In the very first scene of the very first episode of the Netflix series Frontier, a beaten and bloodied British Redcoat is kneeling on the ground with his hands tied behind his back while Declan Harp, a part-Irish, part-Cree outlaw, sharpens his knife. “Pl…plea…please, have mercy. Please,” the Redcoat begs, just before Declan Harp slits his throat. That gurgling ‘British Soldier No. 1’ is none other than Terry Ryan, who, in the almost 16 years since ending his pro hockey career as a first-round NHL flop has become a university graduate, best-selling author, actor, stuntman, stand-up comedian, ball hockey superstar, master storyteller and all-around bon vivant.
“Those three words got me into the acting union,” said Ryan, now 41. “Because once you speak on camera, you get in.”
Almost a quarter-century ago, before the Montreal Canadiens took Terry Ryan with the eighth overall pick, three agonizing selections before the Dallas Stars drafted future Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla, a scout had this to say about Ryan in THN’s Draft Preview: “He was born to be a hockey player.” That was back when Ryan was an 18-year-old stud who had left Newfoundland at 14 to play junior hockey on the other side of the country. He was 6-foot-1 and 207 pounds and could score, hit and fight with equal aplomb. In the season prior to his draft in 1995, he had 50 goals and 207 penalty minutes in the WHL, and scouts were willing to overlook his skating because everything else he did made them drool.
It’s pretty clear that scout, and a lot of others, had it wrong. Turns out Terry Ryan was not born to be a hockey player. But he was smart enough to use the game as a conduit to a personal and professional life that makes The Most Interesting Man in the World look like a Volvo-driving chartered accountant. All told, Ryan played just eight NHL games and did not score a single goal. He never made much of a mark as a Montreal Canadien, but he was a Grizzly, Maple Leaf, Ice Dog, Gold King, Bear, Steelhead, Cyclone and Seal in the minors before a high-ankle sprain ultimately ended his pro career. Then he was a General, Royal, Blade, CeeBee Star, Caribou and Flyer in senior amateur hockey in Newfoundland. The subtitle of his 2014 book, Tales of a First-Round Nothing: My Life as an NHL Footnote, pretty succinctly sums things up. “People used to say to me all the time, ‘Oh, you got sent down to senior hockey,’ ” said Ryan, who played in two Allan Cup finals as an amateur. “No, I didn’t get sent down to senior. I love hockey and I’m playing on one f—in’ foot.”
So you call Terry Ryan on a Friday afternoon to talk to him about recently winning a world championship in ball hockey and the first words out of his mouth are, “Long story short…” Then he makes a long story long. Boy, can the man spin a yarn, which probably explains why he went back to school at Memorial University in Newfoundland in his mid-30s to earn a degree in Folklore with a minor in English. (“F—in’ bulls— degree. It’s the worst degree you could possibly get.”) Ryan’s father, who played one season in the WHA and is a hockey legend himself on The Rock, used to make him either read or write for a half hour each night, and the result was books and books of journals that he kept through his hockey career, which started when he was 14 in Jr. A in Quesnel, B.C., and stretched into the early 2000s when he retired after a playoff run in the Atlantic Coast League, which is about as low as the professional hockey food chain goes. His hockey experiences provided much of the fodder for his book. The part where he chronicles knocking his own teeth out with a sledgehammer in Idaho in order to take advantage of the league dental plan is worth the cover price alone.
No, I didn’t get sent down to senior. I love hockey and I’m playing on one f—in’ foot.
– Terry Ryan
Writing is still a huge part of Ryan’s life. He’s penning a sequel to his memoir, which will focus on the life of tough guys in pro hockey. But thanks to circumstance and a bit of luck, Ryan has found a new passion in life, both in front of and behind the camera. A friendship with Allan Hawco, fellow Newfoundlander and the lead actor in the CBC hit series Republic of Doyle, has led Ryan on an odyssey where he now spends his days building sets, doing stunts and acting.
