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Former Habs prospect finds niche in ball hockey; Canada goes for world title

Terry Ryan knows what hype feels like.

The absence of it brought tears to his eyes when he put on Canada's jersey at his first world ball hockey championship.

Ryan was the Montreal Canadiens' first-round pick, eighth overall, at the 1995 NHL draft. The St. John's, N.L., native was a 50-goal scorer in the Western Hockey League and a celebrity in his home province.

With that came scrutiny, pressure, expectations and high financial stakes.

His pro career never met the Canadiens' lofty expectations. Ryan played eight games for the Habs and spent the rest of his career battling injuries in the minors.

A sport played by thousands of Canadians in iceless arenas and parking lots helped him through a difficult retirement from pro hockey at age 27.

"Ball hockey, it brings me back to another place," Ryan said. "No one starts playing ball hockey with the goal of making a million dollars."

The Canadian men's ball hockey team departed Thursday for the bi-annual world championship in Pilsen, Czech Republic, where they'll attempt to win a fifth straight world title. Canada opens Sunday against Britain.

The women's world championship gets underway next week. Canada's women are also defending champions and open Tuesday versus Switzerland.

Ryan, now 32, grew up playing ball hockey for fun and to stay in shape for the ice version of the game.

At his first world championship in 2003 in Switzerland, he was overcome with emotion representing Canada in a grassroots sport that gets no television coverage.

"When I pulled on the Canada jersey, honestly, I'm not lying to you, I started bawling," Ryan said. "I don't think anyone who has played on the national team for the first time is prepared for that.

"I don't think when you grow up playing ball hockey, you grow up thinking you're going to do that. It all hits you right off the bat."

Vancouver Canucks forward Alexander Burrows helped Canada win world ball hockey titles in 2003 and 2005. Canada's current roster also includes Vancouver native Paul Ferone who played for the Western Hockey League's Seattle Thunderbirds.

But an ice hockey player isn't necessarily suited for the floor game.

"Alex was a very good runner and a hard worker," Canadian coach George Gortsos said. "Sometimes ice hockey players with big legs built for skating aren't as agile running-wise."

Ryan has hockey sense and sees the floor well because of his ice hockey background, but he's under no illusions that he handles the ball better than his teammates.

"One of our guys, Biaggio Danielle, he plays a little bit of ice hockey in rec leagues, but he can flip the ball up, knock if off his head, kick it off the back of his heel," Ryan said. "He treats the ball like a hacky sack. I could never do that."

Facing both retirement and divorce in 2003, Ryan was in a difficult place in his life.

"Especially being from Newfoundland, being from St. John, the highest draft pick there ever, I don't think a week would go by when there wasn't an article about me, key to the city, retired my jersey, that whole shot," he recalled. "When you're drafted eighth overall to the Montreal Canadiens no less, there's a lot of pressure that comes with that.

"It's devastating to be at home and looking for a job as a sales rep for some company you've never heard of.

"When I found out about the ball hockey program and went to that first national championship, and I had to work hard for that, I felt I had a new beginning and a new identity."

Now a personal trainer at a gym, Ryan will play in his third world ball hockey championship for Canada.

About 70,000 Canadians play the sport. Gortsos scouts players at the national championships and runs camps for the national team during the year.

Canada's captain Sandro Morello of Pointe-Claire, Que., and Winnipeg's Brant Cook have played pro ball hockey in Switzerland where they make modest money, but their expenses are paid for, said Gortsos.

The rec-league image of ball hockey is such, however, that some ice hockey players think anyone can play for Canada.

"My hockey buddies phone and say 'Can you get me on that team?' and I'll say 'Jesus dude, I can't just sign you up. It's not really like that,"' Ryan said.

"You need months and months to prepare. You can't just pick up a guy who is a good hockey player, which appeals to me as well. I like the challenge."

The beauty of ball hockey is it provides a hockey fix for those who didn't grow up skating or lack skating skills. Gortsos, the child of Greek immigrants, played in Willowdale, Ont., to fit in and feel more Canadian.

"There was this inclusiveness, fairness and transparency about the game and it brought everybody in," he said.

Gortsos played for the national ball hockey team in 1996 when Canada won the world title. The Czech roster that year included NHL players Pavol Demitra, Josef Stumpel and Richard Zednik, he said.

The 47-year-old analyst with the Ontario Securities Commission has coached Canada to the last four world titles and says this world championship will be his last behind the bench.

"We've won the last four and we're going into the Czech Republic and these guys don't want Canada to win," Gortsos said. "They hate us. There's a rivalry there because we've beaten them in three of those four world championships.

"We're going into the hornets' nest."

Canada's ice hockey teams adjust to the big ice in Europe, so the ball hockey players will contend with the big floor.

Ball and ice hockey rules are similar, except the blue-line floats in ball hockey and once gained, the centre-line becomes the blue-line. The attacking team gets half the playing surface to work with on offence.

Open-floor checks are not allowed, but there's plenty of shoulder banging in battles for the ball.

"It's real, real, real intense. Capital R," Ryan said.



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