Ryan Gardiner has played hockey for most of his life. Still, he’ll admit that he might have taken the game as far as he has without his brother Jason.
“My brother was a really good player,” said Ryan, shortly after his Winnipeg Thrashers had beaten the Parkland Rangers 7-2. “He was drafted by Tri-City, played in Tri-City and with the Regina Pats. He wanted to play in the Western Hockey League and that’s the route I plan to go.”
Ryan Gardiner, a talented 16-year-old defenseman will have plenty of options over the next few years. After all, he’s already been named one of the best players in Western Canada. Last week, he was one of nine Manitobans named to Team West, the team that will represent Manitoba and Saskatchewan at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Cape Breton, N.S., from Dec. 29-Jan. 4.
Of the 22 players on Team West, the nine Manitobans are Gardiner and one more defenseman: Wyatt Kalynuk (Virden) of the MJHL’s Virden Oil Kings; six forwards: Jesse Gabrielle (Brandon) of the Brandon Wheat Kings, Keegan Kolesar (Winnipeg) of the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds, Colt Conrad (St. Alphonse) of Shattuck-St. Mary’s Prep School, Braden Purtill (Winnipeg) of the Tri-City Americans, Jackson Keane (Winnipeg) of the MJHL’s Winnipeg Blues and Meyer Nell (Boissevain) of the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels; and goalie Tyson Verheist (Brandon) of the MJHL’s Neepawa Natives.
Gardiner is the only Triple A Midget player from Manitoba on the team (there are six from Saskatchewan), but it’s not like he hasn’t been knocking on the Western Hockey League’s door. Drafted by the Moose Jaw Warriors in the third round (52nd overall) of the 2012 WHL bantam draft, Warriors assistant director of hockey operations, Ron MacLachlan spoke highly of the young player.
“Ryan is a good puck-moving defenseman with offensive ability,” said MacLachlan. “He is a solid puck-handler with good defensive zone awareness who plays with grit and toughness.”
High praise for a 14-year-old D-Man. Of course, a couple of seasons later, Gardiner has become even better.
“He’s a really good kid,” said Thrashers head coach Dan Eliasson on Sunday. “He’s a hard worker with a good personality who is well-liked. He’ll stand up in the room and make his presence known. He’s a leader. There are a lot of 17-year-olds who would never listen to a 16-year-old, but they listen to Ryan.”
Ryan Gardiner started playing hockey as a six-year-old even though his dad “wasn’t a hockey player.”
“It was my brother,” said Ryan with a smile. “He’d started playing and was a good player so my dad – well, it might have been my grandpa, actually – who got me playing. My dad wasn’t a hockey player, but I get great support from my family. My mom is a hockey mom.”
Ryan’s brother Jason, now 22, finished his career with a tremendous season in 2011-12 as he helped the Winnipeg Saints reach the Turnbull Cup final against the eventual MJHL champion, Portage Terriers. He played with the WHL’s Tri-City Americans from 2006-07 to 2008-09 and then moved to the Regina Pats in 2009-10.
He’s been a great role model for Ryan.
“I really want to play in the WHL,” Ryan said. “My bother did and that’s the way I want to take my career.”
It’s not like he’s hasn’t prepared for it. He started as a member of the Park City Penguins, moved on to the Winnipeg Railcats and then, as a 14-year-old with the Winnipeg Sharks, he was drafted by the Warriors. As a 15-year-old, he was part of Hockey Manitoba’s Program of Excellence and played for Team Manitoba’s Under-16 team. Now, at 6-foot, 180 pounds, Gardiner is one of the top defensemen in the Manitoba Triple A Midget Hockey League.
“He can be a really good defenseman when he wants to be,” said Thrashers assistant coach Arnie Caplan. “He can really handle the puck and really move it through the zone. He has some offense and can play the power play.
“When he brings his A-game, he can be one of the best defensemen around.”
(Photos by Jeff Miller of 100 Acre Woods Photography)