Originally hailing from Tennessee, hockey has found Ryan Strayer a new home much further away from the rinks of Murfreesboro: Queenstown, New Zealand. And on September 6, the forward made his international debut for the New Zealand Ice Blacks playing against Australia in a three-test series.
As part of the 2018 Winter Games, the scene for Strayer’s debut was the now annual Trans-Tasman Challenge. The two nations share an impassioned rivalry that regularly sparks up in the more well-known sporting codes, including the Bledisloe Cup and ANZAC Test, but now hockey is getting a piece of the action too.
By the end of the three-test series, the Kiwis would find themselves achieving their first series win against the Mighty Roos. It’s a stark contrast from the early beginnings when Australia won 58-0 in New Zealand’s first foray into international competition. But we don’t need to dwell on that, at all.
Side note: New Zealand did beat Australia in a two-game series in 2009, but that was drawn and decided by a shootout, so does that really count?
Despite being a new Kiwi, the importance of New Zealand being able to compete with their neighbours on the global sporting stage is not lost on Ryan Strayer. “I feel like I jumped right into that, it was a physical game right off the bat and we were working hard, we wanted to win for everybody here,” he said.
Strayer’s style of play is one I am a big fan of, and one that can often shine in a physical matchup. While he might not always be the flashiest or most-skilled player out there, his skillset greatly compliments his linemates that are more adept at finishing and putting the puck into the net. He is what I would consider a gritty playmaker.
During the New Zealand Ice Hockey League’s 2018 season, Strayer finished with 19 points in 18 games (5 goals, 14 assists) while only giving up 12 penalty minutes. That’s important to remember when you factor in that he isn’t afraid to get involved in the net-front battles and chase the puck into the dirty areas.
For the past five NZIHL seasons, the 5-foot-11 forward has been suiting up for the Skycity Stampede – but after his debut Strayer mentioned that he was more nervous for this occasion than any other, remarking how special it was.
“It was great to play here (on debut), especially in front of Queenstown. Great first game to be a part of,” Strayer said post-game.
The debutant made an immediate impact on the New Zealand roster, scoring two assists.
The first coming from a face-off in Australia’s zone. Strayer picks up the loose puck before it reaches the far corner and sends a cross-crease pass to Dale Harrop who ties the game 1-1 midway through the opening period.
The second assist was a thing of beauty. With five minutes remaining in the second period, the Ice Blacks were now up 2-1 (courtesy of Connor Harrison) and on the powerplay.
A poor clearing attempt within Australia’s zone saw a bobbling puck picked up by Strayer after he returned onside to resume attack. Using his strength to get past the scrambling defence, Strayer was able to connect with Alex Polozov as he streaked towards the Mighty Roos’ net – putting the puck behind Charlie Smart for a two-goal New Zealand lead.
While he created the opportunity, Strayer is humble in giving all the credit to the goalscorer. “The puck was bouncing my way, it stayed on my stick and I heard him screaming for it so I fed it over there and he did the rest of the work. He finished it beautifully, it was nice,” Strayer explained.
That margin is all the Ice Blacks would need in the opener, winning 4-2, before going on to win emphatically 6-1 in the second game to earn the Trans-Tasman Challenge series win.
The next day, Strayer was back working at the Queenstown Ice Arena, sharpening up skates for the team and keeping things light while I stressed about getting game highlights uploaded. Everything is done with a big smile on his face.
When you listen to interviews with NHL players and coaches, you will often hear them talking about someone on the team being a ‘great locker room guy’ – Strayer is exactly that for the Ice Blacks and Stampede, you don’t even need to be in the locker room to notice the calibre of player he is.
Over the course of the NZIHL Finals and the Winter Games, Puck Yeah has spoken with Ryan for post-game interviews. And each time we do, one thing remains constant: Ryan Strayer has this energy about him that is contagious – it’s always positive, motivating, and it’s fuelled by an undeniable love of the game.
His passion hasn’t gone unnoticed by the more veteran members of the current New Zealand squad.
On a recent Puck Yeah podcast, Ice Blacks goaltender Rick Parry noted how quickly Strayer gelled with the team and made the most of his opportunity.
“The competition is really high. When guys like Ryan show up, they know what it means to everyone else so they really give it their all, which is all you can really expect from anybody. He’s the kind of the guy that only works like that on the ice but off it as well. He’s always got a smile on his face. He’s a real team guy but when it comes to playing, he gets down to it and does his job.”
Captain Nick Craig also spoke highly of the newest Ice Blacks – the Dunedin Thunder’s Benjamin Gavoille also made his debut during game 1. Craig was injured at the time and unavailable to play, but with a moon boot and crutches in hand, he had a front-row seat for the historic effort while standing in a mentor role.
“They (Ryan and Ben) had a hell of a weekend, they were bloody good. I talked to Strayer afterwards, and he said that he had a bunch of fun but he was quite nervous going into it. He played his skin off though! If they were trying to make the Ice Blacks by making a statement, they certainly did. I was really impressed with those guys.”
Strayer and Gavoille were both rewarded by being named in the 35-strong wider training squad as the Ice Blacks prepare for the 2019 IIHF World Championships in Mexico. Hopefully they will be available to play as their inclusion will strengthen the team’s offensive depth.
Watch highlights of Ryan Strayer’s debut for the New Zealand Ice Blacks below:
Main photo: James Allan Photography