It is just another school day in Ithaca and Ryan O’Byrne ’07 is sitting in class listening to a lecture on strategic management. Like many Cornell students, O’Byrne is unsure of what lies in store for him after he graduates. But, unlike many Cornell students, O’Byrne already has a career behind him: 10 years of playing professional hockey.
Flashback to six years earlier and O’Byrne is sitting in a room similar to a classroom, but which serves a different purpose. On Nov. 11, 2010, while playing for the Montreal Canadiens and preparing for a highly anticipated rivalry game against the Boston Bruins, O’Byrne went through his typical pregame ritual, reading the newspaper at his locker room stall to loosen up before the game.
Only appearing in three of 15 possible games that season, O’Byrne was not expecting to see the ice in Boston, but what happened next completely changed his way of life.
As the team prepared for one of its biggest games of the season, O’Byrne received a phone call from Pierre Gauthier, then the general manager of the Canadiens. Gauthier told O’Byrne that he had been traded to the Colorado Avalanche, a move that he had been anticipating.
“I was a healthy scratch for about a month [before being traded] and it was really tough,” he said. “I walked into coach’s office one day and … we had a good talk and I kind of insinuated that maybe it would be a good time for me to move on.”
Although it was not the only time O’Byrne was traded, his departure to the Avalanche has become emblematic of his hectic life as a whole. Ever since he first picked up a pair of skates at the age of four, his goal was to make it to the NHL. But even O’Byrne knew that a backup plan would be necessary with such an ambitious dream.
And upon returning to Cornell, he’s certainly found a much more predictable lifestyle than the uncertainty of professional sports.
“[At Cornell I am] not always on the go [and do] not have that thought in the back of my head that maybe I’ll get traded today, or I had a bad game last night maybe I’ll get sent down. Here they can’t send me down,” he joked. “So it’s been really rewarding being back here.”
What Once Was
O’Byrne’s path to the NHL started 13 years ago when he was drafted in the third round of the 2003 NHL entry-level draft by the Canadiens. For the next three years, O’Byrne played hockey for Cornell — a common move for young drafted players hoping to someday make it to the NHL.
As a player for Cornell, O’Byrne quickly rose to become a dominant force on the blueline that led Cornell to two ECAC championship appearances — winning one — and two showing in the NCAA tournament. Although O’Byrne was not gifted with the silky hands or deadly accurate shot of some of his teammates and opponents, head coach Mike Schafer ’86 lauded his former player for other aspects of his play.
“He really grew as a player, but he came in with all the necessary attributes — the size and the skating for his size,” Schafer reminisced. “As he was here he had some inconsistencies like everybody else does, but he started getting through those. We had a real good lineup, but as I said he was a big part of that. With his skating ability, he could play all night long.”
O’Byrne decided to forgo his senior year at Cornell when he was offered a contract to play for the Canadiens’ minor league farm team. He spent one year playing for the Hamilton Bulldogs — winning the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup championship that year — before getting the nod to play in the big leagues in 2007.
When O’Byrne decided to sign his contract, Schafer knew he was losing one of his biggest leaders both on and off the ice. Apart from his playing ability, O’Byrne was named an alternate captain as a junior, meaning a captaincy was very plausible the next year; his lost senior year.
Losing an emerging college athlete, Schafer said O’Byrne was one of the most “NHL-ready” players he has seen to come through the program in his 22-year tenure at the helm of Cornell men’s hockey.
“I think that for him personally it was a good decision [to go pro] because I think with all those attributes he had, he was ready for the next level and that game,” Schafer said, “I think a lot of guys aren’t ready, but I think he’s the only guy that I’ve had that left early and made the NHL within a year.”
O’Byrne spent six seasons playing in the NHL for three teams before taking his talents to international leagues and eventually retiring due to injuries, combined with general wear and tear. O’Byrne made the choice at age 31 to leave professional hockey with his future in mind.
“I [was] at a point now where it’s like I can still enjoy activities — I can go hiking or play hockey on Sundays,” he said, “but maybe if I played for another four years I would have been in a position where I have to have another two or three surgeries. So if I step away now then can still enjoy being active and healthy.”
An Outspoken Advocate
After making the choice to leave a sport he had always loved, O’Byrne had to find something to fill the void practices, games and constant flights to different cities used to fill.
