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Rookie Reaves following dad into professional sports

by Tom Callahan || AHL On The Beat Archive

Many children have grown up dreaming about following in the footsteps of one or both of their parents. In the case of Peoria Rivermen forward Ryan Reaves, walking in his father’s shoes could have been a reality – until fate stepped in.

Willard Reaves was a professional football player, a running back for the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers – and an exceptional one at that. The elder Reaves played five years in Winnipeg, and was runner up for the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie award as well as an All-Star selection his first season. In 1984 Reaves rushed for a monster 1,733 yards on 304 carries with 18 touchdowns, all team records. He was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player and helped the Blue Bombers win the Grey Cup for the first time since 1962.

Reaves ended his career with 5,923 yards for Winnipeg, was a three-time All-Star, had three 1,000-plus-yard seasons, and even managed brief stints with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins and Washington Redskins. Now a sheriff in Winnipeg, he is a member of the Northern Arizona University Athletics Hall of Fame and the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame.

Despite all of the pressure that could have come from having a dad with those credentials, Reaves said his father never pushed him in one direction or another. Playing hockey from the time he was five and football beginning at age eight, Ryan showed athletic ability early and continue to play both sports well until an unusual incident derailed his football career.

“It was a complete fluke,” Reaves says looking back. “It was at a hockey tournament before football season, and the game was over… we had just completed the handshake. I was skating back to my bench and my knee locked up on me, and I ended up tearing my PCL. It was about the time that I had to make my decision about either hockey or football, and since I was going to miss all of football season but be ready for hockey, my choice was made for me.”

Knowing he would concentrate on hockey helped focus Reaves. Having been drafted by the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings the year before, he began to get more into training, enjoying working out where he hadn’t before. His mom also helped out in her own way.

“Mom kinda decided what my pre-game meals would be,” he laughs. “She’d make me pasta one day and then watch me play, and would tell me I didn’t have too much energy out there. Then the next day she’d change the meal, and when she made me a meat dish she said I was flying around out there. So that was that.”

Those helpings of meat led to an unusual pre-game meal for Ryan whenever the Wheat Kings made their way to Winnipeg four times per year.

“Before the game, after warmup, I’d eat a couple pork chops with applesauce that she brought for me. Then during the second intermission I’d eat another one. It never bothered my stomach and I seemed to play pretty well, so it became a ritual.”

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Willard Reaves was a star running back for the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers

Having an all-star football player for a father didn’t hurt either. But it took some time for Reaves to really accept his father’s advice about working hard and how to train.

“I would work out a little bit with my dad before, and then if he wasn’t there, I kind of slacked off,” he recalls. “I tried to do a lot of it by myself and didn’t always enjoy training. But once I knew I was going to play hockey, I began to get into it more. After I made my decision to play hockey, my dad told me I had better get myself in gear as far as my training went, and I listened. His experience definitely helped.”

Reaves also had a coincidence that worked to his advantage.

“Brandon’s athletic trainer worked with (St. Louis Blues athletic trainer) Nelson (Ayotte) and after I was drafted by the Blues, I began to get specific conditioning programs right from St. Louis. I could follow the specific plan they had and use an NHL workout regimen.”

And about being drafted: Reaves had no idea.

“I watched the first two rounds of the draft on TV, and then shut it off to head to the lake,” he said. “I was either projected to go late in the seventh round or go undrafted completely, so I didn’t stick around the house. Then I got a phone call from my buddy who said ‘So you’re a St. Louis Blue now?’ and I had no idea what he was talking about. It turned out I was drafted in the fifth round!”

Phone calls followed from Blues senior vice president and general manager Larry Pleau, as well as from St. Louis scout Dan Ginnell confirming the good news. Reaves was indeed part of the Blues system.

After battling injuries for the past two years, things seemed to have turned a corner for Reaves this summer. He attended a Blues prospect camp, but suffered a fractured ankle and high ankle sprain just a week later in another freak accident, slipping while running sprints on a rain-slicked track back home.

“I didn’t even know I had done anything. I finished my training for the day and was walking around on it, thinking it was just a slight sprain. But the next day my whole foot and ankle was swollen pretty bad. That’s when I went to the hospital.”

Three doctors and a few weeks later, not only did Reaves have a hairline fracture in his ankle, but was finally diagnosed with the high ankle sprain as well. The injury prevented him from being on the ice for training camp with both St. Louis and its AHL affiliate in Peoria, finding him instead finally ready to step back on the ice in time for camp with the ECHL’s Alaska Aces.

“It was kind of a disappointment to go there, but at the same time, I knew I needed it. I needed to go through a training camp and get my conditioning back, my timing back. I wasn’t as far behind as I thought I’d be, but I’m still not where I want to be with my cardio and conditioning. There just wasn’t a whole lot I could really do with my injury.”

Reaves did take positives out of his time in Alaska, where he was treated well by the players and staff, appearing in two games for the Aces before being recalled to Peoria.

“I love being in the St. Louis organization. From the time I landed in Alaska they told me they were working to get me back to Peoria, and since I’ve been here everyone’s told me they’re working to get me to St. Louis, pushing me hard to make that jump to the NHL level.”

Described as an “energy player” by Rivermen head coach Dave Baseggio, Reaves knows his role on the ice is a physical one.

“Coach Baseggio tells me my job is to get pucks deep, hit everything I can, not turn away from checks, and try to create some energy and excitement out there for the team.” Then he smiles. “Crash and bang.”

Playing that style doesn’t sound too far off from what might have been, a football career that didn’t work out because of a freak injury many years ago.

“People ask me that question all the time, about what I’d do now,” he says. “I love playing hockey every day. But I also watch college football on TV and guys playing in front of 100,000 people, and how cool that might have been. I know I had an offer on the table my junior year of high school to go down (to the U.S.) and play college ball, but it just didn’t work out. What would I have done? It changes day by day.”

In a sport where injuries are never greeted as good news, the St. Louis Blues are thankful that Reaves chose hockey, no matter what the reason.