“It’s relatively easy to sustain being competitive. It’s very difficult to sustain a program to compete for the championship every year.”- Ryan Hardy
Ryan Hardy is creating a winning atmosphere with the Chicago Steel. At the age of 34, he has put together a team with a 78-28-5 record in his two years as general manager.
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Hardy spoke recently on the BTS Hockey Podcast about how he is approaching this year’s lengthy offseason, and he said he is working on getting things up and running with the summer camp that the team holds as well as preparing them for the next season.
“Our guys are getting their summer programs from our directer of performance and sports science Bobby Lucas. For as much as we can be doing during this time, we are making the most of it, and we are full steam ahead.”
Making USHL History
This season, the Steel put together a 41-7-1 record, finishing the shortened season with a 13-game winning streak. Hardy said that while he’s disappointed in how it ended, he is grateful for the season the team did have.
We knew we had a good team last summer. It was a matter of how quickly could we get everyone on board. Having a collection of talent doesn’t always guarantee success. When the season ended, we were 15 points ahead of second place and had won thirteen in a row. I hadn’t felt like we had peaked as a team either. I thought our best hockey was still ahead of us. It’s disappointing we weren’t able to see that through, but when you stop and look back and think about what this team did and just how truly dominant they were from start to finish, it was a special year. Although it had an abrupt ending that was out of our control, I think we can look back and realize how special and unique of a season it was.
The team will lose a ton of talent next season when Sean Farrell and his 56 points head to Harvard; Sam Colangelo and Gunnarwolfe Fontaine and their 115 points are heading to Northeastern; Brendan Brisson and Owen Power and their 99 points are off to Michigan; and Mathieu De St. Phalle and his 60 points will head to Wisconsin, to name a few.
However, if you thought there was a down season on the horizon, you’d be sorely mistaken.
Rebuilding the Team
Heading into next season, Chicago tendered one of the top players in the world, Adam Fantilli, and signed his brother Luca, as well as tendered Jake Livanavage and traded for Tomas Mazura, who played with both of the Fantillis at Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire.
They also selected Andon Cerbone from Brunswick School and Zam Plante from Hermantown, Minnesota with the 9th and 12th picks in Phase I of the 2020 USHL Draft.
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Hardy shined a light onto what goes into building a contender and how he goes about talking with players about the possibility of being tendered, drafted, or signed.
“The process we go through is that we do our scouting throughout the year. Especially for a Canadian player like Adam, we have a different timeline. We had been working on that tender for a long while, but we have an American player we tendered this year, we let him go through the NTDP process. I think it’s really important that they go through that experience.
If a player came to me and said I’d rather play for Chicago than play for the NTDP, I would talk through all of the things they’d be sacrificing to make that decision. We let the NTDP process play itself through, and let them make their decisions. We then analyze the players that don’t make that group and act accordingly. This year was very unique with no 40-man camp, but Jake was a guy we targeted, and we went through the process with him and were able to get that done.”
Expansion of the Game
Hardy has fielded a team with players from all over the country and, as a Northeast native, it’s easy to wonder if he would use his clout as a former Boston Bruins scout to lure players from that part of the country.
Hardy insists that he doesn’t use that connection and that he just wants to get the best players that he possibly can, no matter where they come from.
“I don’t; if I’m being honest. None of it is by design. Sometimes it’s harder to recruit a player from the Northeast or Minnesota, but it’s a credit to our players and coaches that they’ve done such a good job that it makes Chicago such an attractive destination for those players that do have a lot of options. We’ve been more fortunate than not in those recruiting battles and hopefully, that continues.”
Hardy even drafted a player from Miami this year in Phase II of the draft, in Bryceon Lago.
The GM pointed to the game expanding across the country as something he’s very proud of, but something that continues to need work, and he tries to help out as much as he can.
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“I think the more places we have people playing hockey at an elite level, the better off we are all going to be. We had three guys from Arizona, a couple from California, and now from Miami. We try to cast a wide net and not be handcuffed by sticking to a specific geographic region. It’s important that we continue to grow the game and do more in under-represented areas, and in the inner cities where hockey isn’t as readily available. Hopefully, we can make those strides in the years to come.”
Hardy’s Journey to Chicago
A native of Madison, Connecticut, Hardy started off his coaching career for Sacred Heart as an assistant before he transitioned to Williams College. After that, He spent one year at Daniel Hand High as a head coach in Connecticut before he became the director of player development for the Team USA NTDP for three years. After he left the NTDP, he became a scout for the Bruins, before he was offered the job to become the GM for the Steel.
