Every member of the NHL Alumni Association has a unique and inspirational story to tell. Not every player ends his career as a Stanley Cup Champion like Lanny McDonald or Ray Bourque did. Not all careers result in 1,000 games played or 1,000 points scored. For some members of hockey’s greatest family, the journey itself is the victory, and what an incredible journey it is.
Ryan VandenBussche grew up playing hockey in Delhi, Ontario (near Simcoe, Ontario). He enjoyed playing the game and hanging out with his friends on the ice. When he watched NHL games, Wendel Clark was his favourite player because of his mix of talent and toughness. As time went on, Ryan’s skills improved and his passion for the game grew as well. He found himself on the path to becoming a professional hockey player after spending four years in the Ontario Hockey League with the Cornwall Royals, Newmarket Royals and the Guelph Storm.
The Toronto Maple Leafs selected VandenBussche in the eighth round of the 1992 Draft (173rd overall) and he began his career in the American Hockey League when his OHL career concluded. He spent two seasons with the St. John’s Maple Leafs before becoming a member of the Binghamton Rangers, the AHL affiliate of the New York Rangers at the time. It was during the 1996-97 season, his second season in Binghamton, that his hard work and dedication paid off - he received the long awaited call to the NHL. I started our interview by asking Ryan if there is a way to describe the feeling of putting on an NHL jersey for the first time.
“Yeah,” he said quickly. “I’ll never forget doing it! It was in New York City and the Rangers had just called me up. I remember being in the dressing room at Madison Square Gardens. I was sitting in my stall and putting on my jersey and thinking, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool.’”
“I went out and did the warm up but didn’t play in that game - I played the following night in Buffalo. It was an experience that I can never replace because it only happens once. I was six years old when Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier came into the league; fast-forward a number of years and here I am sitting on the bench with them in the NHL. It was quite the thrill for me to play with them. I followed Wayne’s career, as everyone else did in Canada, so it was a real honour to play with him - he was such a skilled player.”
“I was very fortunate to play with some great hockey players,” Ryan recalled. “I played with Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine, Brian Leetch, Mike Richter, Ulf Samuelsson, Gretzky and Messier in New York. Then I got to play with Mario Lemieux in his final year and with Sidney Crosby too in Pittsburgh.”
VandenBussche would play 27 games over two seasons with the Rangers before a late season trade in 1998 sent him to the Chicago Blackhawks organization. While he continued to spend some time in the AHL, Ryan became a regular in the Blackhawks lineup during the 1999-2000 season - taking to the ice with players like Tony Amonte, Steve Sullivan, Bob Probert, Phil Housley, Alexei Zhamnov and Eric Daze during his time in Chicago.
Casual hockey fans may not realize that the AHL is the second-best league in the world, second only to the NHL itself. Many of the top players we watch in the National Hockey League started their pro careers riding the buses and honing their skills on AHL ice. It can be difficult for players that are not NHL regulars to bounce between leagues, with extra travel and the pressure of displaying their talents while on a call-up. However, when they do get the call to the NHL, they have to take advantage of the opportunity and make the most of every moment and every shift.
“There is a lot of talent in the AHL, absolutely,” VandenBussche said. “At the NHL level, a top-six forward or top-four defenseman is hard to replace but if you are third or fourth liner in the NHL or a six or seventh defenseman, be aware because anyone in the American Hockey League can replace you!”
“It doesn’t matter how many times you get called up,” he continued. “You are just happy to get called up. For me, it was my fourth year of playing pro and I had battled; you have to persevere because there are a lot of ups and downs trying to make it to the greatest league in the world. If you let your highs get too high or your lows get too low, it’s going to be a problem. You have to find a balance, keep your passion and work hard and be hopeful that one day you’ll get the call. When you do get that call - do your best! That’s all you can do.”
VandenBussche is now an active member of the NHL Alumni Association, taking part in numerous charity games and events, including the annual Scotiabank Pro-Am Tournament that raises much-needed funds for Alzheimer’s research. He believes that the Alumni Association has done a tremendous job helping players make the difficult transition to life after hockey. By taking part in the alumni events, Ryan is not only helping others, it also provides him with the opportunity to play with some of the game’s greatest players.
“A lot of the guys that I play with in the charity alumni games were retired before I got into the league. You always heard stories about them or saw them on television. To be able to sit in the same room with them and hear their stories firsthand about how things were back then and how the game was played - it’s great!”
Like many of the NHL Alumni members, Ryan’s charity work extends beyond the alumni events. Now that he is a father himself, he likes to focus on children’s charities when he can and discussed a few of the events he is involved in.
“We did a golf tournament this year for the first time for the Norfolk Breakfast Club. If there is ever a kid that can’t afford to have a proper breakfast, they can come into school early and get a good healthy breakfast before class. It’s about doing the little things like that, helping charities or making a donation. I have a soft spot for kids - seeing kids that are under-privileged or are sick, you just want to help them out.”
“My wife Lisa and I had our first annual Bush-stock this year as well,” Ryan explained. “It was sort of like a mini Woodstock. We had about three hundred people and I think we can grow the event to seven hundred next year. We donate the proceeds to a charity of our choice and it will be towards a kid’s charity for sure. We have a pretty huge property with lots of room for having a big party in my backyard. We had five bands here, with a dinner and that kind of stuff, and we plan on doing it every year around Labour Day Weekend.”
Since he left the game, Ryan has become part of a new team, working with his wife Lisa and his father, Ron VandenBussche, in real estate at Erie Shores Realty Inc, which is part of the Re/Max organization. Together they serve Simcoe, Port Dover, Delhi and all of Norfolk County, which lies on the south coast of Ontario, next to Lake Erie. They offer residential and commercial listings at their website www.teamvandenbussche.com.
Having been around the business thanks to his dad, Ryan realized during the NHL lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season, that it was time to look ahead to his life after hockey. He made the decision that when he did retire, he would obtain his real estate license. When he stopped playing professionally in January of 2007, he successfully followed up on his plan.
“It’s a whole other experience from playing hockey,” Ryan said. “In hockey, you know your itinerary for the next eight months when the schedule comes out in July. In the business that I’m in now, you set your own schedule and that’s good because it gives you some flexibility; I kind of like it. Many of the same principals that made you successful in hockey apply to the business world as well.”
The current economic climate has made the real estate business more challenging to say the least. The stock market has experienced a steady upheaval in recent months and unemployment is an issue throughout North America. While these issues have factored into the overall state of the realty business, Ryan explained that being prepared, knowing the business and their customers has helped in these uncertain times. Much like preparing for an opponent in hockey, having a good game plan leads to the best possible results.
“If you are going to list a home for sale, you had better price it accordingly because there is a lot of competition out there. You have to do your due diligence, have a good list price, know what you’re talking about and back it up. You want to give people as much value as possible.”
While the decision to move on from hockey is never an easy one, having a plan in place for the next chapter in his life has allowed Ryan to make the successful transition to life after hockey. A proud father and husband, an active NHL Alumni member with a successful business and great memories of his time in the NHL, he is a tremendous role model for future members of hockey’s greatest family.