Friday, May 20, 2011


My senior season at Colgate University, I scrawled with permanent marker on my blocker glove the initials "LB." It stood for Larry Baker. As in my dad, who by then was disabled quite severely by diabetes and a degenerative neurological condition that came with it.

I knew it likely would be my final season of competitive hockey and so I dedicated the season to my father to remind me and him of how important he was to getting me as far as Division I college hockey. It made every moment even more inspired than it already was knowing that it was a march to the end of a successful career.

So it was with bittersweet remembrance that I discovered that Tampa Bay goalie Dwayne Roloson has been honoring someone's initials on his mask this season. If you look closely there is a shamrock embedded with the letters "KR," standing for Kelly Ryan, a 12-year-old goalie who did last year after getting hit by a car on his bicycle months after attending Roloson's goalie school in Simcoe, Ontario. Moreover, around the shamrock are the letters TDLO for "The Dream Lives On."

"The dream lives on, that's true," Kelly's father Phil, an Illinois cement finisher, recently told the Tampa Tribune. "Every day I watch Roli in the playoffs, even though Roli's name is on the sweater, … Kelly is there. He's in the Eastern Conference Finals."

A lot of athletes will seek inspiration where they can find it. From Babe Ruth to Wayne Gretzky, there are countless stories of athletes inspired by friend or family members to take their performance to a higher level.

The rest of the Roloson story told in the Tribune lends insight into the inspiration that may be behind the amazing play of the 41-year-old Roloson this season:

"When Kelly was 7, he just started emulating Dwayne Roloson," Phil said. "He was comfortable with Roli's style on the ice, and as he got to know Roli, with his humbleness."

Kelly always wore a Roli hat and No. 30 in his games because Roli had worn 30 for the Wild. A few years ago, when his parents re-did his bedroom, Kelly insisted: Oilers blue. The guy at the paint store told Kelly, "I have no idea what you're talking about." Kelly returned with his Roli Oilers jersey. He got his Oilers blue room. It's still that color.

Through a mutual friend, Phil learned that Dwayne Roloson had a goalie camp in his hometown of Simcoe, Ontario. Camp co-founder and Chicago resident Tim Anderson, another former goalie, became good friends with Phil. In 2007, Kelly and the whole Ryan family headed for Simcoe.

"And we all just fell in love with Kelly," Tim Anderson said,

It's a 10-hour drive from Chicago to Simcoe and the Roloson Mason Goalie School, which also is named for Bob Mason, the Minnesota Wild goalkeeper coach. Dwayne Roloson is no figurehead. He's on the ice with the kids.

"We want to get to know them, each of them," Roloson said. "Kelly? He was the little guy with the smile, asking hundreds of questions, wanting to learn. He was just a phenomenal kid, very talented, very skilled. Every day he came to camp, he was happy."

"Roli was such a positive role model for my son, the way he worked with him, the way he treated him," Phil Ryan said.

Kelly attended three camps, the last in July 2009. Roloson always found extra time for him.

"Kelly had scholarship potential," Roloson said. "I think he could have been anything he wanted."

Roli was his idol.

"It's very humbling," Roloson said.

Sunday afternoon, April 18, 2010, Kelly finished up a weekend tournament. When he got home, his friend Alex called to see whether Kelly could come over. Kelly hopped on his BMX bike and promised his parents he'd call on his way home. And he did. He told his mom when he was a few blocks away. It was still light out.

A few minutes later, at 8:30, Phil's phone rang. He saw the ID. It was Kelly's cellphone.

But it was a police officer's voice.

"Do you have a son Kelly Ryan?" he asked.

At the accident scene, they kept Phil and Chris away from the ambulance. Chris saw the pickup truck. Kelly's bike was twisted in the truck's rear axle.

At the hospital, Phil cradled Kelly and whispered to him that if it hurt that bad, to let go, just let go, buddy. It was 11:03 p.m.

"A few seconds later, he was gone," Chris said.

There were 3,000 people at the visitation. Inside, there were Kelly's hockey jerseys, including his Roli jerseys. Phil put his own goalie equipment in the casket with Kelly, and some Roli hockey cards.

The funeral procession passed Kelly's grade school on the way to the Mass. His teachers and classmates were out front, wearing hockey shirts. They released balloons into an overcast sky.

At the cemetery, one of the boys asked Phil whether it was OK to leave his jersey on the casket. Soon there was a pile of hockey sweaters, and sticks, too. No one wanted to leave. A light rain began to fall. Finally they drifted away.

Dwayne Roloson was in Simcoe, at his oldest son's lacrosse practice, when Tim Anderson called him about Kelly.

"You're watching your son out on a field and you get a phone call about a boy who's just a few years older than your child, and he's gone," Roloson said. "Twelve years old. What do you do?"

Dwayne Roloson did what he could. A few months after the accident, he invited Phil Ryan up to goalie camp as a coach. It helped. The first Kelly Ryan Best Camper Award was given to the most dedicated goalie.

Phil's biggest fear was that Kelly would be forgotten. Chris goes to the cemetery all the time. Sometimes she locks herself in Kelly's room, where nothing ever changes.

On Oct. 18, 2010, six months to the day Kelly died, there was a candle and prayer memorial at the intersection where the accident occurred. Chris and the girls went, but Phil lingered at the house. There was too much pain.

He decided to watch the Islanders-Maple Leafs game because Roli was playing for New York and Kelly would love that. Phil noticed Roloson had a new mask. As the Islanders left the ice after the first period, Phil saw the mask's back plate. There was a huge green shamrock. And Kelly's number 30. And the words:

"To Kelly … Your dream lives on …"

"And I just start crying," Phil said.

Then he got up and went to the memorial.

Roloson and his wife, Melissa, came up with the idea for the mask. He had two made: one for games, one for the Ryans. Roloson was traded to the Lightning on New Year's Day. He has a Kelly back plate on his Lightning mask.

The Lightning came to Chicago late this season, and the Ryans came to the arena. Chris hugged Roli.

"Roli finally told me to stop crying or he would start," Chris said.

"He's with me all the time," Roli told her.

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