Hardy said that it wasn’t exactly the path he envisioned, but he has been able to create his vision in Chicago, and he took the risk.
“I think I always wanted to grow into some management position. I don’t know if I ever thought that being a GM of a USHL team was something that I considered until Larry Robbins contacted me. I accepted this in April of 2018. He first contacted me the previous December, and I wasn’t interested at that time. He and I continued to talk, and he outlined a vision of what he thought could be done.
It was a challenge that comes with a lot of risk. In a calendar year, four people had been the head coach of the Steel, so we had some work to get people pulling in the same direction and on board with the vision. There were some challenges that first summer, but once we turned the corner and got the ball rolling, it’s been smooth sailing ever since.”
If you are going to run a business, it’s paramount to have your staff on the same page, and Hardy emphasizes that the relationships on his team are extremely important for success.
He also emphasized that the team’s main goal is to get the players as prepared for the next step as possible.
“I wanted to create an environment in junior hockey that was player-centric. We are just one piece on the assembly line for these players. They have big dreams whether it’s the NHL, or being a high-end college player, and along that path, they stop at junior. I wanted to create a program where development was paramount.
A lot of players work with individual development coaches on their own time, so we saw this as an opportunity to bring some of those people into the fold in a team concept, and blend all of the departments and have them working in harmony rather than in separate entities. The coaches believe in the scouting department, scouting department believes in the coaching staff, that’s what we were after.”
Hardy was named the 2018-19 GM of the Year in his first year on the job with the Steel, becoming the fifth GM to win the award in his rookie year, joining current NHL head coaches Jon Cooper and Jim Montgomery as well as Cary Eades and Ron Woodey.
He says that while he appreciates the award, it doesn’t change the way that he goes about doing his job.
“I don’t put too much stock into that. I always talk to our players about sacrificing their personal glory for the team’s success and then eventually everybody gets the light shined on them. I see my role as one that my job is to shine the light on everyone else. Whether I’m recognized as GM of the Year like I was last year or not, it really has no impact on the way I go about my business.
I’m paid by Larry Robbins to do a job to a standard, and I hold myself to a high standard. Any individual glory that comes as a byproduct of that is not relevant to me. I have these metrics I want to hit to determine whether it was a successful season or not. I’m very satisfied with the work that we’ve done, and I’m proud of our organization to have the success that we’ve had.”
Creating the Staff
When he was going about hiring his staff, Hardy says he was looking for a group of people in his scouting department who he believed would help to make the team better. He also sees the opportunity of being a scout for the Steel as helping to propel the next generation of scouts for the game.
“I try to use our scouting department as a development for people that are trying to gain experience in the game. We have a narrow criteria that we are looking for, so we try to educate our scouting staff on what it is we are looking for. We want them to also have a passion for the players they are recommending.
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In our scouting meetings, there’s not a hierarchy. It’s an opportunity for those who put in the work to share their ideas and advocate for players, as long as those players fit the criteria for what we are working for. We’re just looking for ambitious young people that have a passion for scouting, hockey, and want to develop in the business. Those are the type of people we try to fill our group out with.”
Hardy says that his age, he learns a lot every day about what it takes to do his job as effectively as possible, and getting the most out of his group. He went on to say that he expects the same from himself as he does from his players and staff.
“I feel like I’ve always done well making decisions. I’m always trying to evolve our group and do better. On an individual level, I think I needed an opportunity. I feel like I’m growing from the job every day and learning things. I get to work alongside of so many talented people and learn from them. No big wide-scale changes. It’s a lot of continued growth every day. That’s the expectation that I have of our players and staff. It would be foolish if I didn’t have the same expectation of myself.”
Passion for Hockey
Hardy’s love for the sport is evident when you hear him talking about his plans for the future of the team, and how he wants to continue on and create the best team that he can assemble.
“I love hockey. I’ve been in love with hockey as long as I can remember. Whenever I wake up in the morning, it’s all I want to do. When I go to sleep, I don’t really sleep, I wake up at different times, thinking about hockey, so it’s probably not the most healthy obsession at times. I’m just blessed to be able to work in this sport and be able to make a good living doing it. Having a dream as a kid and falling in love with something, and being able to make it your life is a remarkable thing. Hopefully, I can have a positive impact on the young people that are under my watch. Hockey to me is everything, I love it, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Bright young minds like Hardy are a way to keep the game fun and exciting. The company that he is in, at his age, is a clear indication of what his future will look like. For the fans of the Steel, it’s exciting to see the amount of talent that he has assembled for everyone to watch for the coming seasons.