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Not even a pandemic could stop the upward trajectory of Ryan Blair.
The 34-year-old has emerged as a rising star in the coaching world, thanks first to a three-year run with the Boston Jr. Rangers of the Junior-A level Eastern Hockey League followed by this current stint with the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays. Blair started as an assistant last year and was elevated to head coach for this season with the departure of Steve Bergin.
Sandwich a one-year run as the director of hockey operations at his alma mater, U-Mass Lowell, between all that, and it’s been a whirlwind for the Ashburn, VA, native since a three-season, five-team run as a player in the ECHL ended in 2014.
The former defenseman seems to be up to the task.
“I’m really fortunate and excited about the opportunity,” Blair told FloHockey.
“I think things change quite a bit, but also stay the same. The responsibilities . . . you’re now the decision-maker and the head leader, where before you were more of a suggestion-maker. So, I’m excited about the opportunity. But I don’t expect too many changes from a personal standpoint. I’ll be the same guy I was last year, and hopefully lead these guys in the right direction.”
As a first-year assistant in 2019-20, Blair oversaw a defense that allowed a league-low 2.37 goals per game, and he was a big part of South Carolina posting a 44-14-3-1 record that was the best in the E before the unexpected shutdown in early March. The fallout from that will certainly have an impact on the Stingrays as well, though it’s mostly a positive one.
With opt-outs by several teams, as well as the entire North Division, it creates a unique free agency situation in which Blair is able to fill in any remaining holes he’d had on a roster that was already a solid mix of returnees and new additions.
“It has an impact on every team and the league as a whole,” Blair said. “There’s a good crop of talented, good people out there that are available now. It’s just a matter of finding their fit. We feel like we’ve got a solid roster, and I’m confident in our group, so I’m not sure if we’re going to add too much here heading into training camp and our first game, but there’s certainly a lot of players out there and it could definitely shake up the league a little bit.”
While the league may see some changes going forward, the Stingrays are looking to largely stay the course, which is to be expected of a franchise that incredibly hasn’t missed the playoffs since 2007.
Is there pressure on Blair to be able to step in and maintain that level of excellence right away, even in such unique circumstances?
“I think there definitely is,” he said through a dry chuckle.
“We talked about it last year as the year was going on, and we had a great team and a great locker room, that having that kind of pressure is really a privilege. If we all can just kind of use that pressure and turn it into a positive, attack each day and try to win the day, I think it isn’t going to weigh on you as much as if you were feeling that pressure in a negative way. But, I definitely think there is (pressure). Steve Bergin did an unbelievable job here last year, and I learned a ton from him. So, there’s pressure where he and we left off, but I look forward to that challenge.”
Mike Ashmore has 17 years of experience covering professional and college sports. You can follow him on all social media channels at @mashmore98.