As Canada played Latvia during the preliminary round at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship, a stop in action allowed those at the Air Canada Centre to meet a special fan.
There on the Jumbotron, Ryan Coyte was presented a No. 17 jersey, the letter ‘C’ stitched on the left, by Mitchell Stephens, a forward for Canada’s National Junior Team.
Ryan, 18, is the team’s honorary captain. From the smile on his face you wouldn’t have known the bumpy road he had taken to get there, and all the stops and starts along the way.
Seven years ago Ryan’s dad, Philippe, surprised him with tickets to the 2009 World Juniors gold medal game in Ottawa. The family is from nearby Kanata, Ont., so the prospect of seeing Senators draft pick Erik Karlsson take on John Tavares and P.K. Subban was almost too good to be true.
Ryan hadn’t been feeling well in the days leading up to that Canada-Sweden final. He’d been lethargic, had stomach pain, felt like he’d fall down at any moment.
“I couldn’t walk to my bus stop, which is maybe 10 houses down,” he says. He and his parents thought he just had the flu. “I was waking up for only an hour or two for my meals. As soon as I was done I’d pass out because I was so tired.”
When he told Philippe and his mom, Caroline, that he couldn’t go to the game, they knew it was time to see a doctor.
Thirty minutes after Ryan was taken in for bloodwork, the doctor came back with a diagnosis.
Ryan had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which affects the blood and bone marrow. He was at risk of having a stroke or cardiac arrest. The doctor gave him two blood transfusions right then.
He started chemotherapy almost immediately and missed nearly a year of school. Three years of treatment followed.
During that time the staff at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario told him he’d be able to make a request to the Children’s Wish Foundation of Canada.
“Originally my plan was to go to a European hockey game,” he says. “And then I thought it would be cool to see the World Juniors there because instead of seeing one game you can see a whole bunch. I just love this tournament. You see all the prospects and the players in their emergence.”
Hockey Canada and the Children’s Wish Foundation arranged for Ryan and his family to go to Malmö, Sweden, for the 2014 World Juniors.
But in May 2013, nearly a year after his last chemotherapy treatment, Ryan relapsed. The trip was cancelled.
He went back on chemotherapy and had a bone marrow transplant. And he made a new wish: to go to the 2016 World Juniors in Helsinki, Finland.
The day the family was to pick up the tickets – Dec. 14, 2015, just 12 days before the tournament began – Ryan relapsed again.
He went through gene therapy – and ended up in intensive care for a couple of weeks – and entered a clinical trial.
Ryan is now cancer-free.
And his wish to see the World Juniors finally came true.
“I was pretty speechless,” he says. “It’s Canada versus Russia [on opening day], which is probably one of the oldest rivalries in hockey. It was a surreal experience for me. I was really proud of the boys because they won.”
But the games themselves have been only part of the story. On Dec. 29, when he was presented his jersey, he spent the day behind the scenes. He checked out the team’s dressing room, equipment room, and hot and cold tub, and sat on the bench for the game-day skate. Dylan Strome and Thomas Chabot gave him signed sticks.
Afterward he checked out the press box – and spent some time having an “in-depth conversation about hockey” with Tom Renney, Hockey Canada’s president and CEO – and the media workroom, where he sat in on the press conference announcing Scott Smith would be taking over as president in July 2017.
The personal connection to Canada’s National Junior Team runs deeper than this year. After Ryan missed out on Malmö, Philippe bought a tournament package for Montreal in 2015. One night he and his older son realized they were staying in the same hotel as Team Canada. Philippe encouraged Ryan to write a letter to head coach Benoît Groulx about himself and how he had missed the team a year earlier, and he asked if it would be possible to get a signed jersey.
“It made it more special because Groulx was a part of that tournament [as an assistant coach],” says Ryan. “It was really cool because he’s from Gatineau and I’m from Ottawa.” A couple days later members of the Team Canada staff – including Scott Salmond, the vice-president of hockey operations and men’s national teams for Hockey Canada – knocked on his door. “I thought they would be really busy. I thought maybe one of the hotel managers would bring it up. I didn’t think someone would personally come.”
Hockey had already been a big reason for Ryan’s positive mindset. “Every time I was off treatment the amount of hockey stuff I did – video games, stats, fantasy leagues – kept me motivated and busy and my morale boosted.” All those numbers and all that analyzing spurred an interest in sports journalism.
Even when he found out he’d be spending part of the day with Team Canada, “originally I just wanted to talk to the scouting department and see how they set the team.” And after his jersey presentation he disappeared for a bit. He was eventually found talking with his new friends in the TSN booth.
Playing hockey is not an option for Ryan – “with the tension in the skate my Achilles could break” – and he doesn’t think coaching is either. “For a coach you have to know how to skate. So then I started getting into scouting and management. It changed my perspective. It helps my reporting, too, because I understand both aspects.”
There’s now a new dream, a career in sports journalism. And with Ryan’s determination, drive and just plain love of the game, that’s sure to be another wish that comes true.