Ellis’ NHL road dotted with lots of puck stops

Monday, July 13, 2009 at 12:00am
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Ryan Ellis’ shot is not perfect, but it’s not due to a lack of practice.

Nothing speaks to those facts better than the garage doors at his family’s home in Freelton, Ontario.

“I remember the first time I met Ryan, we went to talk to his family when we scouted him in midget,” Windsor Spitfires coach Bob Boughner said. “We pulled up in the driveway and they had white garage doors — the things were just black and dented with a hockey net in front. He had been blasting shots at the net as a kid. I remember that distinctly.”

One of just two children — and the only boy — in his family, Ellis has not always had someone with whom to practice. That has never stopped him.

Countless hours alone in the driveway, with the garage as a backstop paid off when the Nashville Predators drafted him in the first round (11th overall) last month. That, in turn, made him one of the most-watched players last week at the team’s annual prospects conditioning camp.

An undersized defenseman (5-foot-9, 173 pounds), it was his oversized offensive numbers that made him an appealing prospect to general manager David Poile and the team’s scouting staff. That ability was honed, in part, by all the time he spent practicing on his own.

“It’s a small town so there’s not too much to do except shoot pucks and hang out with buddies,” Ellis said. “For the most part, it’s shooting pucks. That’s my thing.”

Despite the best efforts of his father, Ellis eventually had to figure out a way to work on his game without exacting any additional toll on the family residence. He found it in a pile of scrap wood in a neighbor’s yard.

“I built a huge wall with my neighbor’s old fence,” he said. “I put it together and shot pucks against there because those garage doors weren’t holding up much longer.

“They’re white doors, they’re double doors with brick in the middle. The net, obviously, goes in the middle of the driveway so the brick’s not protecting much. I think there’s 50 holes in the things, maybe more.”

There’s no way to know for certain how many pucks actually hit the target over the years, but it’s safe to assume there were plenty.

In two seasons of junior hockey for Windsor, Ellis has racked up 152 points, including 37 goals in 120 games. He was seventh in the Ontario Hockey League – first among defensemen – with 89 points in 2008-09.

It’s not just the time that Ellis spent practicing either, it’s the manner in which he did it that made his solo sessions valuable.

The OHL’s Scholastic Player of the Year in 2007-08, Ellis lists science as his favorite subject. In particular he likes to study the way a body works.

As such, he trains with a purpose — work that has enhanced some of the unique physical gifts he comes by naturally.

“He’s got great hand-eye coordination, and even off the ice, what he does before practice to warm up — it’s all these little hand drills,” Boughner said. “He’s got the puck on the handle of the stick and he’s throwing it up in the air. He’s just unbelievable.”

When Ellis does get on the ice, he typically behaves exactly as he did on the driveway.

“You’re looking for him before practice and he’s the only guy on the ice,” Boughner said. “He’s got 100 pucks, a bucket of pucks, and he’s shooting by himself. He goes on early. He loves it. You have to kick him off the ice after practice. Three or four times you have to tell him to get off — especially on game days because he plays so much you want him to get his rest.”

Other than hockey and homework, rest is about the only thing Ellis does. The amount of time he devotes to the other two, he says, leaves little opportunity for anything else.

In addition to making him a first-round draft choice, that approach also earned Ellis the OHL’s Most Outstanding Defenseman award last season, and helped him become the youngest defenseman in eight years named to Canada’s junior national team.

Ellis sees no need to rest on those laurels at this point.

“If you really love it, it’s a great lifestyle,” he said. “Hockey always has been very important to me. School’s very important too. I think maintaining a good average in high school is key — I think for any future it is.

“Hockey has been the main thing for the most part. … I’ve just been working at it and working at it.”

That much is obvious from the front of his family’s house.