The Minsk Arena in Minsk, Belarus is located more than 7,000 kilometers from the Peterborough Memorial Center.
Home of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) HC Dinamo Minsk, the arena can accommodate 15,000 fans and represents a small but passionate niche in the hockey world.
Despite the unfamiliarity with Canadian hockey fans, there is a connection between the maroon and white and Belarusian hockey: Ryan Spooner.
An Ottawa native, Spooner spent three seasons with the Peterborough Petes before being traded to the Kingston Frontenacs during the 2010-11 season and eventually concluding his junior career with the Sarnia Sting.
All in all, he left the Ontario Hockey League with a total of 113 goals and 146 assists for 259 points in 230 games. He was a first round selection of the Pieten in the 2008 OHL Priority Selection.
“I had a really great time,” Spooner said of his career with the Petes.
Now at home in Ottawa for the off-season, he remembered being mentored by his older teammates and community members.
“I don’t think I would be where I am today without the help of (my teammates),” he said.
After being drafted by the Boston Bruins with the 45th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Spooner began his professional career with the AHL’s Providence Bruins before making his NHL debut on February 6, 2013.
In parts of six seasons in Boston, Spooner scored 41 goals and 101 assists for 142 points in 253 games. Spooner was traded to the New York Rangers in February 2018. He spent a season and a quarter there before landing in Edmonton as a member of the Oilers. The Oilers traded him to the Vancouver Canucks, who then placed him on waivers before buying his contract in June 2019.
It was a difficult piece for Spooner in every way. He did not enjoy hockey much and asked his agent to look for opportunities to play in Europe. Of course, such setbacks are very common for professional hockey players, forcing Spooner to get over it even more.
“I kind of knew what to expect if I stayed in North America,” admitted Spooner, adding that he probably would have had to “grind it out” in the AHL to get called up and play on the fourth line.
“I had to enjoy hockey again and be excited to go to the rink,” he said.
When he initially signed with HC Lugano of the Swiss National League, the plan was to play a year abroad to build his stock and eventually return to the NHL, but like many his plans were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Spooner quickly made his way to Minsk, where he played two seasons with the Dynamo alongside former NHLers Andrei Kostitsyn and Shane Prince, formerly of the Ottawa 67’s.
“I didn’t know what to expect, so it was a bit difficult,” Spooner recalls.
Despite some minor tweaks – Spooner admitted he had some trouble getting used to the different sizes of ice in Europe and learning to play the KHL style “possession game” – but he found his groove, scoring 16 goals in 79 KHL games and added 60. assists for 76 points.
“I had two fantastic seasons there,” Spooner said of his time in Minsk.
While the language barrier was a problem for Spooner and the other foreign-born players, they had the support of their Toronto-bred head coach, Craig Woodcroft, who tried to make it easier for them in Belarus. His comfort in Minsk made him feel confident enough to sign another deal in Russia, this time with Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg, who plays in the Kharlamov division.
He has not played there yet due to the ongoing pandemic, but the roster of his new team consists of five former NHL players (including Korbinian Holzer, Peter Holland and Pavel Datsyuk).
Overall, Spooner remains honest and realistic about his future in hockey, astutely noting that he doesn’t think a return to North American hockey is in the offing. Having been traded three times in the NHL and bought out once at the highest level, his self-awareness has helped him build a solid career abroad.
“For me, that ship has sailed,” he said of a return to the NHL. “I’ve made peace with the fact that I won’t be playing in North America anymore.”
Instead, he will continue to enjoy the game for as long as possible, focusing on improving his game and looking for opportunities that will allow him to continue doing what he loves.
“I still enjoy being a hockey player and I love doing the job.”
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