It has led to friendships with Ethan Hawke and Jason Momoa of Game of Thrones fame. In fact, Ryan spent the first three months of 2018 in Scotland and England doing stunts for Momoa for Frontier. This season, he gets beaten up in an episode of the CBC boxing series called Little Dog, he plays a cop in another series called Caught and spends most of his days preparing sets for an upcoming CTV show called Rex, which is a reboot of a crime-fighting dog that has been popular in Europe for years.
But what Ryan is most excited about is his role in an upcoming movie called A Fire in the Cold Season, where he plays a character from Newfoundland who went to work on the oil rigs in Alberta but lost his job and family and becomes a mercenary who pledges his loyalty to whomever is willing to pay him the most. “It’s kind of like No Country for Old Men,” Ryan said. “I’m the psycho. I’m a bad dude. I’m a gangster and a kind of sociopath, and I really don’t care. I just did a scene where I have to kind of rough up a girl who’s pregnant and there’s a gun involved.”
To say Ryan kind of fell into his foray into the entertainment industry would qualify as a huge understatement. Because of the Canadian dollar and the fact the Newfoundland government provides a 40-percent tax cut to production companies willing to shoot on location there, scores of television shows and movies are shot in and around St. John’s. An actor who is in the guild can earn up to $1,000 for one day of work, and because there are so few qualified actors in the province, there is a lot of work. Ryan was basically doing what is called “locations,” working on the set for 15 hours a day, when he met with Hawke, who was filming a movie called Maudie. The shoot was in rural Newfoundland, and there was little to do, so one night over a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, Ryan told Hawke his story and gave him a copy of his book. Hawke encouraged Ryan to audition for parts in movies.
The book, the title for which was inspired by Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing, Ryan’s favorite book as a child, is also responsible for him dabbling in stand-up comedy. Two years ago, Ryan got a call from Canadian actor Gerry Dee, who expressed interest in optioning the book, perhaps for a future movie. Ryan came to Toronto to meet with Dee, who gave him two days’ notice before telling Ryan he would be opening for him at a local comedy club. “And I was like, ‘What the f—? What am I going to do?’,” said Ryan. “He just said, ‘Tell one of those stories in your book.’ I was nervous as hell. I got loaded and I did it. The next day, I figured, ‘That’s off my bucket list,’ and I thought that was it. And he said, ‘You’re opening tonight for me in Oshawa.’ And I went to the arena where the Generals play and there were like 5,000 people there. That’s the first story in my new book. I don’t know what the subtitle is going to be, but all that s— is going to be in there.”
And we haven’t even touched on Ryan’s career as a ball hockey player yet. After his pro career ended, Ryan went back home to Newfoundland overweight, going through a divorce and looking for an outlet for his competitiveness. His ankle throbbed every time he tied up his skates, but he found that if he wore low-cut sneakers, he could move his ankle and run with hardly any pain. He called the manager for the Canadian ball hockey team and managed to get a spot on a squad that was playing in the World Championship in Switzerland in 2003. He started as a fourth-liner, getting two shifts in Canada’s 3-1 win over the Czech Republic in the gold-medal game. He went on to win gold medals for Canada in 2005 in Pittsburgh and 2007 in Ratingen, Germany, along with a silver medal in 2011 in Bratislava, Slovakia, and a bronze in 2013 in St. John’s. Most recently, he went to Bermuda with Canada’s over-35 team and won the World Masters Championship, where he was named MVP. He still plays as the oldest player in the Newfoundland Ball Hockey League for the Newfoundland Black Horse team, which lost the gold-medal game in the national championship to Edmonton this summer. “In Newfoundland, people pay to come and see our games,” Ryan said. “We’ll always have 40 or 50 people who pay five bucks to get in. I played every sport growing up, and I went to the nationals in soccer, baseball and hockey. You’d play the host team in the first game and they’d win 10-0 and everybody gets a free hot dog, and that’s how you see a national championship if you’re in Newfoundland, P.E.I. or the Territories. But not for fast-pitch softball, and not for rugby or curling or ball hockey. We’re really good at those things, so people come to watch us play them.”
