YARMOUTH, N.S. – They were remembering all of the pucks shot in Yarmouth driveways. The hours spent in rinks. The early morning departures and the late night arrivals, which is par for the course when you play hockey and you live in Yarmouth. And so it goes without saying that although they weren’t there in person, Ryan Graves couldn’t have had any stronger support coming from his family and friends in Yarmouth as they cheered him on Tuesday evening as he played his first-ever NHL pre-season game.
His effort at camp has been strong enough to get the 2013 New York Rangers draft pick through the first three round of cuts as of Friday, where 12 defensemen remained at camp, from an original 21.
(UPDATE: On Sept. 26 Graves was eight players assigned to Training Camp for the Rangers’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack. After this cut at the Ranger's training camp had 8 defensemen remaining at camp.)
Graves laced up with the Rangers for a Sept. 22 exhibition game against the Philadelphia Flyers, which the Flyers won 5-3.
“It was a pretty surreal experience. You always dream – when you’re younger – of playing an NHL game,” Graves said the next day. “It's not a regular season game and it’s not the team, but a pre-season game is kind of close, so it was a pretty cool feeling.”
Graves says he thought he played “pretty well.” He was given the highest ice time on the team and was on the starting line and played penalty kills.
“Obviously there were a few mistakes and some good plays,” Graves said. “Overall I’ll happy with how it went.”
And he wasn’t the only one.
Far removed from the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Graves’ family and friends gathered at Boston Pizza in Yarmouth to watch the game. The intimate crowd included some of Graves’ best friends, their parents and a couple of his former coaches. And, of course, there was his mom, Monica Brennan.
“It was amazing,” she said about watching her son suit up with the Rangers. “I was very nervous for him, but after the first period I was able to calm down. It was very exciting, unbelievable to watch, to see him in the Rangers jersey and playing with people he grew up watching.
“Watching the game I thought about all the miles we've put in, and it was all worth. None of us would change it,” his mother said. “They all end up to be great kids and you learn so much from hockey more than just the sport itself.”
His former coaches still remark about the hockey potential Graves had from the get-go, and the work he put into improving his game, both on and off the ice.
“He was always so consistent,” said Danny MacKenzie, who coached Graves through minor hockey and is Graves’ stepdad. “You look around and you wonder where the time went? It seemed like yesterday they were all in Timbits. I can still see Ryan running out on the ice with his skate guards on because he forgot to take them off. Now you’re looking at him in an NHL game.”
The Rangers made their first set of cuts at camp on Sept. 23 when they reassigned 19 players. On Sept. 24 they reduced the camp roster by four. Then on Sept. 25 they trimmed the training camp roster by another five players. Graves made it through all cuts. On Sept. 26, however, he was assigned to Training Camp for the Rangers’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack. After this cut 25 players remained at Rangers' training camp.
Graves entered the camp saying while he couldn’t control whether he landed in the NHL, AHL, pro, or back in major junior, he could control how he’d perform.
Asked the question, ‘Will Ryan play in the NHL?’, another of his former minor hockey coaches, John Murphy, is quick with his response.
“Without a doubt,” Murphy said, if not in the near future, than in the not so distant one, he believes.
“He has a strong work ethic. I think he’s determined to do whatever it takes to get him there,” he said. “Where most kids expect things and just think things should come easy, I see Ryan as a kid that is willing to do whatever it takes.
“Once he got confident in the QMJHL he showed he could play both sides of the puck,” he said about Graves’ defensive and offensive game.
One person that wasn’t in Yarmouth to watch the Sept. 22 game was Ryan’s father Ron Graves, who is working in Anchorage Bay, Nunavut, where he is part of work crew that is building the Canadian High Arctic Research Station – a facility being built for scientists from around the world to come to and study the arctic. He didn’t get to see his son’s NHL pre-season debut on game night, but he caught the highlights the next morning on TSN.
“I feel he’s doing an exceptional job playing defence,” his father said. “It’s such a fine line whether you make the big team versus the AHL, and the Rangers have such a strong defensive core at this time.”
Ron Graves says as a family they invested a lot in Ryan’s hockey – in both time and money. He has no regrets.
“As a parent my biggest feelings are that I’m just happy that he’s happy,” he said. “When your kid is happy – and it doesn't matter if your kid is into piano lessons, dance, gymnastics, baseball – as a parent, if you help them pursue their dreams there is no better feeling than if you helped them succeed in that.”
There’s a lot of people proud of Graves’ successes.
“It was awesome seeing your best friend in the NHL, not too many people get to say that from around here,” said Jared Murphy, the day after the Sept. 22 pre-season game. He grew up playing hockey with Graves.
“We used to go in his driveway and he’d always put one of us as goalie. He must have thought we were not very intelligent because having the shot that he did, he would rip them in on us,” laughs Murphy.
He believes his friend is suited for the NHL.
“He’s still developing, but I’d like to see him there,” he said, noting he’s been mostly a Toronto Maple Leafs fan.
“I haven’t really been a Rangers fan but now that Ryan’s there I guess I can start cheering for them,” he said.