ADVERTISEMENT

Last March, before making his NCAA Tournament debut, Kevin Ryan was standing outside the dressing room in Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Mich., when he was greeted by a familiar face. Anthony Day was coming off the ice with Yale after the Bulldogs upset top-ranked Minnesota in the first round.

Ryan and Day were good friends and former teammates at St. Francis High of Athol Springs before hockey led them to separate colleges. Ryan played two years in the North American Hockey League and landed at Niagara. Day was discovered by Yale during his only season in the USHL.

But there they were, in the same bracket in the West Regional, with their dressing rooms adjacent to one another, in the NCAAs. Ryan still remembers getting ready to take the ice against North Dakota and seeing the perspiration drip over the smile on Day’s face after Yale knocked off top-ranked Minnesota in the first round.

Two weeks later, Ryan was in his off-campus apartment watching Yale win a national championship. He spent the offseason seeing celebratory pictures of Day. Day mobbing his teammates. Day holding the trophy in the team photo. Day hugging his brothers. A few weeks ago, along came a picture of Day’s championship ring.

And now Ryan longs for his day.

“I want it,” Ryan said. “I’ve always wanted it, obviously, as much as you can want something. But now it’s like I can see it. I can taste it. Our team is starting to feel that, too. I was thinking over and over again, ‘That should have been us. That should have been us.’ ”

For him to say it “should” may be a tad strong, but it certainly “could” have been the Purple Eagles. They were just as capable of winning the whole thing as any team. They were seeded higher than Yale going into the tournament. Niagara lost in the first round. Everything snapped into place for Yale.

In college hockey, it can happen.

Niagara received an at-large bid after finishing with a 23-10-4 record, including 20-5-2 in the Atlantic Hockey Associaton and figures to contend again this season. The Purple Eagles, ranked 20th by U.S. College Hockey Online, were the preseason favorite to win Atlantic Hockey. The season begins at 7 p.m. tonight at Dwyer Arena with the first of two games this weekend against Clarkson.

No matter how the season ends, the Purple Eagles can sleep peacefully knowing they have a good leader in Ryan. He’s the kind of kid parents dream about. He’s a straight-A student who graduated in three years with a dual degree in finance and biology. He’s on track to have a master’s degree in business administration next summer.

He’s bright and well-spoken, a fast learner and selfless teammate with a tireless work ethic whether he’s on the ice or in the classroom. He looks like a kid you see collecting shopping carts, but his friendly personality turns nasty when he hits the ice. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound senior from Eden is tougher than a steelworker.

Of course, it helps when you have strong parents. His father, Bob, who was a very good athlete in high school, recently retired after more than 30 years at Ford Stamping Plant in Woodlawn. His mother, the former Pat Ludwig, works at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Their son epitomizes their hard work and compassion.

Ryan likely will get an opportunity to play professional hockey at some level after college. For now, he’s squeezing every drop from his scholarship. If hockey doesn’t work out, he plans to attend medical school. With a dual degree in his pocket, another on the way and medical school as a backup plan, who needs the NHL?

“It’s just the smart move to do the best you can in school and on the ice,” he said.

“If you do your best in both places, you have two chances. I’m trying to take full advantage of opportunities that I’ve been given. I’m not going to be the guy who’s sleeping in class. In hockey, I’m not going to do the bare minimum.”

Over the summer, he shadowed Dr. Jon Marshall, a former Niagara captain who is an interventional radiologist at Erie County Medical Center. Niagara has an award named after Marshall that’s given to its most dedicated player. Ryan is certain to be a candidate for the award, if not a slam dunk.

Niagara might not have an athlete on campus who appreciates his opportunity more than Ryan does. He’s been involved with the Purple Eagles hockey nearly from the womb. He was a regular at their summer youth camps and games. Since realizing his dream of playing for the Purple Eagles, he’s been on a mission to help them reach the Frozen Four.

It’s never easy, of course. Niagara has two freshmen goaltenders who will need help from their defensemen until they get their skates under them. Ryan has embraced his role as one of their leaders while trying to enjoy his senior season at the same time. At times, managing his emotions could be difficult.

Today is his last first game of the season. He’s headed for numerous lasts this season, and he wants to make them last as long as possible. If it all comes together, his day will come.

“As a senior, I have begun to leave my mark on the program, but I would like to leave a legacy,” he said. “That would be to take it farther than we went last year. Last year was a great year, but there was some unfinished business.

“It’s become more evident that this is it. I’m not going to be here on this campus. I’m not going to be in this locker room next year. I’m not going to be putting on this sweater. It’s going to be a lot of last firsts, hopefully until we reach the end of the season. Then it could be my first first, my first Frozen Four.”

email: bgleason@buffnews.com