BLOOMINGTON, Minnesota — Outside Bloomington Ice Garden, a hockey stick leans against their marquee and is surrounded by flowers. The stick includes the signatures of hockey players with a note reading, "Love you coach."
Across Bloomington and beyond, hockey sticks are out to remember Coach Mike Ryan. The 48-year-old was the head coach of the Jefferson High School girls hockey team.
"He wanted to make sure that every girl grew as a person and not just on the ice," said varsity assistant coach Nikki Nightengale.
Nightengale knew Ryan since she was a little kid. He had coached her big brother and she had helped him coach youth camps before Ryan offered her a job as an assistant coach on the high school team this past season.
"You just can't believe something, like we can see that silly, just that small, can cost somebody's whole entire life. A community, their family, everything," Nightengale said.
Friend Matt Crane added, "Something that was very quick ended very tragically for a friend of ours."
Crane was out with Ryan the night he was killed outside Herbie's on the Park in St. Paul on Saturday night. It started when Ryan and another man got into an argument over social distancing.
According to the criminal complaint, Ryan Whisler punched Ryan, who fell backwards down a flight of stairs and hit his head on the concrete. The complaint says surveillance video, when played frame by frame, shows Whisler pushing Ryan towards the stairs.
Investigators at the scene said they were able to determine from speaking to witnesses at the bar that the incident started when Whisler punched through cellophane wrapped around a urinal in the bathroom to encourage social distancing. Whisler reportedly took a video of himself while using this urinal. Ryan called Whisler out for his behavior as they were leaving the bar, which led to a verbal confrontation and then Whisler punching Ryan.
The Ramsey County Medical Examiner ruled Ryan's death a homicide, and cause of death as a traumatic brain injury due to a fall from a physical assault. Whisler has been charged with second-degree murder.
"Yeah, pretty traumatic. Just kind of a devastating thing to have happen to a friend," Crane said. "His non-hockey life, he was super into music. He was really into Pearl Jam. So he would really like going to concerts with friends. But he was one of those guys that had a lot of lifelong friends."
Ryan was known as a beloved husband, father to two teenage daughters, friend and coach.
He played college hockey at Gustavus Adolphus College and coached in the boys and girls youth programs before taking over as head coach of the Jefferson High School Girls Hockey team.
"If a little 8U girl didn't have skates, the next day he'd have a pair of skates for her," recalled varsity assistant coach Josh Levine. "Or if someone had a stick that was too short, he'd go buy them a new stick... that's the type of guy he was. He invested more hours than we'll ever be able to describe, in an article or news story, for Bloomington hockey."
Levine coached the past four seasons with Ryan. A couple nights ago, the team got together at Bloomington Ice Garden to share their memories of him.
"He was a master of those little intangibles that really make a big impact, and that's why the relationships he built with athletes that he coached are so long-lasting and so strong," Levine said.
Steve Wendorf, co-president of the hockey booster club for the girls high school hockey program, remembers how Ryan came in as head coach as Kennedy and Jefferson High Schools were combining programs.
"He did a great job of stabilizing the program, getting participation up not only at the high school level but at the youth level. The programs right now on both sides of it have never been better and he's had a major role in that," Wendorf said.
Cyndi Nightengale, Nikki's mom, has been friends with Ryan for a long time. Besides her kids' relationship with Ryan through hockey, she serves as the team photographer.
"There were times especially during COVID right now where I was shooting games, he'd come over and he'd go 'I can tell you're cold,' and he would bring me coffee. Or he would say, 'Do you want a candy bar? Want something like that?' He was always thinking about everybody else, making sure that everybody was comfortable and was having a good time and enjoying themselves," Cyndi recalled.
Crane has set up a GoFundMe to help support Ryan's family during this time. So far, it has raised nearly $150,000.
Levine said, "His loss is going to be felt for a very long time."