While O’Byrne has been lucky enough to locate his path so quickly — choosing to finish his degree to pursue a second career — other retired athletes have not been quite so fortunate.
In 2011, then-Nashville Predator Wade Belak retired from professional hockey after 14 years in the game when he was demoted to the AHL and sustained a pelvis injury. Just five months later, after a battle with depression, he committed suicide in a Toronto apartment.
Following Belak’s death, O’Byrne was one of the players at the forefront of the mental health discussion within the league.
“I think this will be a big eye-opener for everybody that mental illness isn’t something to be ashamed about,” he told CTV News in 2011. “If you’re feeling down for whatever reason, just talk about it with somebody.”
According to HELIX magazine — a science publication from Northwestern University — athletes who step away from their game have a clear tendency to fall into this pattern of depression. O’Byrne said this was a problem he tackled from the very beginning.
“The best advice I’ve heard is that once you start in the NHL you start thinking about what you’re going to do afterwards right away so you get prepared for that transition,” he continued to tell CTV News.
And that’s exactly what he did.
Familiar Face in a Familiar Place
O’Byrne’s days of dealing out bruising hits and trading punches is now in the past. Over the summer, the British Columbia native announced he would return to Ithaca to finish what he started in the fall of 2003: earning a Cornell degree.
“The first couple of weeks were definitely a transition period,” he said. “Leading up to the coming back there were a lot of thoughts and how it was going to work, so not being in a school setting for 10 years it is definitely interesting. After a couple of weeks, I finally started to get into my groove.”
Despite the drastic change of pace, O’Byrne said he welcomes the opportunity to take a step back and resettle his life back down.
“Playing professional hockey every weekend you’re on the road and that definitely wore on me,” he said. “I definitely enjoy being back at Cornell, being situated and waking up and working towards something.”
Many people were intrigued by the news that a former NHL player was returning to Cornell to finish his degree, and while he is excited to be back on his old stomping grounds, O’Byrne knows that his remaining time here is work-oriented. As much as he would love to help out with the current team, school work is his number one priority.
“I’m involved a little bit [with the team], but I am taking 19 credits this semester, so I have a heavy workload — definitely focusing a lot on studies,” O’Byrne said, who currently has a “kind of consulting role” on the team.
Like any freshman adjusting to Cornell, it took O’Byrne time to get fully reaccustomed to the pressures of college life.
“Let’s not kid yourself, the first week is tough,” O’Byrne said. “I called my family after the first week and was like, ‘Whoa, that was nuts.’ Every week got easier and easier.”
Compared to most Cornellians, O’Byrne has been privy to an opportunity most others never experience: he took a leave of absence for several years, developed as an adult and then returned to finish his degree with a new outlook on life.
In many ways, O’Byrne believes maturing during his time as a professional athlete has allowed him adjust his world view and take full advantage of what Cornell has to offer now that he has a second chance.
“I think as you come back as a mature student you really appreciate Cornell for what it is,” he said. “Maybe when I was younger I didn’t appreciate it enough. Not only the schooling but the people, institution, all the services that are offered, not just actual teaching but, for example, career services or different groups that people can be a part of to help them prepare for their careers. You really realize what a great institution this is.”
At the end of the day, O’Byrne has chosen the path less travelled in receiving his degree. His decision to leave the University in the first place was one that kept him up for weeks, but in hindsight, he said, “I don’t have a lot of regrets to tell you the truth.”
Now that he has a firmer grasp on his future, O’Byrne is doing his part to help Cornell hockey’s present make the most of their few years on the hill and prepare themselves for life after hockey.
“I tell the [guys on the team] this but work hard, be a great teammate, do everything asked of you, stay out of trouble and listen to your coaches and you’ll be successful,” he said. “Those staples that got me to where I was I want to kind of pass on to the guys.”
O’Byrne has just weeks before he graduates in the winter and begins his next venture in an already eventful life. As he prepares to leave Cornell for the second time, he will look back on his two stints as a student fondly, knowing some of his most memorable moments were made in Ithaca.
“It’s kind of funny because I was here from 2003 to 2006 and I have some great memories here,” O’Byrne said. “I’m building new memories here, but all the memories that I have are with people that aren’t here anymore, so it’s been kind of fun on that end.”