by Julie Robenhymer | AHL On The Beat
When Ryan Schmelzer first stepped inside HarborCenter in his hometown of Buffalo as a freshman at Canisius College, never in his wildest dreams did he think he would be entering that same rink to play against the Buffalo Sabres in front of his family and friends just over four years later.
But that’s exactly what happened in September when he suited up for the New Jersey Devils at the 2018 NHL Prospects Challenge.
“Four years ago, if you had asked me if that was a possibility, I’m pretty sure I would have said no,” the 25-year-old said as a shy smile spread across his face. “But a lot of work went into being here and I don’t think it was by accident. I’m very fortunate to have this opportunity and I’m planning on making the most of it.”
Making the most of his opportunities is something the gritty Binghamton Devils forward knows a thing or two about.
After four years at Canisius — during which he earned 40 goals and 66 assists for 106 points in 143 games and served as captain of the team — Schmelzer signed an amateur tryout with the Adirondack Thunder of the ECHL this past spring.
“I really didn’t know what to expect, but I went into it with the attitude that I was going to give it my all, work hard and control what I can control. I had a chance to prove myself at a professional level and I wanted to make the most of it,” Schmelzer said.
“You can talk to anyone you want and get all the advice you can, but you have no idea what it’s going to be like until you actually experience it. The first practice, I was nervous and anxious, but once you hit the ice, it’s hockey, something you’ve been doing most of your life. You have to remind yourself of that, be confident and remember that you’re there for a reason and hopefully everything turns out all right.”
Schmelzer scored two goals and notched five assists in the Thunder’s seven remaining regular-season games and kept his point-per-game pace in the postseason with nine goals and eight assists in 17 games as Adirondack advanced to the ECHL’s Eastern Conference Final.
“At the end of the season, I got a call from [Thunder head coach Brad Tapper] and he told me I needed to sign this kid,” explained Binghamton general manager Tom Fitzgerald. “He said his compete level is off the charts, he can play in every situation, wants to learn and get better and said if we signed him, he’d never see him in the ECHL again. It’s real hard to pass on a recommendation like that, so we did our due diligence and ultimately offered him an AHL deal.”
Two weeks later, Schmelzer was on the ice in Newark for New Jersey Devils development camp.
“It’s basically like being in the NHL for a week,” Schmelzer said. “It was an unbelievable experience and I even started writing things down because I was learning so much and I didn’t want to forget it.
“I already knew I wanted to get more powerful and get a little stronger,” he continued. “I had already gained a couple pounds since the end of the season, so the rest of the summer, I just wanted to work hard in the gym and on the ice to improve my skills to play with more power and be explosive.”
A strong showing at rookie camp at HarborCenter in September earned Schmelzer a spot at the Devils main camp.
“I was pretty surprised they asked me to stay because I only had an AHL contract, but I was grateful for the opportunity to show more of what I could do and continue to learn as much as possible,” he said. “I’d obviously never been on the ice with NHL players and never knew how good they really are. I could only guess. But being able to match yourself up against them and seeing all the little things they do to be that much better was a really great learning experience for me.
“The intensity is so high. Every single rep demands all your focus,” he continued. “Every thing has a purpose and guys are so intentional about what they do and why they do it from the way they prepare their bodies to what they eat to how they play to how they rest and recover. It’s just completely different. I always thought I had good compete and then you get to the next level and you realize you need even more compete and then you get to the next and you need even more, so you just always have to bring it because usually when you compete and work hard good things happen.”
Once in Binghamton, Schmelzer tried to apply all the details he absorbed at main camp to help him earn a spot in the lineup for his first AHL game. He stuck to his mindset of controlling what he can control and trying to do his best at it.
“Ryan knows exactly what kind of hockey player he is and he doesn’t try to be something he’s not,” said Binghamton’s first-year head coach Mark Dennehy. “He plays hard hockey, goes to the net and thats where a lot of his goals are going to come from. He takes care of the puck well, can shoot it pretty good and it’s very clear that he’s willing to work very hard to win battles in all the dirty areas.”
In eight games so far for the Devils this season, he’s scored two goals and added an assist.
“I’d like to say I’m a complete player that can play well at both ends of the ice. I don’t care if it’s offense or defense. It’s whatever I can do to help the team in that moment or whatever the coach asks of me is what I want to do. I have some offensive skill and ability, but I’m not a sniper. A lot of my goals come from in front of the net — second and third chances, deflections, rebounds. I just try to go out there every shift and win my battles and contribute to the team with a lot of hard work.
“This is the most talented team I’ve been on and every day is a challenge for me to get better,” Schmelzer said. “When you’re lying in bed and night and wondering about the future and how everything’s going to turn out, I just remind myself that I’m here for a reason and trust in what I know how to do. Hard work has gotten me this far. So, I just want to keep it going and see where it takes me.”