – Graves, Adam Tambellini, Pavel Buchnevich, Anthony Duclair, and Mackenzie Skapski – and Justin Falk, whom the team acquired from the Minnesota Wild earlier in the day.
About the draft picks, Clark said that some of the players drafted by the Rangers will still need time to become NHL-ready.
“In the last four or five years we’ve been asking these kids to come in and play within one of two years,” he said. “We’ve got to remember some of these kids may need time . . . they just all can't be ready in two years.”
Graves is spending the week taking part in a Rangers rookie camp. He comes back to the Maritimes at the end of the week.
Up until draft day, Yarmouth’s tie to the NHL has been through Jody Shelley, who has played with the New York Rangers. Shelley has always encouraged young hockey players to work hard and follow their dreams. He sees Graves’ being drafted to the NHL as more inspiration to young players that no matter the size of the town you’re from, you can set high goals and work hard to achieve them.
“I am extremely excited for Ryan who is well on his way to playing in the NHL,” Shelley told this newspaper. “For the New York Rangers to see so much in him, to make Ryan a part of their organization at such a young age, is a huge step in the right direction, and a reward for the hard work and character he's shown this far in his career. He's made Yarmouth proud. Good luck to him and his family.”
Some other notable moments from the 2013 NHL Draft:
• Cole Harbour's Nathan MacKinnon, who won the Memorial Cup with the Halifax Mooseheads this past season, goes first overall in the draft after being selected by the Colorado Avalanche.
• MacKinnon's teammate Jonathan Drouin went third overall in the draft to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
• Seth Jones of the Portland Winterhawks, who had been ranked first overall by many, ended up being the fourth overall pick when he was picked up by the Nashville Predators.
• Considered the most stunning trade of the day, the Vancouver Canucks traded goaltender Cory Schneider for a ninth pick in the first round, taking Bo Horvat from the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights.
• The Stanley Cup winning Chicago Blackhawks traded Dave Bolland and Michael Frolick to the Toronto Maple Leafs for the 51st and 117th picks in the 2013 draft as well as a fourth-round pick in 2014. Bolland had scored the game-winning goal in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final against the Boston Bruins to clinch the cup win.
• Halifax Mooseheads goalie Zachary Fucale is drafted by the Montreal Canadiens. He was picked up in the second round and drafted 36th overall. Fucale, who is from the Montreal suburb of Rosemere, Quebec, was the first goalie taken in the draft.