By Evan Boudreau
Twelve years might seem like a long time ago to most people. For Ryan Milanovic, it feels just like yesterday.
You see, while many of us were fresh out of elementary school, he was lined up along the blueline with his teammates proudly butchering our national anthem as a member of the gold-medal winning 1999 World Junior Championship team.
Those memories don’t fade with time.
For most kids, playing in the NHL is a pleasant daydream, but for the 29-year-old Milanovic it is a bittersweet memory. Not because he didn’t make it, but because he came so tantalizingly close before having his childhood dream ripped away from him.
The lifelong rink rat reached dizzying heights in his hockey career — even getting drafted into the NHL — before a chronic back condition forced him to leave his professional aspirations behind forever.
Flash back ten years and the last thing Milanovic would likely imagine himself as would be a rookie on the Ryerson men’s hockey team. But flash forward and here he is, working towards a graduate degree in nutrition and food science while trying to rekindle his love for the game he thought he would be playing for a living.
As a young boy growing up just around the corner from the rink in Ajax, Ont., Milanovic was constantly on the ice practicing and abusing his hockey sticks on the driveway.
“I dedicated my entire childhood to hockey. I don’t ever remember not playing hockey, it was a life style,” he said.
The talented teenager’s package of size, strength, and skill was too good to go unnoticed. He quickly caught the eye of scouts from the Kitchener Rangers. They wanted him in the OHL despite being an underaged player. Milanovic graciously accepted the offer.
“I had to make a decision between hockey and football and a lot of people thought I should have picked football, but I really wanted hockey,” he said.
But even the best talents need time to adjust their game, and Milanovic was no exception. During his first full season with the Kitchener Rangers, his point totals took a precipitous drop. Soon bone-crunching hits and ferocious fights replaced goals and assists. But the penalty minutes came with a price. Though he had gained a reputation in the league, he found it difficult to develop his offensive skills. But scouts saw the potential.
The so-called diamond-in-the-rough was invited to the 1998 NHL Entry Draft and was selected 165th overall as the Boston Bruins sixth-round pick. That year he went to their training camp, and though he didn’t play any games for them, just being there was enough to inspire him.
“I was drafted on potential,” said Milanovic. “It gave me something to really work towards. It gave me a real opportunity.”
Like a child again, hockey was everything. But years of physical wear-and-tear left a nagging impact on Milanovic’s body that ran deeper than the occasional row of stitches across his face. After consulting a physician, he was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, which accelerates the natural wearing down of the spine. Surgery was recommended.
Seeing his boyhood dream nearing completion, Milanovic chose to forego the surgery. He split his third OHL season between the Kitchener Rangers and the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds. Little did he know, they would be the last competitive games he would play.
Eventually, the pain was too much for Milanovic to bear and he grudgingly went in for the surgery. A year later, there was still no improvement.
“I tried everything from acupuncture to different medication to Yoga,” he said. “Eventually, I just broke down and said ‘that’s it, I’m done.’”
For the next decade, he blocked out hockey completely. He avoided the rink like the plague. He didn’t pay attention to the NHL at all. He forgot about all the connections with the players he’d known since childhood.
For a long time, it seemed like hockey would never again be a part of Milanovic’s life, but four years later he laced up his skates to help his brother’s hockey team as an assistant coach.
“They asked me the first time and I said no. Then they asked me again I said I’d come out to one practice and then I was hooked,” he said.
From there he began a new career as an instructor with the Future Stars program, a side career he still continues as a Ryerson student-athlete. Though education is his focus now, hockey once again has a place in his life. Finally, he can live with the cruel twist of fate that he has been dealt.
That’s the thing about childhood dreams: no matter how grown up you become, they’ll always be a part of you.
Photo courtesy of Ryan Milanovic