Mike Van Ryn considers his trade to the Maple Leafs early this month one of the highlights of his career.
One of the other major highlights for the London, Ont., native -- and disappointments -- has nothing to do with hockey. Or, at least, ice hockey.
Van Ryn was a member of Canada's roller hockey team at the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg. That squad captured the gold medal and the imagination of fans both in Winnipeg and on television across Canada, by defeating the favoured Americans 7-6 in overtime in one of the most emotionally charged events at the Games. In fact, Van Ryn set up Kevin Kerr for the winning goal.
"It was awesome. The experience of being with those athletes and being in the dorms and just being around all the events meant something special," Van Ryan said yesterday, following an informal skate with some of his Leafs teammates at Lakeshore Lions Arena. "The American team was supposed to win that tournament and to beat them was pretty good."
Van Ryn said the victory felt especially sweet for him, as he was still experiencing the disappointment of losing to the Russians in overtime in the gold medal game at the world junior ice hockey championship earlier that year. But matching the high of winning gold medal in Winnipeg was the absolute depths of despair the Canadian team felt later when it was stripped of its title after goaltender Steve Vezina, a 1994 fourth-round draft pick of the Winnipeg Jets, tested positive for three banned substances -- the steroid Nandrolone, as well as two stimulants, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.
"It's still a sore spot," said Van Ryn, who was dealt to the Leafs from the Florida Panthers for Bryan McCabe. "At the time, we were really ecstatic about winning and we had a really close team. I knew a lot of the guys before I played with them, so we were really, really happy."
Van Ryn, who was one of the youngest players on the squad, said he felt especially saddened for the older guys.
"A lot of those guys on our team were 34 or 35 and had played in the minors their entire lives, so that was a really big thing for them," he said. "A lot of those guys were crying and everything,"
The Canadian team was ordered to return their gold medals, but most of the players, including Van Ryn, refused.
"It's hanging up in my parent's house," he said. "The U.S. team didn't even want them."
As a result of not returning the medals, the Canadian players were temporarily banned from international competition by the IOC.
"We're all reinstated now, but for a few years we couldn't play," said Van Ryn, who loved playing roller hockey, but was forced to give up the sport when he signed with the St. Louis Blues in 2000.
To this day, Van Ryn has trouble believing that a little wisp of a goaltender like Vezina could have tested for all of those banned substances.
"I don't know exactly what he was taking, but I never would have guessed it," he said. "I would never, ever, ever would have guessed it. I was really surprised."
Van Ryn added that he stays in touch with only two players from that roller hockey team -- Nathan Bowen and Dan Price.
"Dan's parents billeted me after that while I was in junior with Sarnia," said Van Ryn, who has strapped on the roller blades just once since 1999. "I'm still close with them. His dad was one of the guys who spearheaded that (roller hockey) team and put it all together."
However, that wasn't his last contact with a roller-hockey team.
"I actually helped out a team in Florida (about three years ago), a younger team that had been struggling," he said. "My wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, it was her brother's team. So I was trying to get brownie points."