Mike Van Ryn always suspected one day he would continue his life in hockey as a coach. He just didn't know it would be this soon.
The former NHL defenceman is only 32. But his career was cut short a couple of seasons ago because of knee injury that was so severe the London, Ont. native underwent an asteotomy, a procedure that realigns the knee joint.
Van Ryn endured eight months of extensive rehab before he realized a comeback bid was futile. So he quietly retired in June 2010. Then a few months later he returned to junior to launch a coaching career with the Niagara IceDogs.
Niagara head coach Marty Williamson just happened to be searching that summer for a former NHLer to work with his team's defence. When Williamson brought up the subject one day with one of Van Ryn's agents, Mark Guy, the latter knew the perfect candidate. So he brought Williamson and Van Ryn together.
"I knew I wanted to stay in the game," said Van Ryn, now an assistant coach with the Houston Aeros of the AHL. "Last year was more of an experiment, an opportunity to stay in hockey."
The experiment was a success. Van Ryn enjoyed working with the young Niagara defence corps, which included Boston Bruins prospect Dougie Hamilton and 17-year-old Jesse Graham.
Van Ryn's stay with the IceDogs, however, was short. The Minnesota Wild approached him at the NHL entry draft last June. The Wild's farm team in Houston had just hired head coach John Torchetti and he was looking to sign up a couple new assistants.
Torchetti just happened to be one of Van Ryn's favourite coaches from his playing days. He briefly played under Torchetti in San Antonio of the AHL a decade ago and then for parts of three seasons with the Florida Panthers.
Video uses as learning tool
It was Torchetti's use of video as a learning tool and his personable way of communicating that aided Van Ryn's cause as a player and impressed him as a future coach. So even last year, when he was with Niagara, Van Ryn often picked up the phone to bounce ideas off Torchetti.
"Torch has all the experience in the world," Van Ryn said. "I credit him as the one coach who solidified me in becoming an NHL player.
"Marty and I have regularly kept in touch, too. I enjoyed my time there with Marty and [assistant coach] Billy Burke. That group made me look pretty good. The year in junior taught me about how much preparation goes into coaching."
Williamson encouraged Van Ryn to attend some coaching clinics two summers ago. He learned about the importance of being comfortable speaking in front of large groups and having strong leadership skills.
Van Ryn was a popular teammate wherever he played. He was coming into his own with the Panthers. He enjoyed a breakout season in 2003-04 with 13 goals and 37 points and followed up that success with a combined 12 goals and 66 points in the next two years.
He then suffered wrist problems and was dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs. With the Maple Leafs, the injuries piled up. There were two concussions, another wrist injury, shoulder problems and, of course, the serious knee troubles.
"I wish I could have played longer," Van Ryn said. "I'm fortunate to get right back in it."
The knee doesn't give him problems in practice, unless he pushes himself too much.
"It's fine and good enough to skate with the guys," he said. "If I overdo it I can feel it. I know I made the right decision [to retire]. But it's still fun for me to get out there in practice and run the power play or join the penalty-killing unit."
Besides Torchetti and Williamson, Van Ryn remarked that he has taken bits from most of his coaches and a former teammate.
• Chris Pronger. "He was never my coach. But I learned so much playing with him early in my career in St. Louis."
• Joel Quenneville. "He was my first coach in St. Louis. His record speaks for itself. It's easy to see why he won a Stanley Cup."
• Steve Ludzik. "He is a very smart man. I don't understand why he is not a head coach in the NHL today."
• Rick Dudley. "I always enjoyed talking hockey with him."
• Ron Wilson. "I actually enjoyed playing for him. He's a good coach with good ideas. You just have to know how to take him."
• Paul Vincent, a skating instructor. "I worked him and learned so much and then I worked with one of his [protégés] in Graeme Townshend with the Leafs."
"There is a lot more time involved in coaching than I thought," Van Ryn said. "But it just reinforced the extra passion I have for the game.
"The one thing I have found is that because you have different players you have different personalities you have to relate to individually. One style doesn't do it anymore. You also have to be honest with your players. If you're not, they'll know."
Because Van Ryn is only two seasons removed from the game, he can help his players in so many ways. Even his episodes with injuries have helped Van Ryn as a coach. For example, young Aeros defenceman Tyler Cuma was coming off knee surgery entering this season. So Van Ryn helped Cuma through the post-surgery process because Van Ryn had been through it.
Will we see Van Ryn as a head coach in the NHL one day?
"We'll see," he answered. "Right now, it's been good for me to be an assistant coach, to be a liaison to bridge the gap between the players and the head coach. I like the position. I miss being a player. But I enjoy being back in the dressing. We'll see where it goes."