By Mike Loftus | The Patriot Ledger
Not ready to stop playing when Babson College was upset in its conference tournament, Ryan McDougall explored every possible option until he found an opportunity with the Southern Professional Hockey League's Pensacola Ice Flyers.
Sometimes, opportunity knocks.
Sometimes, a person has to knock until opportunity answers.
Ryan McDougall was willing to scrape his knuckles, blister his thumbs, even take a shot to the chin to find an opportunity. That's why he can put "Professional Hockey Player" on his resume, along with the business administration degree he just earned at Babson College.
McDougall, a defenseman from Milton, wasn't ready to stop playing hockey when the 18-5-2 Beavers were upset by 7-15-3 Southern Maine in the New England Hockey Conference quarterfinals on Feb. 22. He did some research, made some calls, was told thanks, but no thanks, and made some more calls.
Before February was finished, McDougall was a member of the Southern Professional Hockey League's Pensacola (Florida) Ice Flyers, and he'd have played more than five games if the coronavirus pandemic hadn't led the league to cancel the remainder of the season on March 15.
No family advisor. No agent. No references, even. All McDougall had was a record of consistent improvement over four years at Babson, the belief that he was good enough to play professionally, and the willingness to keep knocking until he was sure every door and window of opportunity was closed.
"I was on my own, which is sort of an odd way to go about turning professional," said McDougall, 23, a Dexter Southfield product who scored more points (19) in 26 games as a Babson senior than the 18 he produced over 66 games in his first three seasons. "I just knew I wanted to play right away, jump right in with a team if I could."
McDougall aimed first for the Double-A level ECHL, "but some of those teams were having players sent down from the AHL (a trickle-down effect from the NHL's Feb. 24 trade deadline, which left many AHL affiliates overstocked), and there weren't many open positions," he said. "So I started to focus on the SPHL."
McDougall had to be persistent there, too, "because some teams said they were going to wait another week and see what happened. That was when doors felt like they were kind of closing."
On Feb. 26, however, McDougall reached Ice Flyers coach Rod Aldoff, who was in a bit of a bind.
"They had some injuries on the defensive end and were a little short on guys," McDougall said, "so I was finally at the right place at the right time."
″(Aldoff) said that if I could meet the team in Peoria (Illinois), they'd like to bring me in and sign me to an ATO (Amateur Tryout)," McDougall said. "I told him I just had to ask my dad if I could book a flight.
"My dad (Mike, who played four seasons at Northeastern University in the 1980s) told me to go ahead, so I called back and said 'Coach, I'll meet you in Peoria.' It was a crazy 24 hours."
McDougall didn't stop to analyze the situation.
"I'm not sure if (Aldoff) called anyone about me or not," he said. "All I knew was that I was going to be given an opportunity, and I wanted to make the most of it."
"They just kind of threw me into it," said McDougall, who wore a half-shield for the first time after an entire amateur career protected by a full face cage. "I was the new guy entering their system ... so I sort of just did as I was told."
McDougall happily agreed to accompany the team back to Pensacola to sign a second ATO -- and no, neither the trip nor the living arrangements contained scenes straight out of "Slapshot."
"It was my first time on a sleeper bus," McDougall said. "It was a different experience, definitely, and a long ride -- 13 hours, I think. But there are bunks, couches, guys watching TV, guys playing cards. No rookie treatment or anything like that. Everyone sort of respects everyone."
Once back in Pensacola, McDougall moved into a condo with three teammates, went through his first full practices, and got into three more games -- all against the Fayetteville Marksmen at Pensacola Bay Center. Playing against a first-place team for the second weekend in a row (Fayetteville and Peoria were tied atop the SPHL at 71 points when the season was shut down), McDougall helped the Ice Flyers earn a 1-1-1 split, and had his best game in a 7-2 win on March 7: Plus-2, with three shots on goal.
"Compared to college, it's a completely different game," he said. "It's a lot cleaner, from the aspect that everything's tape to tape. You're a professional, so it's expected of you to bring that level of play each day. Everyone's a good player.
"I thought I played well. No points (although plus-1 with eight shots), but ... it was a lot of fun. We went 3-1-1 in the five games I played, so it was nice to win."
It was hard for McDougall to see teammates who had been in Pensacola all year pack up and head home when the SPHL canceled the remainder of the season.
"For some guys in that locker room, that was their career coming to an end," he said. "It was a difficult way for some guys to go out, and for the whole team to end their season. You're in a good position in the standings (fourth place, one point out of third), and you think you have a shot at a trophy at the end of the year.
"It was the right decision to make, but still, a tough pill to swallow."
McDougall didn't return to Milton with a sour taste in his mouth, though.
"Just coming out of college, knowing you want to make that next step, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said McDougall, who plans to look for another contract on his own this off-season. "It was good to get in front of a coach and a team, and to see what the future holds."
It's hard not to reflect on the past, though.
"You go from your college season ending to turning professional to your season getting cancelled to finishing college in your basement," he said. "It's definitely been interesting."