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Ryan Graves is the King of the Road at the moment, raring to get back to the Avs

June 23rd, 2020 by Ryan S. Clark

A dark-gray Hyundai Tucson has just crossed over from one state into the next when the lone passenger inside the SUV begins opening up about his trek across the nation.

Ryan Graves really wants to get back to playing hockey. Like, really wants to start playing again. So much that the Colorado Avalanche defenseman rented a car to drive more than 2,500 miles from Prince Edward Island to Denver. Graves grew up in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, but makes his offseason home in PEI. He spent the first three seasons of his QMJHL career on the island, where he developed a close group of friends while also meeting his girlfriend, Clare, when they were high school students in Charlottetown.

The young couple was in Denver when the NHL suspended the regular season March 12 because of COVID-19. Neither knew how long the sports world would remain at a standstill. So they made the decision to catch a flight from Colorado to PEI. All Graves packed was a suitcase full of clothes. No golf clubs. Just clothes. Leaving his car back in Denver meant they borrowed one from Clare’s parents while living at their house on the island.

Like so many hockey players, Graves continued to train and hoped the league would resume play. The NHL and NHLPA announced their joint return-to-play plan that outlined when different phases would commence. Phase 2 started in early June. A week later, the Avalanche held voluntary workouts a week later, with their first group comprising no more than six players.

Participating in Phase 2 meant Graves had to make a decision: take a commercial flight, then self-quarantine for 14 days with the risk of missing out on valuable ice time because he does not have a gym at his place. Or accept the challenge of roaming through four provinces and six states for at least 40 hours of driving so he could immediately participate in the voluntary workouts at Pepsi Center once he arrives in Denver later this week.

“It made more sense to do the drive rather than sit inside for two weeks,” Graves said during his drive. “It did not make sense logically, and it was not the best for staying in shape. It’s better to have to battle the drive and get it over with and get back to Denver and start skating again. … I (drove from Colorado to PEI) and back my first year with the (Colorado) Eagles, and this is maybe my fourth time doing it.”

One of the reasons Graves made the drive alone has to do with the fact the NHL is still deliberating about hub cities. The couple decided it would be best for Clare to stay with her family until the league decides whether families will be allowed to visit players should the league resume play.

Driving alone doesn’t bother Graves. He views it as a chance to see what the Maritimes and Quebec have to offer during the summer. The same applies to seeing certain parts of the United States and how “fascinated with it all” he was the first time he made the cross-continental trek. Crossing the border to get back to the U.S. was not a problem because the NHL sent out its return-to-play memo, which made visas for Canadian-born players valid again. Graves said Avalanche defenseman Samuel Girard crossed the border with no problems upon coming back and added that Tyson Jost and Cale Makar are also driving to Denver from Canada.

What’s made this drives different for Graves is seeing highways and interstates that are a lot more quiet than normal.

How does one get through such a long drive on his own? Simple. Graves said he has called family and friends. He will check out podcasts like The Joe Rogan Experience or Spittin’ Chiclets, and he was up for suggestions, too. The long hours of solitude also provide him a chance to listen to music. Graves’ two favorite genres are hip-hop and country. He will also mix in some rock.

And for those scoring at home, Graves did not get the satellite radio package with his rental. He is just relying on his phone and regular radio to get him through the drive.

“If I get bored with one, then I will just switch to the other and keep going,” Graves said.

Yarmouth will always be home. But pursuing a professional career meant Graves had to live in a place where he had access to consistent ice and trainers. Those PEI connections he established when he was a 15-year-old also saw him develop friendships with people in and out of hockey. Not knowing when hockey would return made things challenging in terms of trying to plan, Graves said.

But he also acknowledged that having an offseason home in a province with beautiful beaches, cottages and golf courses was definitely a selling point.

Graves’ trainer dropped off weights at his house, and that allowed him to turn his garage into a mini-gym. He said the gyms did eventually reopen on PEI along with the rinks. That is when he was able to start skating with other players looking to get back into game shape. New York Islanders winger Ross Johnston and Zack MacEwen, a winger who is in the Vancouver Canucks organization, were two of the players Graves worked out with. Johnston and MacEwen are from Charlottetown. They were also joined by Josh Currie, a winger in the Edmonton Oilers’ system, along with defenseman Morgan Ellis. The 2010 Montreal Canadiens draft pick has played the past three seasons in Europe and is now with HK Sochi in the KHL.

“It’s a high-level group, and I was glad I got to skate with them,” Graves said. “I chose to go back a little sooner, and I am excited to get back and I am looking forward to be skating with some of the guys.”

The 25-year-old explained how PEI was in a different situation compared with the rest of North America. Canada currently has more than 102,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, while the U.S is at 2.36 million. PEI has had 27 confirmed cases out of nearly 9,100 tests, with no deaths. In fact, the province’s last confirmed case came on April 28, according to CBC.

