Wagner Small But Mighty Leader for Eagles

Wagner Small But Mighty Leader for Eagles

C.C. Hawkley (Full Press Hockey)

Apr 25, 2022

On March 1, 2020, Colorado Eagles forward Ryan Wagner put together a standout performance against the league leading Milwaukee Admirals, netting two goals (including the game-winner) in a 3-1 Eagles victory. With the win, Colorado ascended to second in the Pacific Division standings. Wagner was looking forward to being a part of the Eagles’ postseason push into the first round of the 2020 Calder Cup Playoffs.

“It’s kind of just being in the right spots. Down in Utah, I have a little bit more freedom. Coming here (to Colorado), Coach Cro [Greg Cronin], he lets me play my game. It’s just been working for me, and hopefully I can continue that success.”

Two weeks later, the COVID-19 pandemic began, and AHL hockey was put on pause until February 2021.

Fast forward two years later to Friday, April 8, 2022. While the world has undoubtedly changed, the unstoppable work ethic of Ryan Wagner has not. Wagner scored the opening goal (his 10th on the season) against the Bakersfield Condors in an eventual 4-1 Eagles win. Colorado is sitting third in the Pacific Division standings. Things have returned to a semblance of normalcy, at least at the Budweiser Events Center.

Listed at 5’8”, Wagner played his usual aggressive game against the Condors. It wasn’t uncommon to see him begin forechecking in the Bakersfield zone, charging in against much bigger players (like Vincent Desharnais, who is listed at 6’7”) and laying the body on with the fervor of someone much larger. It’s a tenacity he learned at a young age during family gatherings.

“My mom's one of 16,” Wagner revealed. “I have 57 first cousins on my mom's side. So, Christmas time – lake house time – just growing up, it's always been a competitive aspect of my household. And that's kind of where I get it from. I don't care if you're bigger than me (or) smaller than me. I'm gonna play the same way, same style: (a) hard-nosed game.”

The ferocity of Wagner balances out with his quick smile and affectionate post-game hugs. He draped himself around the neck of winning goaltender Hunter Miska after the Bakersfield game, but it is embracing another netminder – rookie Justus “Juice” Annunen – that has gained him status as a social media sensation in Eagles Country.

“First road trip of the year, (Annunen and I) were roommates. He's kind of a quiet guy, so it was nice to kind of talk to him for a little bit there. I mean, goalies are a huge part of our team. Whether it's Miska, Juice – I mean, they carry us, and you’ve got to give them love. They're the reason we win these games, so you’ve got to tip your hat and give him a big ol’ hug.”

Wagner played his college hockey at the University of Wisconsin, serving as alternate captain his senior year. As an undrafted free agent, he signed a professional try-out with the Chicago Wolves after his collegiate career concluded in March 2018. A native of Park Ridge, Illinois, Wagner jumping onto the Wolves – based just a stone’s throw away in Rosemont – played a big factor in his first professional excursion.

“Yeah, it definitely did. And then at the time, my old coach growing up – Bobby Nardella – was there. It was kind of a good connection: easy for the parents, a lot of family obviously in the Chicago area. So yeah, I felt really comfortable making that decision.”

Impressing the Wolves in seven games played, Wagner signed a standard player contract with Chicago for the 2018-19 AHL season. He earned four goals and three assists in 49 games played that season, with an additional 14 postseason contests against Grand Rapids, Iowa, and 2019 Calder Cup Final opponent, the Charlotte Checkers. With his improved stock as a depth forward during the offseason, Wagner decided to join the Colorado Eagles, signing a one-year, two-way AHL contract on July 31, 2019.

“I just heard a lot of good things about the coaching staff,” Wagner admits. “I mean, obviously, this place is unbelievable to play in. And it just really wasn’t a hard decision. I knew they were fair and they were gonna give me a chance if I did well, and they believed in me. Honestly, they are why I'm producing and doing so well here. I just have to tip my hat to them and thank them.”

On a two-way deal, spending time with the Eagles’ ECHL affiliate Utah Grizzlies was a real possibility for Wagner in 2019-20. In fact, he ended up spending an almost even split between the Eagles and Grizzlies that year, with 24 games played in the AHL and 23 skated in the ECHL. Some players, even on two-way contracts, may get frustrated playing a league down from the season prior. Wagner, however, viewed it as an opportunity to strengthen his standing both with the Colorado organization and in his own mind.

“I thought, honestly, it helped me a lot starting the year in Utah. After leaving college, I kind of lost a little bit of my confidence, and I thought that really helped me grow. Obviously, coming in here, they let you play a hard-nosed game...and that's really not hard for me to do.

“But yeah, it was a good opportunity, and I kind of just ran with it. Obviously, that was a good, good team (in 2019); unfortunately, (it) got cut short. But yeah, it was a lot of fun to kind of get an opportunity. And then, I'm back here for a few more years. It's nice.”

As aforementioned, the 2019-20 AHL season ended in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Wagner re-signed with Colorado on April 8 of that year, playing in 34 games for the Eagles in the truncated 2021 regular season campaign. The five goals and eight assists posted as a bottom-six forward was enough to then earn a two-year contract with AHL Colorado on June 24, 2021.

Now, staring down his first Calder Cup Playoffs since 2019, Wagner has a mindset of servitude and leading by example.

“(It’s) pretty big,” Wagner says about how he views his leadership role both on and off the ice. “I don't wear a letter, but that doesn't really bother me. It shouldn't bother anyone if they're a leader in their mind. I kind of just like to keep a positive mindset on it.

“I know I'm not going to be scoring all the pretty goals, but if the guys are down, I like to keep the morale up. I like to keep people laughing. Playoff time is the best time of the year; (we’re) starting to get nice weather out, and it's just fun hockey. It's hard hockey and it's a lot of fun. I'm really looking forward to it.”

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