It was the middle of summer and Ryan O’Byrne stood among a throng of parents and kids at Kirby’s Source For Sports.
The TV ran a recap of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, focusing on the near comeback of O’Byrne’s Toronto Maple Leafs over the Boston Bruins. On came Game 4 of the Leafs versus the Bruins.
Months had past, but O’Byrne couldn’t look away.
“Oh here it is,” he said.
It was overtime and Bruins’ forward David Krejci skated towards the Toronto goal with a teammate, two-on-one, against O’Byrne. Krejci shot and scored and the Bruins won the game. O’Byrne didn’t really have a chance.
“It sticks with you for a little while,” O’Byrne said. “To see (the Bruins) go all the way to the finals was difficult. It solidified that we could have gone all the way to the finals, but that’s why you play hockey, to be in the playoffs and enjoy that series. Toronto hadn’t been in the playoffs for nine years. It was a lot of excitement, you could feel the buzz in the city.”
O’Byrne’s stop at Kirby’s was to pass on a $40,000 cheque to KidSport Victoria, raised at the second annual Ryan O’Byrne Charity Classic, a week-long hockey camp held in early August at the Ian Stewart Complex. In just two years the camp has become a major date on the calendar, bringing together local NHLers Jamie and Jordie Benn (Dallas Stars), Tyson Barrie (Colorado Avalanche) Matt Irwin (San Jose Sharks), and more.
For O’Byrne, 29, it was his first summer as an unrestricted free agent. But the phone never rang from the Leafs, or any other NHL team. O’Byrne kept cool, but he wasn’t going to wait.
Without an NHL camp invite, O’Byrne signed with Lev Praha in early September. The team came to him, and now he’s playing in the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League.
“Right now I’m enjoy playing in the KHL. I’m in the the top six with power play and penalty kill time, about 20 minutes a night,” O’Byrne told the News.
“It’s a good group of guys and I really like it.”
It could be worse. O’Byrne has a two-year deal with a temporary out clause that allows him to sign with an NHL team next summer. He’s based in historic Prague of the Czech Republic. And he doesn’t have to fight for ice time, which he had to do for all 308 NHL games with the Montreal Canadiens, Colorado Avalanche and Leafs.
Instead of focusing on getting into the lineup, O’Byrne is focused on adjusting to each arena, as the KHL rinks are not standardized, with some using IIHF size ice and some closer to the NHL.
“The big ice is definitely an adjustment with a lot more skating and puck control, so you’ve got play your angles a lot better,” he said. “And there isn’t as much hitting, just because it’s difficult to catch guys.
“In Minsk, Belarus, it’s big, and in Moscow it’s a little smaller, so it changes team to team. You go out in the pre-game skate and (try to) get used to it.”
If anything, O’Byrne’s chances of returning to the NHL can improve as much as they can shrink. Despite his age, he has NHL experience and is adding to his skill set. He’s already known to stand up for his teammates and work as a shutdown defenceman. And he’s got experience playing in hockey fishbowls such as Toronto and Montreal. If he can improve just a little on his offence, skating and/or defensive angles, he’ll make a nice veteran addition to an NHL club next year. Especially when the salary cap is lifted for the 2014-15 NHL season, as the tight 2013-14 salary cap may have squeezed O’Byrne out, as he made $1.5 million. If not, he’s got a good thing going, playing pro hockey in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
“I’m not worried about (returning) to the NHL right now.”
(Inset photo from Lav Praha Facebook)