by Nicholas Niedzielski | AHL On The Beat Archive
It took 10 games, but the Checkers finally have their captain.
Derek Ryan was revealed to the public as team captain during player introductions prior to last Saturday’s home opener, hitting the Bojangles’ Coliseum ice with the "C" adorned to his chest. In doing so he became the fourth captain in Checkers history.
For head coach Mark Morris, the naming of a captain is not something to take lightly.
“I want to make sure that we have the right people steering the ship,” said Morris. “Ultimately they’re the guys that decide whether you have success or not.”
Instead of simply naming a captain prior to the start of the regular season, Morris took his time. Throughout the Checkers’ 10-game road trip to open the season he had a group of players rotate through the three alternate captain roles. Morris used that trip to observe how his players responded to the stress of the regular season, letting the top candidates rise above the rest.
“It was a feel-out process for me, trying to wait for someone to emerge,” said Morris.
“It’s pretty much impossible for him to just come into a new organization, new group of guys and just throw letters around,” said Ryan. “He obviously wanted to see us play and see how we’d react in game situations and get to know us a bit.”
In the end, it was Ryan who separated himself from the pack and earned the captaincy.
“His consistent play and positive attitude proved to me that he was worthy of being a captain for this group,” said Morris. “He’s a guy that’s serious about his job. He competes extremely hard and he’s been a winner.”
Ryan may not be the most obvious choice to wear the "C" for the Checkers with this being his first pro season in North America, but he has been a dominant player throughout his career and has shown enough through the start of the season to earn that position from the coaches.
“I’m one of the older guys, but at the same time I didn’t really expect to be captain, that’s for sure,” said Ryan. “But I know I can lead. I’ve always been a leader on my teams, but it’s nice to get a little recognition from a new organization and have faith from Mo and the rest of the coaching staff. It means a lot.”
Captains come in all shapes and sizes in the AHL, with a wide array of leadership styles employed. Ryan prefers a quieter approach.
“Maybe my way of leading isn’t a typical captaincy,” said Ryan. “I’m more by example over being vocal.”
“Derek is not a vocal guy, but he lets his actions speak volumes about who he is,” said Morris. “He’s a guy that can produce and lead with his actions.”
Coming in as a new face in a locker room full of players who have been together for several years and emerging as a leader is somewhat of a steep hill to climb, especially coming from overseas. But Ryan has done just that, quickly earning the respect and admiration of his teammates.
“He’s just a leader, on and off the ice,” said Patrick Brown. “He doesn’t have to say much, he just works really hard and does all the little things right and scores goals. All of those things are important for leading a team and winning games.”
“He’s been awesome so far,” said Trevor Carrick. “First year in the league coming over from Sweden, we didn’t really know what to expect from him. He’s kind of quiet in the room but he leads by example. Everybody looks up to him. He’s a very consistent hockey player and a good guy. I don’t think it could suit a better guy to wear the ‘C’ for us.”
On top of emerging as a leader, Ryan has come out of the gates as one of the Checkers’ biggest offensive weapons. The forward has netted seven goals through the first 12 games this season, leading the Checkers and putting him in a tie for sixth in the AHL. That high production early was another factor in Morris’ decision.
“It’s important to have your leaders walking the walk,” said Morris.
While the naming of the captain has been a much-anticipated move, it is not the end all be all when it comes to leadership.
“Just because I wear the ‘C’ doesn’t mean I’m the sole leader,” said Ryan. “With [Drew] MacIntyre, [Kyle] Hagel, [Patrick] Brown, [Brody] Sutter, [T.J.] Hensick, it’s a good group of leaders who can work together to show these young guys how to be pros and how to come to the rink every day. I think that, especially in the American league, most teams are looking for that. They want some leaders and veteran guys to come in and teach guys the ropes and teach them how to be pros and take care of our body and get better and take that next step to the NHL.”
Morris echoed Ryan’s sentiments about the group leadership in the locker room. In fact, he is going to continue to rotate a group of skaters through as alternate captains for the time being.
“I think it’s a healthy thing, that way everyone feels a part of it,” said Morris. “I guess I’ll just feel it out as it goes as to who’s playing well and which guys are doing a bit more than others. If a guy needs a pick me up, it’s an endorsement of us believing in these guys as people that are important to this team.”
That group so far has included a wide range of players, from established leaders like Hagel and Hensick to players like Brown and Keegan Lowe who are still early in their pro careers. Regardless of their experience, Morris has seen enough from each of them to confirm that they deserve the recognition.
“They all have great qualities,” said Morris. “Number one is they’re good people. They’re guys that give an honest effort every shift. I don’t think you have to worry about those guys taking a shortcut or going against the grain. They’re not afraid to speak their mind but they’re respectful. Those are all critical qualities.”
Even with the rotating cast of alternate captains, Morris stressed that everyone in the locker room can be a leader, regardless of whether or not you are wearing a letter.
“He talked to all of us as a group and said there’s tons of leaders in the room,” said Carrick. “There’s a lot of leadership in the room and that’s good after having a pretty young team last year.”
Morris knows first-hand that every player can lead, and his experiences have helped shape the Checkers’ leadership structure. That strong leadership core could end up being one of the team’s biggest positives as they continue through the season.
“I was one of those guys,” said Morris. “I always knew guys respected my efforts and my energy and valued my opinion. I always felt like I had something to contribute but never really was in a position or on a team where I could wear that letter. But I felt pretty good knowing my teammates respected the job I was doing and I learned to value that as a coach. I’ve found that leadership is critical to your destiny as a team.”