Ryan Bednard had barely begun grade school when he was first invited to the pond.
Growing up, Bednard was part of an extended hockey family in Macomb County, Michigan. His older brother Shane and their cousins, among others, gathered as often as possible at a frozen pond near their homes to engage in impromptu hockey games.
The young Bednard was eager to participate in this practice of the sport in arguably its purest form, but the older ones had a designated place for him on the ice.
“They usually stuck me at goalie, but I was very happy just being out there with my brother, cousins and friends playing hockey outdoors like that,” Bednard recalled. “From there, I decided to stick with playing goaltender because I grew to love the challenge, competition and pressure that comes with it—very rewarding. Plus, you are always on the ice.”
When it came to an organized setting, Bedard actually began playing roller hockey first before joining his first ice hockey team at about age 7. He’s been guarding goals ever since.
“Things ended up working out for me,” he said.
Indeed, they have.
Bednard, now a Bowling Green junior, is among the nation’s best netminders.
He leads the WCHA and is fifth in the nation with a 1.85 goals-against average. Bednard’s saves percentage (.925) is second in the conference and 12th in the country while his winning percentage (.700, 13-5-2) is third in the WCHA and tied for 11th in the nation.
Bednard, taken by the Florida Panthers in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, is on pace to eclipse Bowling Green’s single-season gaa record of 1.91 set by Chris Nell in 2015-16.
Only Quinnipiac’s Andrew Shortridge and Ohio State’s Tommy Nappier are also among the NCAA Division I top 12 in gaa, saves percentage and winning percentage.
“With his overall approach to the game combined with how he wraps himself in a lifestyle that is conducive to success, Ryan is like a professional at the college level,” Bowling Green coach Chris Bergeron said. “When he started here, Ryan's gaps between his good days and bad days could be wide, but now they are much smaller as he has done all the work on and off the ice and during the season and offseason to become a really consistent performer. You are seeing the results.”
Bednard, one of 20 goalies on the watch list for the Mike Richter Award, is enjoying his finest season thus far with the Falcons. He has improved from a 2.25 gaa, .916 saves percentage and .630 winning percentage (15-8-4) last season.
Typical of Bednard’s personality, he is quick to credit teammates for his improvement.
“The team has improved over last year, especially at the defensive end,” said Bednard, who established himself as the team’s No. 1 goalie two months into last season. “I have to give a lot of credit to the guys playing in front of me, who are stepping up. Also, this is my third year and I’ve taken everything I’ve learned so far and used it to improve. Using video to break down my play also helps.”
The entire Bowling Green defense, including backup goaltender Eric Dop, have stepped up their play and more.
In fact, the Falcons boast the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense, giving up just 1.83 goals a game, down from 2.44 a year ago. They are also fourth in penalty-kill percentage (.876), up from .824 last season.
Bergeron is quick to point out that all the initiative Bednard takes to elevate his game must not be overlooked.
“It’s hard to predict how a good a kid is going to be at this level because so much does depend on their desire to put in the work, and Ryan has made a great commitment to doing everything he needs to away from the rink,” Bergeron said. “Also, he is a big guy (6-foot-5, 205 pounds) and uses that to his advantage and stays really calm. Ryan does not get rattled or let his emotions run too high or too low. He is putting it all together now and becoming the player we thought he could be.”
No other starting DI goaltender is taller than Bednard, although Boston University's Jake Oettinger is also 6-foot-5.
“I’ve learned how to use size to my advantage to cut off net,” he said. “I’ve heard the knock on bigger goalies is their skating ability, but I’ve worked to be an efficient skater. Overall, I’ve stayed at Bowling Green during the summers, hitting the ice three times a week and working with a trainer. I’ve always looked for anything that can give me an advantage.”
Bednard is unbeaten (5-0-1) against teams currently ranked in U.S. College Hockey's Top 20 poll, including a sweep of sixth-ranked WCHA leader Minnesota State in December during which he allowed just two goals in two games. The Mavericks entered the series averaging 4.4 goals per game.
