Being Canadian, Helen Hollweg instinctively thought hockey would provide a good outlet for the boundless energy of her 4-year-old son, Ryan.
But living in Southern California, where she’d gone to visit a cousin and stayed to marry and raise a family, she didn’t know where to look.
“I didn’t think they’d have it here,” she said. “I went to the phone book and found the Norwalk arena. I brought him there, and there were only about six kids. I wanted him to skate for a year but they said, ‘We’ll put him on a team now.’
“He loved it. It’s a very funny little ice arena.”
So began Ryan Hollweg’s journey from Downey to the NHL, where he puts his still-vast store of energy to use as a tenacious and sometimes pugnacious forward for the New York Rangers.
He will come full circle tonight when the Rangers face the Kings at Staples Center, his first game in his hometown. The Rangers will also play the Ducks in Anaheim on Wednesday, giving Hollweg a few days to get some home-cooked meals.
“It’s great to be able to go back to the place where I started,” he said. “I’m excited to go out there and perform for everybody who helped me along the way.”
Hollweg, 23, said he vividly recalls his first venture onto the ice. “I loved the speed, and there was always movement,” he said. Helen bought Ryan and her younger son, Bryce, some used hockey gear during a trip back to Canada, unwilling to invest in expensive equipment until she was sure they liked the game.
Ryan and Bryce, less than two years apart, loved the game.
“Between the two boys, we kind of lived in ice arenas,” Helen said. “We were constantly in the car.”
Ryan played for the Norwalk hockey club, the Junior Ducks and the Tier 2 South Coast Sabres. At 13 he left home for Redwood City, in the Bay Area, to play for a team that featured players from Canada and Russia, including current Ducks winger Stanislav Chistov.
That was the first time Hollweg realized he might go far. In Southern California, the youth hockey groundswell that followed Wayne Gretzky’s arrival in Los Angeles was still building. The few kids he played against were roughly at the same skill level.
Facing Canadians and Russians, he said, “gave me a chance to play with some highly skilled players. From that point I realized I had to make a decision.
“I’d had some offers to go to prep school back East, which is what a lot of kids from California do. And I went to Minnesota and checked out a prep school but just felt that playing junior hockey in Canada would be best for me.”
He knew he had made the right choice when he went to play bantam hockey in Langley, Canada, near Helen’s hometown of Vancouver. Skating beside players who were three or four years older, he scored 14 goals and had 54 points with a team-leading 173 penalty minutes in the 1998-99 season. In 1999 he became the first American-born player ever chosen in the bantam draft, from which major junior teams stock their rosters.
“I felt I was always left out of things in L.A., because I didn’t go to school with anybody that played hockey,” he said. “When I went up to Vancouver I felt more accepted. That’s what you do up there, play hockey.”
Hollweg exceeded 100 penalty minutes in each of his four full seasons with the Medicine Hat Tigers of the Western Hockey League but also scored 19 goals twice, 30 once and 25 in his final season, 2003-04. He missed most of the 2002-03 season because of a concussion.
Drafted 238th by the Rangers in 2001, he spent the 2004-05 season with their American Hockey League farm team in Hartford, Conn., where he collected 14 points and 239 penalty minutes.
As an NHL rookie last season he had two goals, five points and 84 penalty minutes in 52 games. A sturdy 5 feet 11 and 210 pounds, he began to establish himself as an agitator, a player who annoys opponents with relentless physical play, the kind you hate to face but love to have on your team.
Hollweg, who has no points and a team-high 21 penalty minutes this season, is not a goon. He has skills and can play left wing or center on the third or fourth line. He can also hit hard -- sometimes too hard, as when he was suspended by the NHL for three games last March for checking Philadelphia’s R.J. Umberger from behind.
He will fight, though he doesn’t often win, and he enjoys the physical part of the game. Helen Hollweg is fine with that. “It’s just always how Ryan has played,” she said.
He believes he can develop in the mode of Toronto’s Darcy Tucker, who’s about his size, plays the same kind of game and scored 28 goals last season.
“I definitely see the potential for me to produce offensively,” said Hollweg, who spends summers in New York to be near his brother, who is attending West Point.
“A couple of years down the road maybe I can concentrate on that part of my game a little more. Right now I want to make sure I’m not a defensive liability.”
He’s in a perfect position to learn. In the Rangers’ locker room he sits between Jaromir Jagr, a five-time NHL scoring champion, and Brendan Shanahan, who has scored 607 goals.
Not bad for a kid from Downey. Or anywhere else.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “I still find myself sometimes shaking my head. It’s crazy for me, because I grew up watching them, and almost surreal to have the opportunity I have.”