West Valley City
There are two constants in Ryan Hayes' life — his love of hockey and family.
And those two givens are connected in a way that has made him what the sports world could use a whole lot more of — a grateful athlete.
Between playoff games upon which he's had a significant impact, the Utah Grizzlies' forward allowed himself to get caught up in an hour of introspection — reflecting on his game, on his existence. And he could accomplish neither without talking about the people who sacrificed for him to become the ECHL's second-leading playoff goal-scorer over the past four seasons, a span during which he's totaled 21 goals and 27 assists for 48 points in 46 games. Through four games of the first-round series against Colorado, Hayes has collected two goals and three assists, including a sweeping bit of artistry from behind and around the net that set up a score in Utah's win Thursday night that gave it a 2-1 series lead.
He attributed his success to what he called "puck luck," which, of course, is complete nonsense. His coach, Tim Branham, more accurately credited it to Hayes' "determination and second effort."
Either way, he plays to honor his family.
"Every family has some problems," he said. "Mine did, too, but they were very supportive. My mom, my dad, my brother, my stepdad, my uncles, my grandfather, they drove me to my games when I was a kid, they came to my games, they helped pay for my sticks and skates and travel, everyone pitched in. I wouldn't be here without them. My mom and dad worked multiple jobs.
"I'll never forget what they did for me, so I could do this. The amount of time, effort and money they contributed, tens of thousands of dollars, there's nothing I can say or do to repay them. It's unbelievable. It's incredible."
What Hayes could do was work hard to play his best.
That, he did.
Growing up in Syracuse, N.Y., Hayes got into hockey early, first skating at the age of 5. He played for junior teams and progressed through the ranks, making traveling squads that competed, at first, in the region, and then nationally and internationally. In high school, he moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., having qualified for the under-17 and under-18 U.S. national teams, playing some 60 games a year, including tournaments in Sweden, Finland, Slovakia and Canada. His first year, he won a gold medal at the junior worlds.
"That was enjoyable," he said. "You see the world at a young age. It was the first time my family didn't have to pay for my hockey. You kind of feel like you're starting to pay them back a little bit. And it's an unbelievable feeling to wear the flag. It was awesome. When you're done, you think, you're never going to wear those colors again. It was something that is unforgettable."
Hayes saw his success despite being diminutive by hockey's standards — at 5-foot-8, 176 pounds — but he used his quickness and his penchant for offensive creativity to make his mark.
He enrolled at Boston College, but left halfway through the first year, because, he said, "things didn't work out." Instead, he signed to play for the Plymouth Whalers, a major-junior team in Michigan that competed in the Ontario Hockey League. While his game continued to grow, hockey kept handing him perspective that he otherwise may not have experienced. While with the Whalers, the team took as its own a 5-year-old boy, Johnny Muller, who had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Hayes, in particular, grew close to Johnny, regularly hanging out, going to his school and skating with him.
"To see what Johnny went through, getting MRIs and brain scans, it was emotional," Hayes said. "You'd lose a hockey game and then come in and see him, it made you realize you didn't have anything to complain about. He was an inspiration to me. It was a great experience. He kept me young."
In truth, Hayes was young, only 20.
Six years later, he stays in touch with his friend, reporting that, as far as his health goes, "Johnny's good."
Hayes stayed and played in Plymouth for three years before being invited to the New Jersey Devils' developmental camp. The Devils assigned him to Trenton, of the ECHL, and in subsequent years, he's bounced from Trenton to the Greenville Road Warriors back to Trenton to the South Carolina Stingrays to the Stockton Thunder to the Utah Grizzlies.
After playing for the Grizzlies last season, he bolted to the United Kingdom to play for Edinburgh and Sheffield over a six-month span before returning to Utah in February for the Grizz's stretch run into the playoffs. Branham was pleased to have Hayes back.
"He has proven over his career that he plays big in big games," Branham said. "We saw it firsthand last season. The kid scores big goals. His determination and second effort allow him to do so time and time again. … His attitude and drive are contagious. He makes everyone around him better."
Said Hayes: "I came into a really good team. I knew a lot of the guys. And I like Utah. Every day, you get up, see the mountains, go into a beautiful city. It's awesome. And the fans are great. I wouldn't mind coming back."
For the moment, though, he's dialed in on the playoffs: "I'm focused on winning this year. I just love hockey. I love the game. Not much has changed since I was a young boy."
Hayes gave a pained smile and an honest answer when he was asked about playing in the NHL, like some of his friends have done. "That's far gone now," he said. "It won't happen. It doesn't mean I'm going to stop playing the game. I just stay positive. I'm OK with it. I'm not going to quit anything because I'm not at the highest level."
He's suffered his share of injuries, having undergone six surgeries, mostly in his shoulders, along with concussions, broken wrists and fingers and toes, with the routine assortment of groin pulls and deep contusions.
But looking back, he said he's thankful to have been able to play his game the way he's played it for the time he's played it with the people he's played it, always keeping in mind the family members, some of whom have passed on now, who helped make it happen.
"I'll always remember what they've done for me," he said. "They helped me play my game and play out my dreams."
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.