“We don’t have any coronavirus cases right now,” Graves said. “Things are not fully open, but you don’t have to worry about going to the grocery store or running into someone in the street. They basically shut down the island. Only essential traffic has been allowed. They have been extremely strict about doing 14-day quarantines. We had 15 or 20 cases over the spinoff the first month and a half. But last month, we had no cases. I know the world is crazy right now, and they did a good job up there.

“It is a little easier with the island where you don’t have to pass through other states and provinces like you would other places. The bad part about it right now is that it is hurting the tourist industry because tourism is so big back there. It will be nice when they are able to open up there.”

One of the talking points raised by Avalanche players, such as like Ian Cole, Nazem Kadri and captain Gabriel Landeskog, is the team’s strong position around the time the season paused. The Avs had won seven of their previous 10 games while remaining two points behind the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues for Central Division and Western Conference supremacy.

Further, they were doing it while several key players were recovering from injuries. Andre Burakovsky, Matt Calvert, Philipp Grubauer, Kadri and Mikko Rantanen were all on the mend, and superstar center Nathan MacKinnon was slated to miss two weeks with a lower-body injury. Then the pause came, which means the Avs are on track for full health should the NHL return to play.

“We’ve battled through a lot,” Graves said. “It has not just been the injuries of guys that are our top point guys. We’ve had a lot of big pieces go down with Landy, Mikko, Naz and Coler missing the start of the year. (Erik Johnson) missed a little bit of time. Cale missed some games. We have overcome adversity and, in a certain way, it has made us better. It has given more guys time to play. For me, when we had a couple injured guys on the back end, it gave me extra time. … Guys have that confidence, and it creates a deep lineup and everyone can play if we do run into injuries.

“We have dealt with it up and down the lineup, from forwards to defensemen to goaltenders. We believe we are a good team and are looking forward to having the chance to finish this out.”

Part of the Avalanche’s success has been attributed to receiving unexpected contributions from players like Graves. Avs coach Jared Bednar became an admirer of the 6-foot-5 defenseman during the 2018-19 season. Bednar used Graves in a third-pairing role. It reached a point when Bednar used a rotation of seven defensemen in March because he wanted to get more ice time for Graves, who was primarily with the Eagles in the AHL.

Moving on from defensemen like Tyson Barrie and Patrik Nemeth in the offseason created the notion the Avalanche would need to fill minutes. Makar, who won the Hobey Baker Award last year with the University of Massachusetts, was the heir apparent to replace Barrie as the team’s chief facilitator at the blue line. Graves was in the running to challenge for a roster spot as Nemeth’s replacement.

He made the team out of training camp and was serving in a third-pairing role while also logging minutes on the penalty kill. Or that was the plan until Bednar paired Graves with Makar to form an unexpected top pairing of players who were in their first full-time NHL campaigns. That partnership provided Bednar and the Avalanche with an all-around duo capable of dictating play or adapting when needed.

Graves complemented Makar’s puck-moving prowess by being a two-way presence who could attack when needed while also showing defensive responsibility. Graves worked his way into also being one of the team’s most trusted penalty killers. He had blocked a team-high 150 shots on goal, sixth in the NHL, when the league went on hiatus. Graves also led the Avs in short-handed ice time (187:04), an honor previously held by Johnson.

“I feel fortunate for how the year went and how last year went and for the opportunity that I have been given,” Graves said. “I am trying to make the most of it, and initially, my goal was to make the team. From there, I was hoping to play and to be in the lineup and try to play a little bit more and find a role on the team. I wanted to find a spot to contribute to the team. It has been a fun year. The thing about being on a good team is that other guys will make you look good a lot of the time.

“I am really fortunate for the opportunities I have been given and for the people I am playing with and I am surrounded by.”

The statistic Graves has received the most acclaim for is his league-leading plus-40 rating. Graves attributes that distinction to being good defensively while staying within the structure of his role. But he did acknowledge that plus/minus can be swayed by being on a good or bad team.

“What am I? I think what, a plus-40?” he asked. “I don’t have anywhere near that many points. It’s not me putting the puck in the net. It’s a team stat. Coler is also high on plus/minus, and we have a lot of guys with good stat lines because we are playing on a good team.”

But leading the NHL in plus/minus must count for something. Surely, Graves has run across people in his travels who know him for his achievements rather than as someone who looks like he could play Clark Kent/Superman in a movie, right?

“I think I am just a random guy to most people,” Graves said. “I think you have to follow the NHL really closely to know who I am. It’s not like I am Nathan MacKinnon or Sidney Crosby or anything. The odds of people recognizing me are slim.”

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