What has perhaps given Ryan the most satisfaction in life is his family, another blessing he received in a story that seems too far-fetched to be true. It goes back to his days in the WHL. In his last season of major junior, Ryan was dealt at the deadline from the Tri-City Americans to the Red Deer Rebels, where he was reunited with his rookie roommate and best friend, B.J. Young, who had been dealt to the Rebels two seasons before. Young was the team’s leading scorer and a draft pick of Detroit. “He would say, ‘Hey Newf, I don’t want to be in for curfew,’ ” Ryan said. “ ‘Newf, I don’t want to get up at nine, can you ask coach to have practice at 10?’ And I’m like, ‘No, I can’t.’ ”
The two stayed in touch over the years as both their careers meandered through the minors but never intersected. Ryan played eight NHL games over three seasons, Young played one. In 2005, Young was playing in his hometown for the ECHL Alaska Aces and Ryan was back in Newfoundland trying to figure out what to do with his life. He had just gone through a divorce and had ballooned to 240 pounds, putting on 15 pounds deliberately so he could be part of a reality show. He lost all the excess weight and in the final episode, he and three other contestants were standing behind cardboard cutouts of their “before” photographs, with the winner ripping his cardboard cutout and going to accept first prize. Seconds before his name was announced, Ryan noticed a TV monitor with a ticker that said, “B.J. Young, 27, former Red Wing, dies in car accident.”
The next season, Ryan went to Bentley, Alta., to play senior hockey. The Bentley Generals got him a job delivering equipment to the oil rigs in exchange for him playing hockey. Bentley is not far from Red Deer, where Young’s wife, Danielle, and her seven-year-old son, Tison, were living. A chance meeting in a restaurant one day with Danielle and Tison led to a relationship. Today, Danielle and Ryan live in the St. John’s suburb of Mount Pearl with their daughter Penny-Laine. Ryan became a father figure to Tison and mentored him in hockey and life. Now 19, Tison is playing Jr. B hockey for the Kamloops Storm and attending Thompson Rivers University. “I mean, unless I’m a total childish fool, this transcends anything I would have done and any hockey accolades I would have (received),” Ryan said. “Tison’s life would have sucked and Penny-Laine wouldn’t be around. So there’s no regret at all.”
In his first year of pro hockey, Ryan scored 21 goals, had 34 fights and 256 penalty minutes and was named the rookie of the year for the Fredericton Canadiens in the AHL. That turned out to be the pinnacle of his career. His skating ended up betraying him, something that only got worse with the high-ankle sprain in camp with the Dallas Stars. With his combination of brute force and a soft touch around the net, he should have been a millionaire many times over. But there is no time to be bitter. He fought Tie Domi three times.
All the fighting he did comes in handy when he has to do fight scenes in front of the camera. His ability to get his thoughts down on paper have resulted in one book with another on the way. He has been a champion in both senior hockey and ball hockey and nobody will ever be able to take away his NHL stat line, even if it starts with an eight and is followed by a bunch of zeroes. Only the very best players on the planet make it even that far.
In the third episode of Season 3 of Frontier, he and Declan Harp, played by Momoa, are in a race to get to Lord Benton, a high-ranking officer for the Hudson’s Bay Company who has a penchant for cruelty and violence. (Ryan’s character obviously is not the same one who was killed in the first episode. That’s how they roll in TV.) The scene was filmed last winter and required him to climb mountains and wade through frozen river waters. It certainly wasn’t where Ryan would have pictured himself, but he has found inner peace and purpose. “I didn’t live up to expectations,” Ryan said. “It wasn’t even the fame. It was that with my talents, I should have had seasons in the NHL that I can look back and evaluate myself on, but I didn’t get that. I spent a year or two feeling bad for myself, and I was in a bad place, but without that I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now, which is so interesting. I won a world championship a couple of months ago, and I’m in a movie. Point being, I can’t f—-in’ complain.”