Blues Bench Bolstered by Wisdom of Ex-Pros Ott, Van Ryn

Whether the St. Louis Blues close the curtain on 2020-21 by hoisting the Stanley Cup, or by abruptly clearing out their lockers in stunned silence, three of the team’s MVP candidates should be medical trainer Ray Barile, assistant coaches Steve Ott and Mike Van Ryn.

Barile has put together the NHL’s version of an Iron Man streak. He has tended the team medicine cabinet for 2,000 consecutive games. He’s the first responder on the ice when a player goes down with an injury – and the team has seen a lot of the trainer this weird season. He is hockey’s version of a battlefield medic, rendering just enough first aid to move the player off the ice for repairs.

While it has been Barile in charge of the bandages, the two former veteran players are the band-aids that have helped keep the Blues’ locker room together. As assistants, their biggest responsibility is ensuring players are game-ready, especially ones coming back from injuries. These players have to battle the pesky Ott and Van Ryn on the ice during practices just to get approved for promotion by head coach Craig Berube to the active roster.

St. Louis Blues Craig Berube Doug Armstrong
St. Louis Blues head coach Craig Berube and general manager Doug Armstrong (Colter Peterson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

The Blues coaching staff includes NHL veteran and former Dallas Stars head coach Jim Montgomery, video coach Sean Ferrell, and goaltending coach David Alexander, as well. Each brings a unique perspective and vision to Berube’s staff in his own way. But as far as big-game players go, it is hard to find two more who have shown up on a bigger stage than Van Ryn and Ott.

Roads Not Taken

For Ott, it all happened pretty quickly, according to a story about players who were transitioning to the coaching box. In just three weeks, he made the ascent as an aging player on the brink of retiring, to being hired as an assistant to help Berube chase a Stanley Cup. He traded his sweat-soaked gamepads for crisp business suits and blue ties.

“On April 22, Ott logged 8:42 of ice time for the Canadiens in Game 6 of the first round, a 3–1 loss to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden that eliminated Montreal from the playoffs,” reported. “Less than three weeks later, he was preparing for the interview in St. Louis by listing the pros and cons of himself as a candidate.”

“If I was [then-head coach] Mike Yeo or Doug Armstrong, what would I ask him?” Ott said in the article. “What would my concerns be? I’ve been viewed as a different player, antagonistic to fans in certain scenarios … It’s hard, because as a hockey player you hate talking about yourself. To put yourself in that situation, there’s nothing worse.”

“Otter” Wreaks Havoc But Cup Title Eludes Him

In early March, Berube’s two assistants made the paper regularly as news of players’ possible return dates started to seep out of St. Louis.

Ott, a fiery forward who earned a reputation as being a loyal teammate, was tasked with helping rehab star Vladimir Tarasenko during individual and team workouts. It was the young coach who spent hours pulling at the star’s surgically repaired shoulder, checking him hard into the boards and causing general mayhem. Tarasenko passed Ott’s test and was inserted into the lineup on March 6. All the prep work had to be done to ensure the shoulder – and the player – were ready to face the day-to-day, shift-to-shift rigors of the Honda West Division.

Steve Ott, St. Louis Blues, NHL
Ott was the second piece the Sabres sent to the Blues in the Miller deal. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Rigor is an appropriate word to describes Ott’s career. He was a fixture in the lineup for 14 years while playing for the Dallas Stars, the Buffalo Sabres, the Blues, the Detroit Red Wings, and the Montreal Canadiens. He appeared in 848 games, scoring 109 goals and adding 179 assists for 288 points. He was minus-6. He amassed 1,555 career penalty minutes. In 2012-13, he led the NHL in games played with 48 games in the shortened season.

He appeared in 107 games for the Buffalo Sabres, and 127 games for the Blues. In Buffalo, he had 18 goals and 26 assists in his two years there. He made an impression on that organization, which recently fired embattled coach Ralph Krueger after the team had the worst start in the league this season. Ott’s name was mentioned by The Athletic’s John Vogl as a possible candidate for the job (‘Head coach Steve Ott? Who stays and goes? Where are the analytics? Sabres mailbag,’ The Athletic, March 12, 2021).

A native of the Canadian town of Summerside in Prince Edward Island, he was the Stars’ first-round draft pick in 2000, going 25th overall. A Stars’ fan website named him the 15th best prospect ever scouted by the organization. He served as Buffalo’s captain during the 2013-14 season before being acquired by the Blues on February 28, 2014. Ott was acquired by the Canadiens at the 2017 trade deadline from the Red Wings, where he played in 2016. He was reacquired by the Blues in May 2017 but retired on May 25, 2017.

(Photo: Andy Martin Jr)
Steve Ott (Andy Martin Jr.)

“I am very proud of my playing career and will devote the same work ethic to my coaching career,” Ott told Canada’s in 2017. “The Blues organization is very special to me and my family and I’m excited to take the next step in my hockey career with this franchise.”

During games, Ott can be spotted during play stoppages with a whiteboard in hand, drawing out plays for the huddle. For many fans, it is still awkward to see Ott in a suit and tie that the assistants wear. For nine years, he terrorized the Blues franchise as a member of the Dallas Stars, where he appeared in 34 of his career 61 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

In 2008, Bleacher called Ott “a diet version of Sean Avery.

St. Louis Blues assistant coach Steve Ott
St. Louis Blues assistant coach Steve Ott (Scott Rovak/NHLI via Getty Images)

“Regardless of his small size for an enforcer, Ott will take on anyone, anytime, any day, regardless of their daunting challenge,” penned Ken Armer (‘The Most Annoying Man in Dallas, And For Good Reason,’ Bleacher Report, June 8, 2008.)

