Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were the currency. When I first started playing squirt hockey, I was obsessed with the Turtles. We’d go to Toys”R”Us and I’d be bugging my parents to get me a new action figure.
So my dad got smart about it.
“Alright, Ryan, you want a Ninja Turtle?”
“Yeah! Michelangelo! With the nunchucks!”
“You know the deal. Remember what we talked about. If you do what I told you at the game this weekend, we’ll see about getting you a Michelangelo.”
For most kids, this deal would have involved scoring a goal. Maybe a hat trick.
But that’s not how my dad rolled. He’s a blue-collar guy. In my family, it was all about backchecking. I can’t even remember a time when my dad praised me for scoring a goal. But if I hustled back on defense and shut the other team down? Then I’d maybe get a new Michelangelo (with the sweet nunchucks).
Even at seven years old, my dad was teaching me to be a workhorse. This was actually perfect for me, because I was a ball of energy. To be honest, I didn’t even like to watch hockey on TV. I thought it was too boring.
You know what really got me into hockey? NHL ’94 on Sega Genesis. Some kids got inspired by watching Wayne Gretzky on Hockey Night in Canada. I got inspired by playing with 16-bit Steve Yzerman. Remember the wraparound trick? You could score eight goals a game with Yzerman. I’d have my brother going nuts.
We lived in an old ranch-style house outside of Detroit. It’s over 100 years old now. In the winter, my dad would make a rink out back. But we didn’t have a pond or anything. Just a big yard. In the beginning, he would just take the garden hose out and spray down the grass. Then he got a little smarter and put some tarp down first.
That was only good for three months a year, tops. The majority of my hockey life revolved around ministicks in the basement, or ball hockey out in the street. My brother is nine years older than me, but for some reason I always kicked his ass whenever we played street hockey. I was dominant. The weird thing was, the domination extended to everything else — Monopoly, Connect 4, Sega.
I was good at everything. Or I thought I was.
It wasn’t until years later, when we were playing board games with my own kids, that my brother looked at me and just shook his head.
“Dude, I was letting you win. Whenever you lost, you’d go crazy. You’d ruin the whole day.”
I’ve always been uber competitive. I didn’t quite realize this until I had my own son, and he started flipping out every time he lost on his iPad games. It runs in the blood.
So in the summer of ’96, my brother was in this cool over-18 deck hockey league. He was 21, and I was 12. But in my naive mind, I thought I could hang with them. One day, my brother finally cracked and was like, “Alright, fine, you can play. Just one rule: Don’t start any crap.”
Don’t start any crap. Okay. No problem. It’s summer deck hockey. What could happen?
I remember I brought along my buddy Chris Conner, who ended up making it to the NHL, too. We had to lie about our age. We were supposed to be 18. I mean, Chris is like 5-foot-8 as a full-grown man, so you can just imagine how far this stretched the imagination. But somehow, we got past the deck hockey bouncers.
Remember, this was back in the mid ’90s, when roller hockey was just starting to get popular in Michigan. We had been playing in the street forever. So we absolutely tore it up. We’re 12 years old, torching these full-grown men. And that’s when I learned a very valuable lesson: Even playing beer league deck hockey, even in the middle of summer, even if you are 12 years old — if you’re scoring on the other team, they are going to mess with you.
Guys started with the stick work. Little hooks. Slashes. So when that didn’t work, they started taking runs at me. This league was strictly no checking, by the way. But it’s hockey. It’s always going to escalate. Me being me, I’m giving it right back to them. I’m chirping them, telling them they’re getting spanked by seventh graders.
“Don’t start any crap.”
One day I got hit in the corner, and my brother decided he had seen enough. As I’m picking myself up off the plastic, I look up, and I see the guy go flying over the boards. My brother crushed him.
All of a sudden, the benches clear. It’s a full-on bench-clearing brawl. In the middle of July. On a roller rink. In suburban Michigan. I’m looking around like, Am I supposed to fight a 24-year-old man? It was hilarious.
That’s just the way it was back then. When I think about growing up playing hockey in Michigan, I think about battles. When you think about Canadian kids, you probably imagine the perfect frozen ponds and shinny and warm cocoa and all that. It’s like a painting, right?
But for us, the reality was a lot grittier. I’m not saying we were less skilled. In fact, I think Americans often have unbelievable hands because of roller hockey. But if you tell Americans to close their eyes and think about playing hockey as a kid, they’re going to see blacktop. Mylec pads. Orange balls. Dented garage doors. They’re going to smell the asphalt of their driveway. They’re going to smell that weird plastic of the deck hockey rink.
And they’re definitely going to smell the rubber flooring of the lobby in their local ice rink. Oh my God! That rubber smell! I still love it to this day. I don’t know about the newer rinks, but anyone who grew up playing in the ’80s and ’90s was hit with that infamous smell as soon as they walked in the building. Blue rubber flooring mixed with concession stand hot dogs mixed with smelly hockey equipment.
It’s incredible. You either love it or you hate it. I love it.
My mom used to call me “the Rink Rat.” If I wasn’t playing, I’d be running around Eddie Edgar rink, crawling under the bleachers looking for money, trying to raid the candy machines. The rink was my playground. I just loved being there.