“I hope my best moment of the season is yet to come, but sweeping a team like Minnesota State was pretty special,” he said.
As a result of that performance and others, Bednard was named WCHA Goaltender of the Month. He posted a 3-0-1 record, giving up just seven goals and making 93 saves.
Bednard also earned the October award after going 5-0-1 with a 1.48 gaa and .940 saves percentage. He has been named WCHA Goaltender of the Week twice this season, as well.
The healthy competition between Bednard and Dop has also played a role in his success. They form one of the country's best goaltending tandems. Dop, a sophomore, has gone 5-3-1 this season, including three shutouts, with a 2.07 gaa and .919 saves percentage.
“Eric is a great goalie and we are pretty good friends off the ice,” Bednard said. “In practice, we help each other improve and bring out the best in each other.”
The pair actually platooned to start last season following the graduation of Nell, who holds Bowling Green's career records for gaa (2.07), saves percentage (.922) and shutouts (11).
Bednard became the team’s No. 1 goalie in December, but Dop was still named to the WCHA All-Rookie team.
“I agree they make each other better and have developed a healthy rivalry during mini-games in practice,” Bergeron said. “They also room together on the road and have a good bond. They are both wired for success.”
Ryan and his older brother Shane Bednard are in their third and final season as Bowling Green teammates. Shane, a senior forward, committed to the Falcons in February 2014 followed by Ryan eight months later.
“This is only time we’ve been teammates, so it’s been pretty special,” Ryan said. “It helps being able to be there for each other and talk about what’s going on with hockey and other things in life. We were not planning to play college hockey together, but it worked out.”
Just eight months after committing to Bowling Green, the Panthers drafted Bednard in the seventh round. He was the sixth American goaltender taken.
“Going into that draft, I figured there was a 50/50 chance I’d be taken,” Bednard said. “I tried to keep up with what was going in, but didn’t know I was drafted until I started getting a bunch of texts on my phone congratulating me. It was just a great thing to share with my family.”
Bednard has already been to three development camps with the Panthers and will be attending a fourth this summer.
“Those are such great opportunities to learn because you are surrounded by so many great players and coaches,” Bednard said. “You get a good sense of what it will take to play at that level one day.”
Bowling Green is 18-8-3 overall and second in the WCHA with 43 points (13-7-2) heading into this weekend’s home series against Alaska Fairbanks. The Falcons, 16th in the latest U.S. College Hockey Poll, trail first-place Minnesota State by nine points with six regular-season games remaining.
Bowling Green, which should win at least 21 games for the fifth straight season, is seeking its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1990. A field of 16 teams will make the tournament and the Falcons are 14th in the latest Pairwise rankings which mimics the criteria used by the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
“It’s hard to talk about our chances of making the tournament because we are on a bit of downslide by going 5-5 in our last 10 games, but the opportunity is there and our guys are working hard towards it,” Bergeron said. “It’s hard to quantify what making the tournament after so long would mean to our program and our fanbase. They are hungry for it, but it's not easy to get there.”
Regardless of how this season concludes, Bergeron is thankful Bednard will be anchoring the Falcons for one more year.
His 2.15 career gaa and .916 saves percentage rank second in program history behind Nell, whom he backed up as a freshman. Bednard is already tied for fourth on Bowling Green's all-time list with six shutouts. His career record is 31-16-6.
“Ryan has NHL aspirations and with his athleticism and skill-set, the sky’s the limit on what Ryan can achieve,” Bergeron said. “He needs to continue to work hard to develop his talent and I know he will. Ryan has that burning desire to always be the best player on the ice.”
Mark Spezia is a freelance writer based in Lapeer, Michigan, whose work has been featured in the Detroit Free Press, Hour Detroit Magazine, ESPNW.com, and Flint, Michigan-based My City Magazine. He is a former sports writer for the Flint Journal and Daily Mining Gazette in Houghton, Michigan. He also served as sports editor of the Lapeer (Michigan) County Press.