Ryan Poehling Continues Growth at St. Cloud
"If you want to get off, you've got to skate off."
Not yet old enough to even attend Kindergarten, Ryan Poehling — long before imagining a future high school state championship, a career at St. Cloud State, and a first-round NHL draft selection by the Montreal Canadiens — was introduced to the ice by his mother, Kris.
At the time, his older brothers, twins Nick and Jack, almost two and a half years older than Ryan, were already making good use of their backyard rink in Lakeville, Minn., a suburb just south of the Twin Cities.
Ryan, meanwhile, seemed less excited by it. And the notion that, one day, the three would play Division I college hockey together likely seemed preposterous.
"When you have older brothers, you usually want to do what they do, but I was actually the opposite at first," Ryan said. "We had a backyard rink, and I didn't want to play hockey. I was about four or five years old, and my mom would always put me out onto the ice.
"I would sit down and cry, and she would say, 'If you want to get off, you've got to skate off.' She probably did that for a couple of months."
In retrospect, it's a good thing she did. With guidance and — clearly — some tough love, too, Poehling not only grew to like hockey, but quickly excelled at it. Growing up in the so-called 'state of hockey' added its own pressure, no doubt, but as Ryan grew older, he found himself playing with his older brothers, their friends, and generally with players who were bigger and stronger.
"Whether it was playing hockey, football, basketball, or even soccer, I would just want to fit in with the older guys," Poehling said. "I think that's kind of where I picked up my competitive nature. It became a habit of mine to try harder to fit in. I have to thank those guys for pulling me up without even knowing it."
Eventually, Ryan centered the top line for a dominant, undefeated (31-0-0) Lakeville North team in 2014-15 that won the prestigious high school state title in Minnesota. His linemates were — who else? — brothers Nick and Jack.
The trio ended the season as the top three scorers in the state.
"Growing up, all of us, we'd go to the state high school tournament," Ryan said. "Me, Nick, and Jack — we'd all get to pick a game to go to with my dad. We'd either go on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday. For us, growing up, you'd watch Aaron Ness, Nick Leddy, guys like that , and you'd look up to them and see them win state tournaments. To go out there and actually do it, especially with your two brothers, that's something special. It's one of those moments that I won't forget."
Ryan ultimately chose to join his brothers at St. Cloud State — where the three are all sophomores, now. As a freshman last year, he was the youngest player not only at St. Cloud, but in all of Division I men's college hockey. And after chipping in with seven goals and six assists, Poehling has quickly matched his total point production from last season already.
In parallel, the Huskies (9-2) are off to a strong start, too, entering this weekend's play as the No. 1 team in the early Pairwise.
"Our team's better, and I'm doing better," said Poehling, one of three St. Cloud players currently averaging over a point per game. "I had a good offseason. I worked on the things I needed to work on, especially my strength and my skating. I've seen those things improve tremendously, and I've seen those strengths overcome everything else.
"Last year, I took a step back, and I think I learned some stuff on the defensive end that I had never really had to do, or that I'd gotten away with more. Fast forwarding to this year, it's combining both of my games. I have the offensive ability, but at the same time, I feel like I can play on the defensive side. That's the biggest part of my growth, being a two-way player."
That will come as welcome news not only to St. Cloud fans, but to the Montreal Canadiens as well — the organization that selected Poehling with the No. 25 overall pick in June's NHL draft, with general manager Marc Bergevin noting after the draft that Poehling is the "type of player you can win with." And that experience hasn't fazed Poehling at all, as the sophomore center insists that he welcomes the added pressure that goes with being a first-round pick.
"People expect more from you, and they hold you to higher standards — and they should," said Poehling, whose uncle, Stan Palmer, was also drafted by Montreal, 40 years earlier. "There aren't many people who have been drafted in the first round, at least each year, so you should take it as a compliment and want to be a better guy. It holds you to a higher standard, and that's how it should be."
For St. Cloud, the standards are high this season, too — as a legitimate title contender not only in the grueling NCHC but nationally as well. Their only two losses this season both came in mid-November to Denver, the reigning national champions. The Huskies get another shot at the Pioneers — a team Poehling calls the 'most skilled team in the nation' — at the end of February, as part of a grueling stretch run that, of course, will be here in no time.
And even further down the line? As the Poehlings are well aware, this year's NCAA Frozen Four takes place in St. Paul, Minnesota — in the same building where Ryan, Nick, and Jack capped off their perfect season in high school. It's also just a half an hour from that backyard rink where Ryan Poehling learned to skate.
At the time, perhaps — hearing "If you want to get off, you've got to skate off" — he didn't have much of a choice.
Since then? He seems to have made all the right ones.