It’s worth remembering that the only junior level above the 24-team North American Hockey League in this country is the 17-team United States Hockey League.
The members of the Kenai River Brown Bears have survived an extremely competitive process to be among a select group of junior players in the United States. You either got it, or you don’t.
It was Ryan Reid’s turn to show if he had it or not on Oct. 12 last year.
Reid, an 18-year-old from Anchorage, went to the Brown Bears predraft camp in the summer of 2017. Head coach Josh Petrich saw Reid wasn’t ready for the NAHL, but kept tabs on him and invited him to Main Camp before this season.
The 6-foot-1, 175-pound defenseman survived that cut, but then faced pressure again at training camp.
“He came into training camp in a battle,” Petrich said. “It wasn’t clear-cut he was staying on the team.”
Reid made the team, but then appeared in just one of the team’s first 10 games.
“That was definitely a huge mental challenge for me, every day wondering if the coaches think I’m ready or not, or if I’m going to get released,” Reid said. “I had to battle through it and know that I’m never really safe, but as long as I put in the work, I’ll be fine.”
Reid finally got another chance to take the ice on Oct. 12 at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex against the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets, one of the league’s blue-blood franchises. The squad jumped on Reid in the first period. He was partially responsible for allowing the goal that put the Bears in a 1-0 hole.
The time had come for Reid to prove if he belonged or not.
“I found my own bubble in the hall outside the locker room and just kind of zoned in,” Reid said. “Coach came up to me and said, ‘I still have confidence in you as long as you still have confidence in yourself and come back and play great the rest of the game.’
“It was huge for me to know he still trusted me. I told myself either I can either fold over here or break through and do what needs to be done. I didn’t want to be released the next day.”
Reid scored his first NAHL goal in the second period and has gone on to become a regular in the Kenai River defensive rotation. After missing those nine games early, he has now appeared in 17 of Kenai River’s 33 games.
“He’s become a consistent fixture in our lineup the last month or so,” Petrich said. “He’s someone we look to continue to have success.”
Reid’s ascent into the lineup continues a steeply climbing arc he has ridden for about three years now.
Reid, the son of Karen Syrup of Anchorage and Michael Reid of Texas, was born in Las Vegas but moved to Anchorage at the age of 2 and started skating. Cousins Jeremy Smith and Zach Smith took Reid under their wings. Zach Smith was good enough that he played in the North American Hockey League with the Alaska Avalanche.
“Whenever I was struggling with something, I had someone to go to, to ask questions to see how they got through stuff physically and mentally,” Reid said.
Even with the help of his cousins, Reid was never a star growing up. As a freshman at Service, he appeared in just two varsity games. But then his ascent began.
“I grew physically and I grew mentally and gained a lot of confidence through these last few years,” Reid said. “I put in a lot of work to get where I wanted to be.”
As a sophomore, he developed into one of the top defenders on his team. As a junior, he was a team captain. Then he made the pivotal decision to spend his senior year with the Madison (Wisconsin) Capitals 18U team, where he experienced an exceptional period of growth.
For starters, Reid grew 3 inches during his senior year. His father and cousins also helped him with his diet and training plan, and Kenai River assistant Dan Bogdan has continued the process. The result is Reid now weighs 20 pounds more than he did as a junior.
He also said leaving home forced him to mature and take a good look at how bad he wanted to play college hockey. He decided that was a goal that would be worth the work.
“I started watching film on players and seeing what they do on the ice, and practicing the drills that they do,” Reid said. “I also saw what they did off the ice, and got an idea of what it takes to be a pro.”
Reid’s roommate with billet mother Natalie Merrick is defenseman Markuss Komuls, who has committed to the University of Alaska Fairbanks and who Petrich said has the most professional routine of anyone on the team.
“Mentally, it’s had a huge impact on me,” Reid said of living with Komuls. “He acts like a pro and he’s a great role model to have.”
Petrich said that Reid has come so far, so fast that it is hard to project where he will end up.
“He could be a really good junior hockey player that plays Division III, he could be a kid that plays in the USHL and then Division I, and with his frame and skating, the kid could play pro hockey,” Petrich said. “We’ll let the process shake out and see where the chips fall.”
For now, Petrich is just enjoying seeing another Alaska kid being brought home after having to go out of state to get some looks.
“If we got an Alaska kid that can play, it’s fun to let them come home and play in front of their family,” Petrich said.
Reid said he loves being back in the state and said Kenai River’s fans, coaches and players have all given him a big boost as he aims for his childhood dream of Division I hockey.
“As a Brown Bear, I think I’ve improved more this year than I have over the last two or three years combined,” Reid said. “The coaching staff and the players all force you to be your best and go past that.
“I definitely think I have way more to show and way more to prove.”