Mike Ryan (left) and Josh Levine coached together for four years. Ryan passed away Sunday April 18. (Photo by Cyndi Nightengale)
Coach Mike Ryan gives a high five to youth players. (Photo by Cyndi Nightengale)
Mike Ryan and I coached Jefferson Girls High School Hockey for four years and prior to that, we ran Jefferson Youth summer camps. Mike was a close friend, a mentor to me as I began my coaching career, a brother in the way he devoted his time and support, and an example to all of us in his selfless devotion to serve his community. We made quite the pair together – I am short and wide; Mike is tall and lanky. He liked to hug and as height differentials would dictate, my head barely made it to his chest.
In the raw aftermath of this tragic loss, it is impossible to comprehend and understand what happened. Words simply can’t articulate the pain we feel. We can come closer, however, to illuminating the life Mike led and the ways in which his legacy has reverberated through the lives of so many.
An Inclusive, Thoughtful Captain Who Paved the Way
Mike played on the Jefferson Varsity hockey team for three years, winning a state championship in 1989 and being selected as captain his senior year. As a captain, Mike led a young and talented group. Mike Crowley, future University of Minnesota Gopher and three-time state champion was a freshman on Mike’s senior season team. To this day, Crowley recalls how Ryan looked out for all of the younger players and how his leadership was an example for fifteen of the Jaguars who would ultimately go on to win state championships.
“We had a lot of underclassman on that team,” Crowley told me, “and Mike couldn’t have been a better leader and any more welcoming to all of us.”
Krishna Ramalingam, one of Mike’s close buddies from high school who also managed the team at Mike’s insistence his senior year, noted how Mike made sure everyone was included. “He made sure they were all invited to the Krishna Cup hockey tournament in my basement” – which was usually just for kids in Mike and Krishna’s grade. Crowley and Randy Koeppl, a goalie on the team, ended up beating Mike and Krishna in the final match, a memory they all still share today. Krishna described how intentional Mike was in bringing everyone together: “Mike was like a big brother. He’d make sure that I got Mike Crowley to anything team related since he was just a freshman and couldn’t drive.”
Randy felt similarly: “He was a quiet leader, someone who led by example and always did the right thing on and off the ice.” Randy fondly remembers how Mike took the younger guys out to a AC/DC concert – for many their first concert ever.
After playing hockey and tennis at Jefferson, Mike went on to attend and play hockey at Gustavus. While at Gustavus, Mike was known as a reserved leader who led by example. Justin Pagel, one of his teammates and good buddies, described Mike as a consistent and reliable player – someone the team could always count on to do his job and do it well.
He Coached to Better Everyone Around Him
After graduating from college, Mike quickly returned to Jefferson hockey and coached at a variety of levels. He coached my brother, Ben Levine, a player with an inclination to find himself in the penalty box, in Peewees almost two decades ago. To this day, Mike is one of my brother’s favorite coaches – despite any disagreements they may have had over the referee’s decisions.
Mike has coached every age and every type of player, from those who just enjoy the social aspect to playing hockey to some of the most competitive athletes to come through Jefferson’s ranks. Ryan Siiro played for Coach Ryan as a peewee and went on to play at Princeton University and a stint in the professional ranks after that.
“He would call out lack of effort,” Siiro noted. “He would call out bullying. He would call out selfishness. Coach Ryan was doing more than coaching a hockey team. He was calling us all to a life of hard work, love, and humility. He taught us how to compete and also how to lose.”
As Mike’s assistant coach, I saw his devotion, love for his players, and purposeful approach. In his notebooks, Mike would put down leadership or character principles that he wanted to discuss with the team before games or during the practice week. One of his favorites was about becoming the best version of yourself. Forget the distractions and the negativity, he would say, and focus instead on simply becoming a better version of yourself today than you were the day before.
The lessons that Mike taught our athletes in a quick huddle before practice or in the aftermath of a hard-fought game stay with you forever. Dave Mellang, another Jefferson hockey alum, described the impact that Mike’s life has had on him: “Coach Ryan helped to teach me leadership, accountability, and so much more that I utilize every day in life and coaching and I know that I am a better man thanks to the lessons coach Ryan instilled in me.”
Luci Bianchi, a current college hockey player at the University of St. Thomas, played for Coach Ryan at Jefferson. She remembers how intentional and purposeful he was in looking out for everyone on the team.
"At the beginning of practice when we were skating and shooting around, he’d always tell me and Sophia to go tap so and so on the shins or ask how their day was," she said. "He was always watching out for someone else and making sure they felt welcomed.”
I saw this as well on many occasions with Coach Mike. He would ask me to check in with or provide some words of encouragement to a player.
A Servant Leader in the Community
Mike was actively involved in all facets of youth hockey in Bloomington, donating his time to many efforts throughout the decades. Most recently, Mike spent time helping to shape and grow the Bloomington Girls Hockey Club (BGHC). It’d be impossible to describe all of his efforts. Mike spent countless hours volunteering his time at youth practices, during which he’d always bring a smile, enthusiasm, and a desire to help every skater – no matter their skill level. Renae Spencer, whose efforts were tremendously influential in building BGHC, worked alongside Mike for many years. During that time, whenever Mike noticed a player was missing equipment or needed new skates, Mike would take action.
“Within a couple days,” Renae said, “that player had a new stick, or whatever it was they needed. Sometimes the new equipment would just appear, sometimes it would be a scheduled trip to an equipment store with the player and family.”
Either way, Mike made sure the girls at BGHC were taken care of.
Coach Mike was passionate about getting female coaches into our youth program and the high school ranks. He would reach out to alumni, work on recruiting new coaches, and interview those that were interested in coaching. Mike interviewed and brought on Kara Jones, a coach at BGHC the past four seasons.
“Over the years Mike’s supported and encouraged me in my coaching endeavors and has been such an incredible presence in the BGHC program," Kara said. "He did so much to bridge the gap between the youth and high school program and it made such a difference to our girls.”
After Mike took over the High School coaching job, one of his first efforts was to get the high school girls attending and volunteering at youth practices. He would have the girls assigned to teams and each athlete was required to attend six practices throughout the year. Mike also had player cards of our high school girls made up with the help of our team photographer Cyndi Nightengale and he’d have a few of the girls sign them each game. After each home game, there would be a bunch of 8U BGHC super fans waiting for a player card. They loved it.
Mike’s Legacy Lives On
Coach Mike spoke a lot with our high school girls the past few years about building strong, quality friendships. It was a consistent theme in his chats with the team. Life is about relationships, Mike would counsel. As a program, Mike wanted to win – he was a fierce competitor. But he was also incredibly focused on making sure our athletes were connecting with each other, making memories, and getting together outside the rink.
My father passed away suddenly at the same age as Mike. I’ll never forget how Mike would put his arm around me on occasion at a practice and tell me how proud he knew my father was of me. That’s how caring and thoughtful Mike was. Now as a community, it is our turn to support Mike in the same way, to put our arms around his wife, daughter, and family, to share our memories, to tell them how lucky we are to have had Mike Ryan in our lives, and to let them know how Mike’s lessons, character, and influence remains within us today.
A Go Fund Me Page for the family of Coach Ryan has been set up. https://www.gofundme.com/f/fundraiser-in-memory-of-mike-ryan?utm_campaign=p_cp_url&utm_medium=os&utm_source=customer
Funeral Services for Mike Ryan: https://www.washburn-mcreavy.com/obituaries/Michael-Ryan-29/#!/Obituary