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Sports

In a League of His Own

Men’s hockey defenseman Ruikka a “special specimen”

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Talk to almost anyone who knows him and they’ll tell you that Ryan Ruikka is in a league of his own when it comes to scholar-athletes. The fifth-year hockey player not only earned a bachelor’s and a master’s in the College of Arts & Sciences BA/MA Program in Economics last May, but also received the department’s College Prize for Excellence.

In addition, Ruikka (CAS’12, GRS’12, MET’13) has been named to the Hockey East All-Academic Team each of his first four years at BU. And he’s currently working towards a second master’s degree, taking courses in corporate finance, accounting, and case studies of corporate finance. Along the way, he’s had to overcome a series of serious physical injuries that nearly sidelined his hockey career.

How does the 24-year-old defenseman balance the rigors of dual degrees and graduate studies and the demands of the ice? Ruikka says it’s all about time management and knowing how to prioritize and stay focused. He doesn’t have a Facebook page, doesn’t play video games, and doesn’t watch much television.

“One day I’m going to have to hang up my skates and use my degree,” Ruikka says, clutching a water bottle after a recent practice. “I want to take advantage of it when I’m here now and not have to come back to school when I’m a lot older. I’m already old enough, I think, so I might as well get as much school in as I can.”

Ruikka grew up in Toledo, Ohio, playing soccer, not hockey. It wasn’t until after he and his family moved to Michigan that he picked up hockey as a sixth-grader, relatively late by hockey-playing standards.

“It’s actually kind of funny,” he says. The son of actor Jeff Daniels (Dumb and Dumber, The Squid and the Whale) was who “actually got me into it. He’s from my hometown, so we always used to play pond hockey at their house. When I was in Ohio, I didn’t even know of the sport, but I came up to Michigan and that’s what everyone did.”

After discovering the game, Ruikka played several years in a youth hockey league before going on to play for his high school team. There he honed his skills and practiced in the USA Hockey National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor. Soon, he was drafted into the United States Hockey League (USHL), the top junior hockey league in the country, bouncing around from Lincoln, Nebr., to Des Moines, Iowa, before ending up in Wayne, N.J. There he won a championship playing for the Jersey Hitmen, a USHL Tier III Junior Ace hockey team.

Ruikka was courted by numerous colleges. Former Terrier assistant coach David Quinn (currently an assistant coach with the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche) was the first to recruit him, and other colleges soon followed suit. Ultimately, he says, he narrowed his choices down to BU and Michigan State.

“The main reason I decided to come here was I wanted to go to a school that was academically challenging and would push me,” Ruikka says. “I also wanted to play with the best kids I could play with to push me to be a better player, even if I wasn’t going to get as much ice time as I might going to some other school. You learn a lot just by watching and seeing what those kids do.”

Boston University BU terriers, mens hockey, Hockey East semi finals, TD Garden in Boston Massachusetts, Ryan Ruikka

As the top scholar-athlete on the men’s hockey team, Ruikka has been awarded the Regina Eilberg Scholarship for the past three years. Photo by Steve Babineau

Battling through injuries

As a young hockey player, Ruikka managed to escape serious injury, but that changed once he arrived at BU. Before the 2008–2009 season’s official practices had even begun, Ruikka collided with Hobey Baker Award–winner Matt Gilroy (CAS’09), and an internal bruise sidelined him for several weeks. Soon after returning to the ice, he fractured his shoulder blade, knocking him out for the entire season and forcing him to redshirt the year, making him eligible to play a fifth year.

The following season, Ruikka hoped to solidify a defense that had lost two high-end players in Gilroy and Brian Strait (CAS’10). However, just days into testing for the season, Ruikka tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, thus blowing another year as well as his knee. The loss was a devastating disappointment, but was eased by a reminder from head coach Jack Parker (SMG’68, Hon.’97).

“Coach Parker came up to me and said, ‘You’re in a better situation than Travis,’” Ruikka says, referring to hockey player Travis Roy (COM’00), who was paralyzed when he hit the boards just 11 seconds into his first BU hockey game. “That really put things in perspective. It makes you work hard, get back out there, and makes you appreciative of what you have.”

Finally, in fall 2010, Ruikka made his long-delayed college debut in the Terriers’ season opener against Wisconsin. He remained healthy throughout the year, playing in 34 games and registering seven points. After missing the first few games of last season with another injury, he was able to resume playing, tallying five assists. This year, he’s played in all but one game. “Things have been good, knock on wood,” Ruikka says cautiously.

Boston University BU mens hockey, 2008 2009 national championship

Ruikka is the lone player left from the Terriers 2008–2009 National Championship team. Photo by Eric Classen

During his Terrier career Ruikka has witnessed both highs (a National Championship title in 2009) and lows (last season’s alleged sexual assaults by two other players), but throughout, his commitment to the sport has remained unwavering.

The coaching staff took notice and rewarded Ruikka for his hard work, naming him an assistant captain for the current season. Parker says it was “an easy decision,” and that he is a role model for other players.

“Ryan is a shining example of what college athletics should be all about,” Parker says. “It’s possible for him to be as good as he is hockey-wise, and comparatively speaking, be as good as anyone else in school, and all those other kids don’t have a full-time job like he does. He’s a pretty good example of what you want around you.”

Teammates concur. “Ryan’s a special specimen,” Terrier defenseman Sean Escobedo (SMG’13) says. “There’s not too many like him out there. He’s a guy that definitely does everything the right way, taking care of his business, whether it’s in the classroom or around the rink. He’s just a guy you can always look up to and count on to do the right thing. He’s a real special guy for this team.”

“He’s almost like a father figure,” says Sahir Gill (CGS’12, SHA’14). “He’s a fifth-year now, an older guy. He’s so smart. He’s so composed with everything. He comes here every day, does his job, and off the ice, he’s the kind of guy you can go to for advice. Especially for the younger guys, he’s someone you can look up to.”

As for the future, when he leaves BU, Ruikka says, he’s not ready to hang up his skates just yet (he hopes to finish his current degree by summer’s end).

“I’m going to keep trying to play hockey. I’m thinking about going over to Europe. I think that’d be a really neat experience, because I’ve never been overseas. It’d be fun to travel a little and see some new country and get to keep playing hockey,” says Ruikka. “That’s the best part, not having to get a real job, as they say.”

Beyond winning a National Championship, the memory that Ruikka says he cherishes most from his years at BU is last spring’s Commencement.

“I would say graduation, just seeing my mom’s face and how proud she was. My parents have supported me financially so I’d be able to play here and come to school here. I’m very appreciative of that. Other than that, I’ve met some great teachers, some great people that work here. I’ve just made a ton of relationships I’ll never forget.”

The BU men’s hockey team takes on the Boston College Eagles tonight, Friday, November 30, at 7:30 p.m. at Agganis Arena, 925 Commonwealth Ave. Tonight’s game will be televised live on NBC Sports Network (Channel 865 for local viewers with Comcast service).

The Terriers next home game will take place Saturday, December 8, at 8:00 p.m. at Agganis Arena, 925 Commonwealth Ave. when they host the University of Maine Black Bears. Tickets are $28 for the general public, $19 for BU students, faculty, and staff, and free with a sports pass.

Paul Ryan can be reached at pryan15@bu.edu.

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