International Ice Hockey Federation

Ellis pursuing excellence

Ellis pursuing excellence

Worlds participant has Olympic dreams

Published 06.11.2014 18:16 GMT+1 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Ellis pursuing excellence
After three World Junior medals, Ryan Ellis played his first IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship with the Canadian men's national team last season in Minsk. Photo: Richard Wolowicz / HHOF-IIHF Images
Would you be surprised to learn that former Canadian World Junior star Ryan Ellis’s favourite movie is Gladiator?

The 23-year-old Nashville Predators defenceman has had just one fight in his NHL career. But, while trying to establish himself in the world’s top league, he’s identified with the relentless attitude of the title character in Ridley Scott’s historical epic that won Best Picture at the 2000 Oscars.

“Russell Crowe is obviously really good in that movie,” Ellis told after a 3-1 Nashville road win over Vancouver on Sunday. “The battle scenes, the way he battles adversity and comes back and gets back on top. It’s a great movie for anyone who’s battling the mental side or any side of the game to watch.”

As a junior, Ellis was clearly on top. He was named the Canadian Hockey League’s Player of the Year in 2011, among other honours.

Mobile and shifty, a power play savant, he won gold with Canada at the 2009 World Juniors in Ottawa, and then earned silver medals in Saskatoon in 2010 and Buffalo in 2011. With 25 career World Junior points (5-20-25), he still ranks as Canada’s all-time leading scorer among defencemen. That leaves him fourth in the overall Canadian derby, behind only Eric Lindros (31 points), and Jordan Eberle and Brayden Schenn (26 points).

However, making the jump from the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires to the big leagues wasn’t a piece of cake. In his first two NHL seasons, the 178-cm, 81-kg native of Freelton, Ontario split time between Nashville and the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals.

He finally solidified his status as an NHLer last season, playing 80 games and recording a career-high 27 points (6-21-27). Under then-coach Barry Trotz, Ellis began logging close to 20 minutes a night in March and April. He’s kept up that pace under new bench boss Peter Laviolette.

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“It’s huge,” said Ellis. “The more you play, the more experience you get, and the more comfortable you get out there. Ask anybody.”

This year, he’s gotten off to a fast start offensively, earning his first career three-point game (1-2-3) and first shootout winner on October 21 versus the Arizona Coyotes.

“Ryan has been great,” said Laviolette, who coached the United States to bronze at the 2004 IIHF World Championship and won the Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006. “A lot of times, you think of him a little bit more offensively, but for us, he’s been a great two-way defenceman.”

Unlike playing in hockey-crazed Canada, Ellis has been able to develop under the radar in Music City. Captain Shea Weber, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and repeat Norris Trophy finalist, gets the lion’s share of attention. Swiss star Roman Josi was the team’s second-highest scoring defenceman last year, posting 40 points to Weber’s 56, and the towering Seth Jones got lots of (well-merited) hype as the #4 overall pick in 2013.

So all that has given Ellis and his partner, Swedish national team player Mattias Ekholm, a chance to do their thing without excessive scrutiny.

“We’ve been really good together,” Ellis said. “We read each other well. We anticipate pucks well. And I think the key is we’re good friends off the ice, and we bring that to the game as well. We have a lot of fun out there. We just seem to be clicking most times.”

It’s early in the season, but based on overall team chemistry, Nashville already looks like a strong bet to return to the playoffs after a two-year absence.

It’s also just a few weeks until the World Juniors kick off in Montreal and Toronto. The host nation hasn't won gold since Ottawa 2009. With each passing year for Canadian fans, memories of Eberle’s classic 5-5 semi-final tying goal against Russia with 5.4 seconds left become more precious.

What’s sometimes forgotten is that Ellis kept the play alive by stopping a Russian clearing attempt at the right point before John Tavares got the puck to Eberle in front.

“It was just a lucky play,” Ellis said modestly. “I didn’t even hit the net at the time. It was the rest of the guys that threw the puck to the net and obviously buried the goal.”

Ellis said he still maintains his childhood tradition of trying to watch as many World Junior games as possible. He wore the red Maple Leaf for the first time since his U20 days when he suited up for Canada at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Belarus. Apart from a shocking 3-2 shootout loss to France on Day One, the Canadians performed admirably. But in the quarter-finals, they fell 3-2 to Finland despite outshooting their opposition 38-26.

The Finnish goalie was no stranger to Ellis: Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, a two-time Vezina Trophy nominee. The towering Kempele native would be named tournament MVP as Finland marched to the final before settling for silver in a 5-2 loss to Russia.

“When you run into a hot goalie, you never know what’s going to happen,” said Ellis. “That night was no exception. He played really well. We threw a lot of pucks at him and it just wasn’t our night.”

Ellis hopes his participation at the Worlds could be a stepping stone to even bigger things. He will be 27 years old, right in his prime, when the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, Korea, take place.

Watching Weber team up with Duncan Keith on Canada’s top pairing provided more fuel for his Winter Games dreams – even though admittedly, it’s a long shot given Canada’s great depth on the blue line.

“Just hearing about the experience from ‘Webs’ and how much fun he had over there and obviously how well the team did, it’s the tournament you want to be part of,” said Ellis. “Especially when you win, it’s a great feeling. If I got the opportunity, it would be great. But I’m going to have to get better and better each year.”

For now, his focus will remain on helping Nashville win this season, with coach Laviolette closing in on 400 career NHL victories.

What advice does Ellis have for current U20 aces like Connor McDavid and Sam Reinhart, who will try to end Canada’s World Junior gold drought on home ice?

“Honestly, just have fun. The crowd’s going to be behind you. You’re going to have the cheering in your favour. Relish the moment, because it’s a great tournament.”

And hey, it might not hurt to watch Gladiator before the big games either.


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