Seemingly always on the go, future Gopher Ryan Chesley is hardly a stay-at-home defenseman
From Minnesota to Michigan to New York to Quebec to Virginia, then back to Michigan before (hopefully) a trip to Alberta for World Juniors, incoming Gophers defenseman Ryan Chesley will be well-traveled by the time he gets to Dinkytown.
VADNAIS HEIGHTS, Minn. – If you made a map of Ryan Chesley’s travels just in the past eight months or so, you could hardly call him a stay-at-home defenseman.
On a recent hot July day, clad in shorts, sandals and a gray Minnesota Gophers t-shirt, Chesley looked perfectly comfortable talking hockey in the lobby of a suburban St. Paul hockey rink. The honesty flowed and the smile came easy as he sat and chatted. Although sitting still in one place is clearly not in the future Gopher’s nature. Especially not lately.
Playing in the USA Hockey development system, he spent last season in Michigan while he wasn’t traveling overseas for the U18 World Championship in Germany (the Americans got the silver). Back in his home state for the summer, Chesley trained on the ice three times a week and traveled to Buffalo for the NHL’s pre-draft combine.
Then it was off to Montreal where, early in the draft’s second round, the Washington Capitals called his name. After a brief (less than 24 hours) return to Minnesota, Chesley touched down in northern Virginia for his future NHL employer’s development camp. After another cameo appearance at the Chesley family home in Dellwood, he is headed back to Michigan to try out for USA Hockey’s roster for the upcoming World Junior Championships. The 2022 tournament will be held in western Canada in August and the 2023 version will be played in eastern Canada starting in December.
Projected by many to be a first-round draft pick, Chesley’s name was not called on day one. Instead, plucked by the Capitals with the 37th pick, he joined future Gophers teammates (and all but certain future NHLers) like Brock Faber (45th), Jackson LaCombe (39th) and Matthew Knies (57th), who previously went in round two.
If there was disappointment after walking out of the Montreal rink without being drafted on July 7, it turned to determination pretty quickly when the Capitals called his name early on July 8.
“It was really cool being there, with the atmosphere and everything. It was great,” Chesley said. “Obviously I was a little disappointed not going in the first round, but I knew anything could happen and if it didn’t go my way, maybe it was meant to be and I would end up in the right spot.”
The Capitals had their eye on Chesley after seeing him at the combine, and were delighted that he was still available on day two of the draft. They made a trade with New Jersey that morning, moving up from 46th to 37th in order to grab the talented defenseman.
"With Ryan Chesley, where we were picking originally going into (the second round), I was like 'I don't know if this is going to work out,'" said Ross Mahoney, Washington's assistant general manager. "You're crossing your fingers and hoping that he's going to be there (at No. 46) but I'm not so sure he would've been ... we're really, really happy to get him."
I ended up in a great spot, with Washington, and I couldn’t be happier. It all worked out really good,
Chesley's faith that things would work out was rewarded as he slipped a red Capitals jersey over his head, and went to meet with the throngs of media covering the draft.
“I ended up in a great spot, with Washington, and I couldn’t be happier. It all worked out really good,” he said. As for those picked with the first 36 selections, there’s a quiet drive that has been created within Chesley as a result. “I think it motivates me even more knowing that those teams passed on me and I have a chance to prove them wrong. It puts a little chip on my shoulder, so I actually like it.”
D in the District
Arriving in our nation’s capital for the first time, Chesley and some friends — former Gophers forward Grant Cruikshank and current Gophers co-captain Jaxon Nelson — got the obligatory trip to the Lincoln Memorial out of the way. They stood where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his legendary “I Have A Dream” speech and saw the spot where Forrest Gump was reunited with his beloved Jenny, then they put on skates and got down to business.
The pre-draft scouting reports on Chesley all praised his on-ice versatility. He can play with size and do the physical things. He can start plays from the back end and be a contributor on offense. Asked to describe his perfect shift, Chesley offers a little bit of everything.
“A perfect shift: definitely shut it down defensively in all areas. Probably throw in a big hit, and then provide some offense, whether it’s a big shot or a nice pass,” he said.
As he prepares to make the jump to college hockey and help the Gophers defend a Big Ten title, Chesley said his skating and physical play are his top strengths, and he plans to bring a simple, mature game to the blue lines inside 3M Arena at Mariucci. All of those skills got a boost from his first three days wearing the red, white and blue of the Capitals.
“On the ice it was good, but it was tough. We skated twice a day on most days,” Chesley said. “We’d have a position skill session in the morning, so all the D were on the ice together. In the afternoon we’d work with a skating coach on individual skill development. It was really good coaching, but it was tough.”
The work he did in the Capitals’ end-of-camp scrimmage left one future teammate impressed.
“He’s a really good skater, kind of like Faber. He moves the puck really well and doesn’t want to hang onto it and stickhandle a lot, which is good for our team,” said Nelson, who was on Chesley’s team for the scrimmage. “He’s always looking to make the right play and not do too much…And it’s good to have a second right-handed defenseman. Faber was the only one, and now we have two.”
Have skates, will travel
Growing up outside White Bear Lake, Chesley was friends and youth hockey teammates with some of the Mahtomedi kids who helped the Zephyrs win their first state title in 2020. But long before he considered playing high school hockey, the Chesleys were looking for a higher level. He kicked the tires on private school programs like Hill-Murray and St. Thomas Academy before ending up at Shattuck-St. Mary’s for two seasons. From there, the distance from home got even further, as Chesley headed to Michigan to skate for USA Hockey. While some struggle with separation from their families, the hockey opportunities were too good for him to pass up.
“That was an easy (decision) for me. When you look at the facilities they have and all the players that have gone there, I couldn’t pass that up,” Chesley said. “That was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
At the start of last season, he and USA teammate Jimmy Snuggerud had already committed to return to Minnesota and wear Gophers sweaters. While they were on a team bus ride in February, their friend Logan Cooley — a few months before Arizona made him the third overall pick in the draft — announced that he too would be a Gopher. Chesley and Cooley will be freshman-year roommates and both will join a loaded roster that has created sky-high expectations among the hungry Twin Cities hockey fanbase.
But before he steps on the ice for a real college game on Oct. 1, when the Gophers open the season at home versus Lindenwood, Chesley is determined to savor every moment of Minnesota summer he can spend. Like a good Minnesota boy, when not on frozen water, he prefers the open water, either on White Bear Lake or the nearby St. Croix River.
Of course, time on the water is going to get cut short by tryouts in Michigan and — he hopes — another crack at a World Junior gold medal before he reports to campus at the end of August. A month after that, he can be seen on the ice in Dinkytown.
Just don’t expect Ryan Chesley to stay in any one spot for too long.