Center Ryan Steeves ’04 was one of many former and future Yale hockey players making waves in the pro hockey ranks this off-season.
Steeves inked a three-year contract with the Colorado Avalanche July 15 and will be expected to report for training camp in Denver Sept. 16. One of his former teammates, center Ben Stafford ’01, resigned with the Philadelphia Phantoms, the Philadelphia Flyers’s AHL affiliate. And former Eli standout defenseman Ray Giroux ’98 signed with the Minnesota Wild. Additionally, defenseman Rob Page ’08 and forward Will Engasser ’08 were both selected in this summer’s NHL draft.
While the pair of rookies are just getting their skates wet on the ice at Ingalls Rink, Steeves is excited to make the transition from Yale to pro hockey.
“As a young hockey player, it’s your dream to one day sign an NHL contract,” Steeves, a four-year letter winner for Yale said. “From here on out, I just have to put myself in the best position to one day make the team.”
The Avalanche drafted Steeves in the seventh round of the 2002 NHL Amateur Draft, as the 227th overall pick. This March, defensemen Jeff Dwyer ’04 and Joe Callahan ’06 also turned pro, making Steeves the third member of the 2003-2004 Eli men’s ice hockey squad to join the professional ranks.
Steeves pointed to his four years as an Eli as being crucial to his growth as a player and his preparation for professional hockey, but the relationship was mutually beneficial. The Rockland, Ontario native asserted himself as a stalwart of Yale hockey since he arrived as a 17-year-old in the fall of 2000. A speed demon who contributed both at even strength and on special teams, he finished his Eli career with 37 goals and 54 assists.
“[Steeves] is probably the best player I have ever played on a line with in my entire life,” linemate Jeff Hristovski ’06 said. “He is extremely responsible defensively, has great vision, has incredible speed, can score goals, and even has a lot of feistiness in him.”
In addition to his on-ice exploits, Steeves displayed quiet but very strong leadership abilities, Yale head coach Tim Taylor said.
Steeves provided guidance for a young Bulldog squad that experienced its fair share of highs and lows last season. The Elis went 8-2 during the middle stretch of the season, but dropped their last seven contests, including two playoff losses to lower seed St. Lawrence to close the season with a record 12-19.
“[Steeves] is one of the main reasons that our team kept together this year when we went through many of our rough patches,” forward Hristovski said. “The most important thing he did for me personally this past year was give me my confidence back. I had a pretty shaky freshman season — by my standards anyway — and he made me believe that I could be a successful hockey player at this level by none other than just his example.”
With the relative stability of Yale behind him, Steeves, like many professional hockey players this upcoming season, faces an uncertain future. With little progress being made on a new collective bargaining agreement between players and owners in the NHL, a lockout seems probable. In that scenario, Steeves would report to Colorado’s AHL affiliate, the Hershey, Penn. Bears, this fall.
The Bears finished in second-to-last place in the East Division last year, posting a 33-34-8-5 record.
“From what I’ve heard, Hershey, Penn. is a great hockey town,” Steeves said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what it is like at the next level and hopefully working my way up.”
With a tremendous amount of skill and speed, Steeves possesses the necessary abilities to transition to the next level, Taylor said.
“He’s going to be able to skate with anybody in the league,” Taylor said. “His transition on the skill platform will be relatively easy. [The game is] more conservative, more physical, but he’s going to be asked to play the same role.
Steeves joins several former-Bulldogs in the professional ranks. Callahan, Dwyer, Chris Higgins ’07, Stafford, Giroux, Steve Deschenes ’03, and Jeff Hamilton ’01 — Yale’s all-time scoring leader — could all potentially compete in the AHL this year.
Giroux, the captain of Yale’s 1997-1998 ECAC championship squad, played 11 games for the New Jersey Devils last year and much of the season with their AHL affiliate, the Albany River Rats. He recorded 28 points in 65 games for Albany to become the team’s top-scoring blueliner.
Stafford, another former captain for the Bulldogs, recorded 32 points in 73 games during the 2000-2001 campaign. An ECAC first-team selection, Stafford has also been one of the Phantom’s most durable players over the last two-plus seasons. His streak 177 consecutive games played ended on March 31 of this year because of an elbow injury. The AHL has also recognized his contributions to the community.
“Yale has done well in the past few years at sending players to the next level,” Steeves said. “I think that it’s a real testament to the hockey program at Yale and the type of people that help make it work.”
Steeves particularly credited Taylor.
“Coach Taylor is a real teacher of the game and he helped me get better every year,” he said. “He knows a lot about the game and I think all of his players both past and present would attest to that.”
As freshmen, Page and Engasser will look to benefit from Taylor’s wealth of knowledge as their predecessors have. The Columbus Blue Jackets selected Page in the sixth round and the Phoenix Coyotes selected Engasser in the ninth round.
The duo has more in common than just their summer draft experiences. The two were high school teammates at Minnesota’s Blake School and received multiple post-season honors.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the NHL season on account of the lack of progress in collective bargaining negotiations, things are looking up for Yale hockey players, both new and old.