A Minnesota native, it was only natural that Ryan Chesley would end up on skates. It seems that all of the Gopher state’s residents are born with hockey in their blood. And aside from his stay at the National Team Development Program in Michigan, the 17-year-old blueliner was groomed to play in his home state.
“Minnesota is a huge hockey area and my dad got me skating when I was about six years old and I started playing when I was seven,” Chesley explained. “I’ve loved it ever since, haven’t stopped.”
While his dad, Steve, coached Ryan during some of his youth seasons, it didn’t take long for the young skater to excel. He was looking for a bigger challenge than playing for his hometown association in Mahtomedi. At age 14, Chesley began his tenure at the famed Shattuck St. Mary’s prep school about an hour away from his hometown. He credits his three seasons there for playing a critical role in his development and maturation processes.
"I learned a lot at Shattuck. It's a prep school, so living away from home and maturing as a young kid helped me grow as a person," said Chesley. "On the ice, the coaches are great. I played "up" my first year there, so I was playing against older guys. It was tough, but really helped me grow."
Chesley grew enough to be selected as part of the U.S. National Under-17 Team heading into the 2020-21 season. While he knew amidst the COVID pandemic that international tournaments were likely not going to be in play for the U17s this past season, he did get a little taste of wearing the red, white and blue at the 2020 Winter Youth Olympics in Lausanne, Switzerland.
In Europe, Chesley played with 13 other players who go on to be selected to the NTDP. The team finished in second place, taking home a silver medal.
"It was awesome, it was a really fun experience overall," said Chesley. "And it was great to get to know those guys beforehand. A lot of us ended up on the team [at the NTDP]. I think that experience will help for next season, knowing how the traveling plays out and adapting to time changes and things like that.
When the crew reconvened in Plymouth to start their NTDP careers, it was back to work. Without the international play, Chesley and the U17s were gearing up to play against bigger, older players in the USHL season. One early-season moment stuck out as a favorite for the defenseman.
“Our first USHL win, that was awesome with the guys,” he remembered about a 4-2 win in Dubuque. “After the game we were all hyped up and it was great celebrating with them.”
During the COVID-adjusted season, roster changes were all too frequent between the U17 and U18 squads. In January, Chesley got his first opportunity to suit up with the older team, recording an assist in a 7-2 win over Muskegon. But it was just a quick taste as he was returned to his original team.
It was in March when Ryan was afforded another opportunity, this time stringing together five games with the U18s to showcase himself as a candidate for the U18 World Championship roster in April. Getting a chance to skate, practice and play with the U18s was a huge benefit in his development.
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"It was really good because those guys are older, more mature. It was good to be around them, learn from them and play with them. They're a really good team and it was fun to get an opportunity to play with them."
What wasn’t as fun for Chesley was when the roster for that tournament was announced: it didn’t include the Minnesota native.
"At first, it was really tough. I was really bummed out," said Chesley. "But I said, 'Hey, there's nothing I can do about it. I just have to go back with my team and do the best I can and try to prove myself more."
But just as the season was unpredictable as ever, that didn't stop when the team was down in Texas. Three players on the original lineup for Team USA were deemed unfit to play in the tournament, and replacements were needed. Chesley's name was called on as one of seven underage players for the Americans.
It didn't take long to make his presence felt as Chesley netted the team's first official goal of the tournament against Russia, a one-timer from the top of the right circle to take an early 1-0 lead.
"That first goal was unbelievable. I didn't play too much in that game, but that was my first shift, first shot and it was just crazy. It gave me chills."
Team USA went on to finish with a 1-2-1-1 record at U18 Worlds, falling to Sweden in the quarterfinals to end its season. While not the outcome anybody wanted, Chesley is trying to use the experience as a learning opportunity to come back more prepared for next season.
"I think it was really good for a lot of our [U17] guys to be up with them because we got to see the pain of how it felt when it ended and we don't want to go through that again. We want our ending to be different."
Chesley and the rest of the underagers returned home from the tournament to take part in the May training period, focusing on developing physically, getting bigger and stronger. that remains his focus throughout the rest of the summer, in addition to skill sessions and working on smaller details heading into next season.
With a big U18 year ahead for Chesley, home will be calling his name after. Ryan committed to the University of Minnesota during this past year and will get to play collegiately for coach Motzko and the Golden Gophers.
"The facilities, coaches, team, the culture and they were really good this year, ranked #1 for some time during the season," he explained as reasons for his choice. "I just think it's the right fit for me."
Here's to hoping Michigan can capture some of Chesley's success before he returns home once again. You can take the player out of Minnesota, but you can't take Minnesota out of him.