Roller Coaster

The clock reads 00:02.6. Down one goal, UMass Lowell has an empty net and an extra skater. Puck drops; the River Hawks win the faceoff. One second left, one last-ditch heave at the goal. The puck gets lost in a forest of skates and a storm of gloves fly into the air. 

On March 16, 2016, the Huskies won the Hockey East Championship for just the second time in program history, and freshman Ryan Ruck etched his name in Northeastern goaltending lore.

When Ruck was a senior in high school near Coto de Caza, Calif., no college programs offered him an opportunity. Determined to keep his hockey future alive, he instead opted to play in the USHL, the top junior hockey league in America. 

From Orange County to Minot, North Dakota to Des Moines, Iowa, hockey was the only thing familiar to Ruck during his three-year run in the USHL.

“It was different; it was kind of like a ‘walk before you run’ mentality before going to college,” said Ruck. “But it was really cool, living with another family and getting to experience other things besides what you’re usually accustomed to.”

Once he first heard word of interest from Northeastern, Ruck finally made the trip east to visit campus. It didn’t take long for his decision to be made.

“I absolutely fell in love with campus and the city of Boston,” Ruck said. “It was beautiful and to have that college campus feel while being in the middle of the city was awesome. Pretty much right away within my first few minutes on campus, I knew I wanted to go to school here.”

But there was something beyond hockey and campus aesthetics that pushed the incoming freshman to Huntington Avenue – something that Ruck knew would help him beyond his collegiate years.

“Education was massively important to me. I didn’t want to go to a school that didn’t take pride in its academics,” Ruck said. “It happened to be a plus how good Northeastern’s hockey team was, but without the academics here, I wouldn’t have wanted to come here.”

His college career got off to a quick start; he first found himself between the pipes on Oct. 17 at the tail end of a blowout. By the very next game, he had established himself as the team’s go-to puck stopper.

Despite the team’s early confidence in his abilities, with the team taking loss after loss, it took some time for Ruck to see it in himself.

“I didn’t have a ton of confidence in the start of my freshman year,” Ruck said. “Everyone kept telling me I was playing so well and it wasn’t my fault, but when you’re not winning, it was tough.”

Then on Dec. 19 against Michigan State, a full two months after his debut, Ruck got his first taste of winning in the red and black. 

“From there, win after win, it was that much easier to find confidence,” he said.

In a positive-feedback loop, the Huskies kept winning, and Ruck turned that momentum into zeroes, ones and twos on the scoreboard. After that Dec. 19 win, an average of just 1.83 pucks per game found the back of Ruck’s net as Northeastern won 20 of their final 24 games until the Hockey East victory celebration.

“At the time, I didn’t really know what to think, but now that I look back on it, it’s an experience I’ll never forget,” Ruck said about the team’s historic run. “It was the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of, and there’s no words to describe how happy I was. It was just an unbelievable experience.”

With nearly unprecedented success as a freshman, Ruck found himself with the weight of lofty expectations on his shoulders.

“I didn’t let it get to my head,” Ruck said. “But there was a confidence in it. It shows that when you work hard towards something, you’ll be able to accomplish it. I took that into summer training, and come the start of the next year, we started off much better.”

Quiet confidence was Ruck’s brand. He led by example, but always made sure to bring a blend of focused and fun.

“He has a very serious side to him, but he also loves to have a good time. And he takes that with him on the ice,” backup goalie Curtis Frye said. “He’s always challenging guys to prove that they can score on him. He can focus on his game so much and progressing as a goaltender, but also still be part of the team and one of the guys, and still want to create a good team environment.”

At 6-foot-1, 173 pounds, Ruck wasn’t big for a goalie. He relied on perfect positioning and innate quickness to foil his opponents. That, and maybe a little bit of superstition.

“He always takes great care of how he tapes his stick; he’s very particular about how when he’s taping the blade, how the creases line up,” Frye remembered. “They can’t be too overlapping.”

Equipped with an analytical mind and a perfectly taped stick, it was, by all accounts, a solid sophomore campaign for the goaltender. The Huskies had no hardware to show for it at the end of the year, but Ruck had an .897 save percentage and a 2.94 goals against average.

But every roller coaster has its drop.

It was during the team’s exit interviews following that 2016-17 season that head coach Jim Madigan let his goaltender know that he had successfully recruited one of the nation’s top goaltending prospects – Montreal Canadiens’ seventh-round pick Cayden Primeau.

“They asked me how I felt about it, and for some reason that question stuck with me,” said Ruck. “And my answer was, I’m my best competition, and I know that I can push myself to very high levels. It’s always good to have some extra competition, especially someone as good as Cayden.”

The two may have been internal competitors, but when Primeau first arrived on campus in 2017, he and Ruck developed a quick rapport.

“When I first met him, I thought he was funny,” Primeau remembered. “He was always joking around. I knew he helped them get to the Hockey East championship, so I knew that he was a good goalie and I was going to have to battle him for the position. But I wanted it too so it was a good, friendly competition because he’s a great guy. He helped me a lot with the transition from juniors to college.”

The respect was certainly mutual from the grizzled veteran to the prodigious rookie.

