by Howie Stalwick

Spokane Chiefs scouts spend much of the winter scouring the backwoods of Canada in search of young talent. It's a difficult, time-consuming job, and it costs Bobby Brett a whole lot of jack.

No wonder Chiefs management loves Derek Ryan. Not only is Ryan a gifted young hockey player, but the Chiefs discovered the kid a couple long slap shots away from the Spokane Arena.

Ryan, a senior at Shadle Park High School, is just the second Spokane native to play with the Chiefs on a full-time basis. More important, Ryan is centering Spokane's No. 1 line and drawing mention as one of the better rookies in the Western Hockey League.

"He probably has one of the best pairs of hands I've seen in a long time," linemate Chad Klassen says. "He definitely is a pleasure to watch on the ice. Some of those moves he pulls out, you don't know where they come from."

Ryan's offensive creativity is a welcome sight in a sport where bigger players, oversized goalie equipment and an increased emphasis on defense have conspired to turn too many games into tight-checking, low-scoring snooze-a-thons in recent years.

"If they get a one-goal lead, teams play defensively the rest of the game," Ryan complains. "That's not the way the game should be played."

Add Ryan to the growing list of hockey lovers who think the game would benefit from having the red line removed. The Kootenay International Junior Hockey League got rid of the red line last year -- giving players more space from opponents in the neutral zone -- and Ryan led the Junior B league with 70 goals and 128 points in 50 games with the Spokane Braves.

"It spread out the game a lot and created more offense, so I think it would be good for the WHL," Ryan says.

Junior B is the lowest of the three classes of Junior (20-and-under) hockey, with the WHL playing at the top level -- major junior. Ryan came into the week ranked fourth on the Chiefs and fourth among WHL rookies with 37 points (including 12 goals) in 58 games. Ryan was the only non-European among the eight leading rookie scorers.

"He's got that shiftiness about him," Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz says. "He can 'feel' pressure, even when he doesn't see someone coming at him."

"He was a great player in Junior B, and he's turning into a great [WHL] player," says Chiefs defenseman Sean Zimmerman, a Colorado native who played with Ryan on the Braves two years ago.

Before Ryan, the only other Spokane native to play regularly for the major junior Chiefs was Danny Holden, a member of the first Chiefs WHL team in 1985-86. (Holden is the son of former Spokane senior amateur hockey standout Gail Holden.)

Few Braves have advanced to the WHL, though Seth Compton of West Richland made the jump with Ryan to the Chiefs this year, and Tommy Maxwell plays for the Medicine Hat (Alberta) Tigers. The Braves even had two alumni advance from the WHL to the National Hockey League -- Spokane Valley product Scott Levins, and Alaska native Scott Parker.

Ryan is a bit small for a WHL player at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, but he's added an inch or two and 15 pounds since last season. Over the summer, Ryan hired former Eastern Washington University and Mead High School quarterback Griffin Garske as his personal trainer for daily 90-minute, off-ice workouts ("It was great"); played pickup hockey at least three times a week ("Just to work on a few things"); and slapped on a 15-pound weighted vest for two weekly sessions of power skating ("I think I puked the first time").

Ryan's added bulk and strength was essential for his survival in a league filled with bigger, stronger, faster players than he'd ever faced.

"I don't have as much time to make decisions as I had with the Braves," Ryan says. "I think that's been the real big thing for me, moving the puck faster."

"He's still incredibly slippery and hard to hit," Zimmerman says.

Ryan knows he's fortunate to play on a No. 1 line as a rookie with established veterans like Klassen and Jeff Lynch for his linemates.

"They're both unbelievable hockey players," Ryan says. "We all benefit each other. We have good chemistry.

"They're great guys, too. I think it helps that we get along so well off the ice. It carries on to the ice."

Spokane coach Al Conroy, who was (and is) even smaller than Ryan when he averaged 38 goals and 112 points in four WHL seasons with Medicine Hat in the high-scoring 1980s, says Ryan has plenty of offensive potential left to tap. Conroy echoes others throughout the Chiefs organization in praising Ryan for a substantial improvement in his defensive play and for being a class act in general.

"He's a much more complete player ... [and] off the ice, he's a very respectful young man," Conroy says

"He's a pleasure," Speltz says. "Everyone who's been around him likes him."

Ryan said he's learned a great deal from Conroy, and Ryan says he's inspired by the fact that the diminutive Conroy made it to the NHL, albeit as a journeyman with Philadelphia in the early 1990s.

Ryan also dreams of one day playing in the NHL -- provided the league ever returns to life, of course -- but he's an outstanding student (3.75 GPA) who wants to become a pharmacist if he doesn't make it as a pro. Next season, he plans to attend school part-time at Gonzaga -- that is, when he's not schooling WHL opponents full-time with the Chiefs.

Publication date: 2/24/05

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