Mike Van Ryn, Young Phenom

Van Ryn’s role is to serve as eyes and ears for Berube, who was also an accomplished NHL tough guy for 17 years.

For his part, Van Ryn is an X’s and O’s type coach who is described by many as a hockey “lifer.” He was one of the most sought prospects in North America when he entered the draft in 1998. He was drafted 26th overall by the New Jersey Devils, but after some legal wrangling over his contract, he never signed there.

He played in 353 games in his career with the Blues, the Florida Panthers, and the Toronto Maple Leafs. He scored 30 goals with 99 assists for 129 points.

He signed to play with the Blues in June 2000, according to THW. He played his first NHL game with St. Louis in the 2000-01 season, while he was also spending time in the minors in Massachusetts with the American Hockey League’s Worcester IceCats that year. He missed the majority of the 2000-01 season due to a shoulder injury he suffered in a game against the Phoenix Coyotes. In March 2003, he was sent to Florida for Valeri Bure and the Panthers’ fifth-round draft choice in 2004. He played the majority of his career for the Panthers. In four seasons, he played in 257 games for Florida. He was traded to Toronto in September 2008 for Bryan McCabe and the Leafs’ fourth-round draft pick in the 2010 draft.

On July 26, 2010, Van Ryn announced his retirement. His playing days were over, but he looked forward to getting a shot as a coach. He would take a job as an assistant coach with the OHL’s Niagara Ice Dogs.

Mike Van Ryn St. Louis Blues
Mike Van Ryn, Assistant Coach, St. Louis Blues (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

“My body just doesn’t really have it anymore,” Van Ryn said in a 2010 interview with the Toronto Star. “It was time to move on. This just seemed like a great fit.” (‘Leafs Defenceman Mike Van Ryn Retires,’ Toronto Star, July 26, 2010)

“When I knew I wasn’t going to be returning to the NHL, I started looking into coaching jobs and my agent knew there was an opportunity here with Marty (Williamson, IceDogs’ general manager/head coach),” he told THW. “I met with Marty and the Burkes (IceDogs owners) and knew that it would be a great fit.”

“I had a fun time in Michigan, but with so few games in that season, it’s much harder to develop,” Van Ryn told THW. “My only regret was that I didn’t come to the OHL sooner; with a professional atmosphere and over 60 games, it is definitely a great place for a young player to begin to further his hockey career.”

Van Ryn moved on to coach the Tucson Roadrunners of the AHL. Upon his hiring, General Manager Steve Sullivan gushed about the former player and the leadership he was expected to bring to the team.

Former Maple Leafs’ defenseman Mike Van Ryn (left) on the bench beside fellow assistant coach Billy Burke of the OHL’s Niagara IceDogs. Van Ryn is now an assistant for Craig Berube’s St. Louis Blues. Photo Courtesy Joel Smith Photography

“Enthusiasm, and he brings an out-of-the-box way of thinking,” Sullivan told the Tucson media. “He’s always trying to better himself; find different ways how this game can be played and perfected. And a lot of the reason he’s there has to do with skills development, player development and building strong relationships. That’s really a strength of his.”

Amber Van Ryn’s Cancer Journey

As a player and now as a coach, Van Ryn has earned respect from everyone around him. Last year, he was asked to step up and be an assistant coach in the biggest game of his life – his wife Amber’s cancer journey.

Joey Vitale is a former pro player who spent time with the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Arizona Coyotes. He now covers the team as part of the Blues broadcast crew at FoxSports Midwest. In late February, he produced a piece for the pregame show about the Van Ryns. The segment showed how the couple dealt with not only cancer but raising young children and coaching in the league at the same time. It was a rare insight into the emotional impact cancer has had on the daily life of this former top draft pick.

“Mike was coaching across the country while Amber was dealing with her chemo,”” Vitale said. “On his off days, (which came rarely when you are a head coach) Mike would fly back home to get her to treatment, and look after his family. It was truly remarkable. The strength, courage, and resilient nature of Mike is shown in his actions. Trying to find the balance between hockey and family is always tough, and throw in one of your family members getting diagnosed with cancer. Wow.”

“As awful as the pandemic has been, we have spent a lot of time with our kids,” Van Ryn told Vitale. “You realize going through this, it could have been the four of us, not the five of us.

Vitale and others in the organization have been inspired by their story. When the Blues won the Stanley Cup in 2019, Van Ryn took the Cup to Florida, where he and Amber raised money for breast cancer research and awareness. They charged fans a nominal fee to have their photo taken with it. They donated the proceeds to Pink Up the Pace, a breast cancer research charity in St. Augustine, Fla.

Craig Berube
St. Louis Blues interim head coach Craig Berube (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

“By about 1 p.m., close to 400 people were waiting in line to see it. The line stretched from the ballroom, out the side doors facing Cordova Street and to a parking lot behind an adjacent restaurant, the St. Augustine Record reported.

Amber Van Ryn, Mike’s wife, said they hadn’t expected a crowd that large.

“It’s mind-blowing to see the turnout,” she told the paper..

Van Ryn earned his place in NHL fan lore, in a rather inauspicious way. In a 2010 game between the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs, Milan Lucic checked Van Ryn into the boards. As his helmet hit the plexiglass, it shattered, sending a million shards of plastic glass everywhere. A video clip of the hit was loaded to YouTube, where it has gained more than 126,000 clicks. Van Ryn walked away from the incident unscathed.

Just what’s next for these two coaches remains to be seen. Much of their future relies on how the Blues are able to change their fires this year. if they are able to rally like the team as it did in its Cup-winning season of 2019, surely Ott and Van Ryn will be given serious consideration for head coaching jobs in the NHL.

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