by Alyssa Dombrowski || for NHL.com
For any young hockey player who has recently turned pro, an established guiding presence is crucial to their developmental success.
Ryan Strome of the American Hockey League’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers has been fortunate enough to have received this guidance from one of the best talents in the National Hockey League.
The 20-year-old center hails from Mississauga, Ont., the same hometown as John Tavares, captain of Bridgeport’s parent club in the National Hockey League, the New York Islanders.
“Growing up, I always knew who he was,” said Strome. “We actually played in the same minor hockey organization, but he was obviously a bit older. I remember watching him play a little bit.”
Tavares, who is tied for third in the NHL with 23 points this season, was selected as the number one overall pick by the Islanders in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Two years later, New York chose Strome fifth overall.
Tavares quickly stepped in to fill the role of mentor for the young prospect.
“The last few years, especially after getting drafted by the Islanders and getting to meet him, he’s really taken me under his wing,” said Strome. “He’s a very professional guy and obviously one of the best at what he does in the world, and to be able to have that type of role model and someone to be there every day to talk to, to be your friend but also to learn from, is huge.
“You can never learn too much from a guy like that – someone that’s so decorated at such a young age and who’s still growing, that’s somebody I aspire to be and it’s great to be around that.”
Strome found himself around Tavares on nearly a daily basis this past summer, when he and the 23-year-old budding superstar lived and worked out together while preparing for the upcoming season.
“Being able to train with him this past summer was pretty big for me – he really opened my eyes to what you need to do away from the game and away from the gym,” said Strome. “I think that’s helped me immensely and I hope I can continue to learn those things [from him].
“Not every young guy can say that they’re close enough with the captain [of an NHL team] to be able to talk to him, so it’s nice to have a guy that understands the growing pains a little bit and knows what it takes to be a young guy playing pro hockey.”
After being drafted by the Islanders, Strome remained with Niagara of the Ontario Hockey League, where he had been playing since 2009, until making his professional debut with Bridgeport at the end of their 2012-13 campaign. He scored a goal in the first period of his first game on Apr. 2 and finished with seven points in 10 appearances with the Sound Tigers.
Strome’s first stint in the pros has ensued under the direction of Sound Tigers head coach and NHL veteran Scott Pellerin, who values the example Tavares is able to set for Bridgeport’s predominantly young roster.
“To me, John Tavares is probably one of the top five players in the NHL,” said Pellerin. “To see his development as a young player to where he is now, to see him compete and be a factor in every single shift and to have that leadership on and off the ice – it’s a great role model for not only Ryan, but for the rest of our organization [as well].
“He (Tavares) is responsible defensively, he’s responsible offensively, he carries a lot of weight and he handles it with class. He’s somebody that, as coaches, we always point to and say, ‘This is a guy that plays hockey the right way.’”
Tavares’ hockey expertise has further strengthened an advanced understanding of the game that comes naturally to Strome, according to his coach.
“The first thing I see is that he has such a high hockey IQ,” said Pellerin of Strome. “Guys talk about that – his hockey sense, his vision on the ice, his ability to see things after a shift.
“Right now, he’s making the adjustment to the American Hockey League very well – his hockey sense and his talent are there and it’s all the little details that he’s putting together. He’s bringing up that compete level every shift, and he’s being rewarded with quality ice time and is making plays. He’s a big part of our team right now for a very young hockey player.”
Although his rookie season is barely six weeks old, Strome has already seen the initial adaptations made to his game coming to fruition. He leads Bridgeport in points this season and is the second-leading scorer among all AHL rookies, having tallied four goals and 12 assists in just 12 games.
“I think I’ve really grown into being a two-way player and being someone the coach can count on,” said Strome. “I’m getting more comfortable each game out there and am getting accustomed to the bigger players. I think on the ice, I’ve made some adjustments that have helped me out and I’ve been producing.
“At the same time, I think off the ice I’ve started understanding what it takes to be a pro every day. You come to the rink and it’s your job now – you can’t just turn it on and off when you want.”
An emerging aspect of Strome’s role with the Sound Tigers has been his ability to create opportunities for his teammates, something that his coach believes to be inherent.
“He makes players around him better, and there aren’t too many players who can do that on a consistent basis,” said Pellerin. “His ability to pick up the pace of the game to make plays at a high pace, but also to be able to slow the game down to bring people to him and open up space for other players – that’s something that I wish I could say I could teach.
“It’s an ability he has that he uses to his advantage every shift, and it’s a great quality – that’s why he was such a high draft pick.”
Strome recalls the 2011 NHL Draft fondly, and understands the significance of being selected as the Islanders’ first pick so early on in the first round.
“Just to be drafted is obviously huge, and it sounds like a bit of a cliché but it really affirms that [the Islanders] put a lot of trust in you and are expecting big things from you, so it’s a huge honor,” said Strome. “Hopefully I can start contributing to their team and continue to grow. Obviously to have a few guys that you know there beforehand makes things a little more comfortable, a bit more exciting, but it’s definitely a privilege either way.”
Strome’s coach in Bridgeport has no doubt that his work ethic will carry him a long way as a professional athlete.
“He is so determined and hungry to get better and to be a big part of this team and this organization,” said Pellerin. “We still have a ways to go, and he knows that and is prepared to put in the work.”
A great deal of that work involves ensuring a player’s skills are constantly enforced on the ice, according to Pellerin.
“I think when you look at any young players, especially [those] battling in the AHL right now, you have to have the consistency to be able to play at a high level game in and game out – that’s the hardest thing,” said Pellerin. “That’s how you build trust within the coaching staff, so that when (Islanders coach) Jack Capuano wants to have a player I can tell him, ‘This is a kid that’s going to go up there and is going to play and bring this, this and this,’ and you can trust that he’s going to do it game in and game out.
“It’s finding that consistency, and Ryan has been doing it so far here in this early stage of his career.”
Strome knows that maintaining a high performance level is just one of the numerous components necessary in making the jump to the NHL.
“You’re trying to take someone else’s job, so it’s pretty serious,” said Strome. “No one’s going to roll over for that job easily, so you have to continue to work every day and continue to grow as a person and as a player every time you’re at the rink.”
He is hopeful that his hard work will land him a spot alongside his good friend John Tavares at some point in the near future.
“I think if I can continue to do that over the next little while, I’m going to get to where I want to go.”