With National Hockey League free agency kicking in, there were no open signs of concern on Ryan O’Byrne’s face Wednesday morning.
His patented effervescent smile stretched widely as the soon to be 29-year-old defenceman took his time playing some shinny and then handing out hockey gear and bags to underprivileged kids at Kirby’s Source For Sports on a wonderfully warm morning.
In partnership with KidSport Greater Victoria, the NHL Players’ Association’s Goals & Dreams Fund, Kirby’s and O’Byrne’s Youth Sport Society, the six-year NHL veteran took great pride in giving back to the community, something he’s been doing since 2011 when he first established his own society.
And it took his mind off becoming an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career (free agency talks could commence as of 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, but signings are forbidden until 9 a.m. PST Friday).
“This helps take my mind off it, yes. This is such a great event and it brings it all back into perspective,” said O’Byrne who has played for the Montreal Canadiens, Colorado Avalanche and, most recently, Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to play in the NHL for six years and I can do this and give back to the kids, hopefully get these kids involved in sport. I’m not worrying about free agency today, that’s for sure.”
But it weighs heavily on his mind as the Victoria native is on the hunt for work on an NHL blue line, somewhere.
“It’s exciting. It’s nerve-racking and it’s one of those things that, for me, is an unknown,” he admitted. “We’ll see where we end up, but it’s exciting.
“Free agency seems like it’s a trickle-down effect, you wait for the bigger-name guys to sign their deals and when teams maybe realize they’re out of the running with certain players, it opens up cap space for them and opportunities, and they come after the mid-range players like myself.
“You have to stay patient. It’s difficult. I’ve never been through it before, but I realize I have to remain patient.”
The discussions will remain in his agent, Matt Keator’s, hands (O’Byrne previously had Mike Gillis as his representative before he became general manager of Vancouver Canucks, which begs the question, will the two get back together as employer and employee?).
“There are some feelers out there with teams, absolutely, but patience is in order,” O’Byrne said. “Once those calls do come in, you’re going to have to make real quick decisions. When that time comes we have to be ready for it.”
So a day like Wednesday was the perfect tonic as the six-foot-five, 234-pound defenceman took part in his community work.
“We were fortunate to give 25 deserving kids in the community free sets of hockey gear and registration for the upcoming season,” said O’Byrne, who began the event last season. “It’s a great event, lots of smiles with kids from different age groups — some playing their first year, some their fifth. We’re just happy to help out. It’s a great day.
“It’s the least I can do to give back to the community,” said O’Byrne, who also puts on a camp Aug. 5-9 at the University of Victoria where he will rely on other local NHLers and junior players to assist.
At the camp, he gives spots away in memory of his mom, Lorelei, who died of breast cancer.
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