True to his ways, Terry Ryan made no effort to hide his emotions in a post-game interview following a surprise return to professional hockey on Sunday afternoon.
The former Montreal Canadiens draft pick suited up for his hometown Newfoundland Growlers against the Adirondack Thunder amid a flu outbreak that left the Growlers shorthanded. The ECHL appearance marked his first game of professional hockey in 21 years.
Ryan, whose fervent and fiery ways took him all the way to a brief stint in the NHL in the 1990s, began to cry as he spoke about playing a pro game in front of his 13-year-old daughter, Penny Lane, for the first time.
"To look up and see her there, and hear the ovation. I just never thought I'd hear that ovation again in my life."
Ryan was out with friends on Saturday night — admittedly "five or six pints deep" — when he got a call from Growlers forward Zach O'Brien. Ryan said he hung up on him, thinking it was a joke.
A few minutes later, he got a call from development coach Adam Pardy. He hailed a cab and went straight home.
"I'd say I drank four litres of water, had a bite to eat and went to sleep," he told the Growlers broadcast after the game. "Broken sleep. I was very excited."
'I wouldn't have done this if it was a publicity stunt'
NHL commentator and podcast host Paul Bissonnette broke the news on Hockey Night in Canada that Ryan was making his return, stirring up excitement in the hockey community. Ryan has been a regular on Bissonnette's Spittin' Chiclets podcast, and has also gained a following as an actor, playing senior hockey player Ted Hitchcock in the Crave series Shoresy.
Ryan said he was concerned people would think the move was a publicity stunt. He insisted it wasn't, and told Growlers head coach Matt Cooke that he was up for anything.
"I wouldn't have done this if it was a publicity stunt," he said. "I skate, and when I got here today, I said "Matt, if you want me to play, I'll play the way I always did."
Terry Ryan was drafted eighth overall by the Montreal Canadiens in 1995. Despite being a promising prospect for the club, his career never shaped up to be what was expected. (Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Ryan made a name for himself early in his career as a power forward — a player who could score goals while also dropping the gloves with the toughest players in any league. That hard-nosed style was hard on the body, and it soon took a toll on him. Ryan quickly went from contending for an NHL job, to toiling in lower leagues with no chance of climbing the ladder again. His career ended after a 12-game stint for the ECHL's Cincinnati Cyclones in 2002-2003.
Ryan said he struggled at times with the weight of expectations and the disappointment of missing out.
That changed with Penny Lane.
"When she was born my life just got so much better," he said.
A return to his old ways
Heading into Sunday's game, Ryan didn't know if he was just filling out a mandatory roster spot, or if he was actually going to play.
"I figured if I had the cardio, at least a fraction of it, I could go out there and not embarrass [myself]," he said.
Cooke put Ryan out for the first shift of the game.
"I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little more nervous than I let on," Ryan said. "Yeah I've played before, but I was joking with the guys — you get sent down for two weeks, but two decades is a bit much."
It's a real honour to be my age and get to go out and just be a part of it at all. - Terry Ryan
He was used sparingly after that — despite the crowd's chants of "We want Terry" — but had a scoring chance later in the game when he rushed to the net and nearly tapped in a loose puck.
The pinnacle of his performance came in the third period, when the crowd caught a glimpse of the vintage Terry Ryan.
Adirondack winger Zach Walker laid a big hit on Growlers defencemen James Melindy, knocking him to the ice and sending his helmet flying. Ryan chased Walker down the ice and challenged him to a fight.
Ryan threw a few left hands, before taking a few rights and going to the ice.
"What do I have to lose? I'm supposed to lose that fight," he chuckled at the end of the game.
Ryan was named player of the game for the Growlers, and his teammates sent him on the ice after the game for a brief victory lap.
His parents, daughter, friends and ex-wife were all in attendance, as the hometown crowd chanted his name.
Even with everything he's accomplished in his career — from being drafted eighth overall by the Canadiens to making his NHL debut — Ryan said Sunday's game was one of the best experiences of his life.
Ryan relished the moment, considering it a second chance to end his professional hockey career, this time on his own terms.
"It's a real honour to be my age and get to go out and just be a part of it at all," he said. "Because of the odds of this, it's up there with my first NHL game."