“When I finally met [Primeau] junior year, he’s an incredible person. Just the nicest guy, very soft-spoken, but a great teammate,” Ruck said. “For as young as he is, he’s so mentally mature. So there were actually some things I was able to learn from him right away. It’s weird that he’s a little younger than me, but I was kind of looking up to him in a sense. He’s just so accomplished already.”

And so began the position battle for starting goalie, between two netminders five years apart in age. The pair largely split time at the beginning of the year, rotating game by game.

Ruck held up his end of the bargain, managing an 89.8 save percentage through his first four games. 

But a blow to the head from the elbow of Boston University’s Patrick Harper knocked him out of contention. Ruck was removed from the game with concussion symptoms, and Primeau became the team’s go-to goalie by default. In one fell swoop of an errant arm, one of the program’s most successful goaltenders was facing an uphill battle to return to the game he loved.

“It was really tough, going from the goalie to the concussed goalie,” Ruck said. “It wasn’t easy. I wanted to come back as soon as possible, but my brain wouldn’t allow me to.”

Sitting in dark rooms, no physical exertion, avoid complex thinking. This was the rehab that awaited Ruck on his path back to the rink.

“I felt for Ryan. When you work so hard to play the game you love and then not be able to play, that’s tough,” Curtis Frye, senior backup goalie, said. “Especially with a concussion, a lot of times can seem isolating, but he took everything with a grain of salt and made the best of it. That definitely changed him in some ways — he has to be aware of some things that he didn’t have to before.”

With all the frustration that came with being sidelined in perhaps the most pivotal stretch of his career, Ruck was able to take solace in one thing: his team was in capable hands. Under Primeau’s guise, the Huskies won their first beanpot in 30 years, and earned a berth in the NCAA tournament.

“I knew that I was going to have to step up big time, because we weren’t going to be able to split the time in goal anymore,” Primeau said. “Ryan was always there and really supportive the whole time he was injured.”

The 18-year old goalie’s run of dominance took the pressure off Ruck to rush his rehab. As the knowledge around concussions continue to grow, there’s at least one consensus opinion. Recovery time is not to be messed with.

“We took the time needed, and the doctors and the trainers and the coaching staff were awesome. No one ever pressured me to come back before I was ready, and I’m grateful for that,” Ruck said.

He finally got his long-awaited medical clearance to play before the Huskies’ Nov. 30 matchup against Merrimack College. It was just over a year since his injury, and Ruck was ready to get back to work. But Primeau now had a firm grip on the position, and the team’s high aspirations had them wanting to ride their star goalie’s momentum.

“[Ruck] came to work each and every day and worked his rear end off just to get better and challenge for the position,” Madigan said. “Cayden was on such a run there in that second half that we weren’t going to change that, and Ryan knew that.”

It was a blowout early; the Huskies staked themselves to a 5-1 after the first period. Three more goals in the second period had the Warriors ready to hit the showers.

“As soon as the score was getting up there in the second, [Ruck and I] were giving each other looks, like maybe there’s a chance for somebody to go in here,” Frye remembered.

As the team sat in the locker room getting ready to close out an easy win in the third period, Madigan said the words Ruck had been thinking about all those hours in the dark room.

He was getting back in goal.

Armed with a perfectly-taped stick, Ruck sat between the pipes for the final 20 minutes, deflecting each of the three shots that came his way.

“I still get the chills thinking about it,” Ruck said. “It felt like winning a huge game, just getting back on the ice for a game, because there were moments [during rehab] that I thought to myself, maybe I won’t be able to play hockey again, maybe this is the end of my career. So being out there against Merrimack was incredible.”

Primeau had a front row seat to his friend’s comeback, feeling a number of different emotions.

“It was a little nerve-wracking because he hadn’t played in a year,” he said. “You can practice every day but game speed and game feel is a little different. But it just shows what a great goalie he is and the talent he has because he stepped in and didn’t skip a beat.”

But Madigan had more in mind than merely a feel-good moment for his veteran goalie. With Primeau set to join Team USA in their quest for gold in the World Junior Championships, the Huskies would be without their prodigy for a handful of games.

In the three games Ruck started in Primeau’s absence, the Huskies went 2-1. Opponents tried to put 65 pucks past the 24-year old. Only three succeeded.

This time under the lights of TD Garden with his teammates on the bench rather than holed up in a dark room, Ruck celebrated Northeastern’s second consecutive Beanpot in January. Then, two months later, something only he and one other goalie in school history had accomplished: a Hockey East championship.

“It’s been an unbelievable experience, from freshman year until now,” Ruck reflected. “The amount of things I’ve learned over the years are… I can’t really describe it. I knew that I would learn a lot in college, but all the skills I’ve learned on the ice, off the ice, in the classroom, networking, it’s been huge.”

Two Beanpots, two Hockey East championships. Friend and mentor to one of the program’s most talented goaltending prodigies. Eighth in program history among goalies in games played, sixth in minutes, fourth in goals against average, twelfth in saves, fifth in save percentage, fifth in wins, ninth in shutouts. 

Ryan Ruck made his mark.