On the ice, I was a good player. I was never the best. If you asked the hockey moms, they probably would’ve said, “Ryan? Uh, he’s pretty good. He works hard.”
My dad would always preach to me, “It’s not going to be the most skillful guys who make it to the NHL. It’s going to be the guys who want it the most.”
When you’re a kid, you always roll your eyes at your dad, right? You think it’s just motivational B.S. But I learned that he was right the hard way. I learned after a lot of tears, man.
When I was 13, I got cut from every Bantam AAA team I tried out for. Everybody. Everybody. These days, they post the rosters on a website. You get crushed in the privacy of your own home. Back then, the coach would post the final roster on the window in the lobby of the rink. I went through the list of names. No Kesler. I went through it three more times. No Kesler. It was humiliating.
I tried out for three different AAA teams. I got cut from all three.
I just remember sitting in my room, crying my eyes out. I actually told my dad, “That’s it. I’m done.”
And my dad, being the wise guy that he is, knew how to push the right button with me. He said, “Okay, that’s your decision. But if you quit, you’re just going to prove that those coaches who cut you were absolutely right. If you want to prove them wrong, I’ll help you as best I can. I’ll drive you however far I have to drive you to play. You’ll work twice as hard. And we’ll prove them wrong.”
Ever since that day, I’ve had a chip on my shoulder.
I eventually got pulled onto the Little Caesars Bantam team at the last minute. My dad and I spent a lot of time in the car that year, driving to rinks all over Michigan, listening to oldies. We would pass the time by singing along together. I can still sing a mean “Build Me Up Buttercup.” Once we got close to the rink, I’d pop in the Jock Jams: Volume 1 cassette to get pumped up. Every hockey player of a certain age knows that first track.
The bell rings. The crowd starts clapping. Michael Buffer gets on the mic.
“Ladies and gentlemen …. Welcome to the main event … (lasers) …. Llllllllllet’s get ready to rummmmmmble!”
That still gets me going.
That year, I learned something about myself. When I line up against that opposing center and I look him in the eye, I have to hate him. For 60 minutes, I just have to hate him. I had always been competitive, but that was the first year I played with a genuine fire. It was also the first time I led my team in scoring.
To this day, I’ll look across from a Toews or a Kopitar and I’ll say to myself, Okay, you’re more skilled than me. But you’re not going to outwork me tonight. It’s not gonna happen.
American hockey, to me, is blue-collar. It’s about doing the things that nobody else is willing to do. Make the dirty play. Make the play that hurts.
As I got older and I eventually made it to the U.S. national team developmental program at 17, I heard the same story again and again from guys: “Oh yeah, I got cut from so many teams. Nobody thought I would be anything.”
I don’t know why, but it seems like the most talented kids — the ones who all the hockey moms think are headed straight to the NHL — they always burn out. To be an American and to make it through all the B.S. you have to make it through, you have to be almost blind to reality. You have to keep outworking everyone.
Let me put it to you this way: My favorite drill of all time is called opposite-hand two-puck. It’s the invention of Moe Mantha, who was my coach on the U.S. developmental team. The premise is simple — if you’re a right-handed shot, you grab a left-handed stick. Then Moe throws out two pucks and you just play a scrimmage.
With two pucks. With the wrong-handed stick.
It’s ridiculous. You can’t pass, you can’t shoot. You can’t play. You look like a beer league hockey team. So what’s the point? Why do this?
Because the chaos forces you to do everything else. It forces you to simply find a way. Any way. Kick the puck, slap at it, get a deflection, whatever you have to do.
That’s the American way.
This philosophy was instilled in our U-18 team, and it was necessary, because I remember traveling to play Russia in Russia for the first time, and it really was hostile territory. The rink was old and cold. The stands were filled with rowdy Russian fans. We had to walk in front of the stands to get to our locker room, and they were spitting on us, and screaming God knows what at us in Russian.
We’re 17. I remember thinking, Uh … I thought this Cold War stuff was over? We got into the locker room, and our coach gave an epic speech. He’s standing up on the benches, he’s holding up the Team USA jersey, he’s banging hockey sticks, he’s talking about our grandfathers, he’s talking about our forefathers, he’s about to tear his suit off like Hulk Hogan.
I can’t even remember exactly what he said. It all boiled down to “America: Hell Yeah.”
We were ready to run through a brick wall.
We get out onto the ice, and the refs were out of an ’80s movie. They weren’t going to call anything for us. To make matters worse, I had the flu. I was actually puking right through my cage after warmups, right in front of the Russian fans. They were laughing their asses off. They probably thought I was nervous.
The Russians were more skilled. There’s no doubt about it. Their stick handling was incredible. Their skating was a notch above ours. But we did the little things. We blocked shots. We backchecked like crazy. We accepted our roles. They controlled the play, but they just couldn’t score. And when they got frustrated, we knew we had them.
We won 4–1 on Russian ice. It wasn’t pretty. It was gritty. It was American.
I think that game in particular really made my dad proud. To this day, I still call him after every game. He almost never mentions any of my goals — seriously. He’s usually telling me about my work in the corners, or my backchecking. Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s bad.
I’m like, “Okay, dad. I’m 31 years old. I got it.”