The Edmonton Oilers, for all their incredible history, are not the most accomplished hockey team in their city. That distinction belongs to the Alberta Golden Bears.
The men’s hockey program at the University of Alberta is the winningest in U Sports (Canadian university), with 16 national championships and 55 conference titles over its history that dates to 1908.
Since their inception in the 1970s, the Oilers have been linked with the U of A, from the long-running exhibition game pitting Oilers rookies against the Bears to former Oilers coaching with the Bears and Alberta alumni coaching with the Oilers. And then there are the players that have gone from Edmonton’s university team to its pro team.
It’s rare for U Sports players to reach the NHL, making the pipeline between the Bears and Oilers extra special. But it’s nearing two decades since Cory Cross, the last Bears alumni to play for the Oilers, wore Edmonton’s orange and blue.
A 34-year-old product of Spokane, Wash., Ryan played for the Golden Bears from 2007-08 to 2010-11, helping Alberta capture the Canada West championship in all four of those seasons. He has played in the NHL for parts of six seasons, the last three as a member of the Calgary Flames after breaking into the league with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Ryan provides the Oilers some much-needed depth down the middle and addresses a glaring weakness in the circle. He has won 56.1% of face-offs in his NHL career and went 153-141 on the draw over 43 games with Calgary last season. In 2018-19, Ryan had a face-off win rate of 58.2%, the second-highest among all NHL players with at least 133 draw attempts.
The 5-foot-10 Ryan has 53 goals and 96 assists in 345 NHL regular-season games, for an 82-game average of 35.4 points. A savvy two-way forward, Ryan led the Flames with a plus-nine rating in 2019-20 and has never been assessed a major penalty in his NHL career, and only once been hit with a double minor.
His maturity will benefit the Oilers, who, despite recent acquisitions like 38-year-old three-time Stanley Cup champion Duncan Keith (Edmonton got the veteran D-man in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks on July 13), still have a younger roster and one that hasn’t had much postseason success together.
Further, Ryan’s dedication and perseverance set an example that anyone would do well to follow. His long road to the NHL traces through the University of Alberta, where he arrived at age 21 after maxing out his junior eligibility with his hometown Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League. Ryan led Spokane in points in both the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons but was passed over in the NHL Draft.
Path to the Pros
In his first year at the U of A, Ryan helped the Bears capture the 2008 University Cup (national championship). He increased his point total in each of the proceeding three seasons, culminating in 2010-11 when he led Canada West with 47 points in 28 games, en route to winning conference MVP and receiving a second straight All-Canadian selection.
Ryan spent the next four years playing professionally in Europe. He won MVP in two different leagues in consecutive years, 2014 in what is now known as the ICE Hockey League and 2015 in the Swedish Hockey League.
The Hurricanes then signed Ryan to a two-way contract. He had a tremendous 2015-16 season with Carolina’s top minor league affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers, captaining the team and being selected to the American Hockey League All-Star Game. Finally, on March 1, 2016, he made his NHL debut, scoring for the ‘Canes in a victory over the New Jersey Devils.
Now Ryan’s back in Edmonton, bringing his journey full circle while also reopening the Bears-to-Oilers pipeline. And the uniquity of his career is in keeping with the Alberta alumni who came before him.
While the first former Golden Bear to play for the Oilers were Steve Carlyle and Kevin Primeau, their stints came while the club was in the World Hockey Association. The first Bear to suit up for Edmonton in the NHL was blueliner Bryon Baltimore, who played two games for the Oilers in their inaugural NHL season, 1979-80.
The most esteemed Alberta alumni to play for the Oilers, Dr. Randy Gregg is one of only seven players (along with Glenn Anderson, Grant Fuhr, Charlie Huddy, Jari Kurri, Kevin Lowe and Mark Messier) to be part of all five of Edmonton’s Stanley Cup championships (1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1990).
The blueliner skated for the University of Alberta’s hockey team from 1975-76 to 1978-79, winning three Canada West titles and two University Cups. He made his Oilers debut in the 1982 playoffs and went to play 453 games over eight seasons for Edmonton from 1982-83 to 1989-90, totaling 188 points, fifth-most in franchise history among defensemen. Gregg retired from hockey in 1992 and became a physician, specializing in sports-related injuries.
No one embodies the link between the Bears and the Oilers better than Ian Herbers. He played at the U of A during the tenure of head coach Billy Moores (who would later become assistant coach of the Oilers) from 1989-90 to 1991-92, winning the Canada West championship in all three seasons and a national title in 1992. The defenceman made his NHL debut with the Oilers in 1993-94, appearing in 22 games. He later went to play for the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning.
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Herbers eventually found his way back to Alberta’s campus in 2012 as head coach of the Golden Bears, guiding the men’s hockey team to three straight Canada West championships from 2013 to 2015 and back-to-back national titles in 2014 and 2015. After three seasons at the U of A, he returned to the Oilers as an assistant coach and spent three seasons (2015-16 to 2017-18) in that capacity. Now he’s back at the university for his second tenure as head coach of the Golden Bears.
Cross spent three seasons with the Bears, 1990-91 to 1992-93, and was a defensive partner of Herbers on the 1992 University Cup-winning Alberta team. He had already been in the NHL for nearly a decade, split mostly between the Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs, before a brief stint with the New York Rangers ended in Cross being dealt to the Oilers late in the 2002-03 season. Cross played 113 games over parts of three seasons in Edmonton before the Oilers traded him to the Pittsburgh Penguins and he ultimately closed out his NHL career with the Detroit Red Wings in 2005-06.
When Ryan skates his first shift with the Oilers, he’ll become the first forward from the University of Alberta to play for Edmonton’s NHL club. But Ryan will be more than a feel-good hometown story. If the Oilers are to make strides forward towards championship contention, Ryan will be a factor, both on and off the ice.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.