Hamilton plumber became boxing legend, Olympics head coach and ‘second father’ to youth

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Published November 10, 2023 at 10:49 am

COURTESY OF MCGRORY'S BOXING CLUB
Hamilton boxing icon Vinnie Ryan, seen during a December 2021 McGrory's Boxing Club fundraising event, died at the age of 84. COURTESY OF MCGRORY'S BOXING CLUB

A Hamilton boxing legend and three-time Irish boxing champion, who was head coach at national and international competitions including the Olympics and a beloved local club, has died at the age of 84.

Vinnie Ryan, who many say was a father figure to athletes and had for decades positively influenced countless youth at McGrory’s Boxing Club, died on Oct. 31. His online obituary didn’t state the cause of his death.

“For Vinnie, coaching wasn’t just about the sport, it was about helping the next generation to write their own success stories and to reach for the stars no matter what their circumstances were or where they came from,” read his online obituary. “He did it and had great belief that everyone with a willing spirit and a bit of guidance could do it as well.”

Ryan also served as president of Boxing Ontario, was a Boxing Canada executive, and was head coach with national teams at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, world championships in Cuba and Australia, as well as Pan Am Games and Commonwealth Games.

Ryan lived the “Canadian Dream,” according to his online obituary. Born on July 1, 1939 in Dublin, Ireland, he immigrated to Canada at age 26. He initially hoped to travel to Argentina but met Val in Hamilton within six months of his arrrival. Val became his wife of 56 years.

When he wasn’t coaching elite athletes and youth for 40 years at McGrory’s club, Ryan ran his own mechanical contracting business Varan Mechanical and worked as a plumber.

McGrory’s Boxing Club posted a tribute on Facebook, highlighting how Ryan helped make everyone “champions in the ring” and beyond.

“Vinnie has meant so much to so many people and has touched and been a part of so many lives,” read the east-end Hamilton club’s statement. “Vinnie did it all. He was a champion boxer and coach and a husband and a father as well he acted like a second father to so many of his students. We will miss you so much, Vinnie. Until we meet again in that big boxing ring in the sky. We love you forever and ever.”

Tim McGrory started McGrory’s Boxing Club in 1965. When Ryan came to Canada, he began helping McGrory with coaching and officially took over the gym in 1982.

Lawrence Hay, McGrory’s co-owner and head boxing coach and a Hamilton police officer, inherited the club from Vinnie and Val Ryan in August 2022. Hay himself recalls being an “insecure, skinny kid” who needed confidence before he discovered boxing at age 14.

“He’s one of the most selfless people in the world, I mean both of them. The amount of time and love they’ve given to hundreds of kids including myself since they’ve been doing this, it’s crazy,” said Hay in an interview with inthehammer.com in August. Hay won gold, silver and bronze at provincial competitions and a world championship at the World Police and Fire Games. “They would drive us to tournaments. In a fight, I never felt like I was alone when I had him (Vinnie) in my corner and he would always tell me: ‘I’m here, son.’ And I’m trying to carry that on with the young kids in my club as well as best as I can because he made such a difference in my life.”

Ryan’s passion was helping youth through coaching, which he continued to do until his illness.

In an interview with the BPSN local sports site in 2019, he said he would train youth for free and buy them equipment if they couldn’t afford it. “Boxing is known as the poor man’s sport and most of these kids were from single-parent families,” Ryan said. “I got involved because I wanted to keep them out of trouble, I wanted to keep them off the street and also try and encourage their education.”

Vinnie Ryan McGrory's Boxing Club Hamilton boxing Canada boxing champion coach

Maria and Lawrence Hay, left and right, are carrying on the legacy of the late Vinnie Ryan. Ryan is pictured with his wife Val, who helped him run McGrory’s Boxing Club in Hamilton’s east end for 40 years. McGrory’s hosted a fundraising event on December 2021 where Vinnie Ryan presented the McGrory’s championship belt to Lawrence Hay. COURTESY OF MCGRORY’S BOXING CLUB

Jill Perry of Ottawa said Ryan was both a friend and mentor to her.

“As a boxer Vinnie worked my corner with Joe Sandulo for all of my important matches – in fact I can still hear him shouting at me!,” she wrote in a memorial message online. “As I transitioned to coaching, Vinnie served as a valuable mentor who encouraged and supported me. You could count on him to always have a kind word and a funny story to share. Vinnie was as honest and as real as they come. Boxing is losing one of its best with the passing of Vinnie as he was truly one of a kind.”

Joe Stanziani from Binbrook remembers Ryan for being a “father figure, a coach, a mentor, and a role model.”

“A wonderful gentleman always quick with a joke and a kind word,” he wrote. “Vinnie & Val always made the boxing club feel like one big family! A welcoming place for all. … He will be deeply missed.”

Andrew Singh Kooner, an athlete and coach from Toronto, said Ryan will be remembered as “an icon” of boxing in Canada.

“(Ryan) was a great man who helped countless number of kids, adults,” he wrote. “Rest in peace coach.”

Ron Stewart of Burlington said he was impressed with Ryan’s impact on youth and his boxing skills.

“Vinnie brought so many good things to so many people. He was my boxing coach around the early 80s,” he wrote. “He gave so much to McGrory’s and the impact on the youth of Hamilton is immeasurable. … I remember him with a smile on his face (one that seemed a little mischievous), and a passion for the sport. I saw him hit the bag a few times in training; that man was fast! He was a great man (whose) impact will be felt for decades.”

Gord Dowd of Hamilton echoed memories of Ryan’s positive influence.

“You will forever be remembered for the light you brought into our lives,” he wrote. “You lived your dream and brought us along for a wonderful journey. Rest in peace, and may your legacy continue to inspire us .”

Vinnie Ryan McGrory's Boxing Club Hamilton Boxing Ontario Boxing Canada Olympics

Vinnie Ryan and his wife Val were both honoured as Niagara Boxing Legends in 2019 and 2022, respectively. Both were known as major influences in the sport of boxing in Hamilton and Canada. COURTESY OF MCGRORY’S BOXING CLUB

Erin Demask of Grimsby said Ryan “ made the world a better place.”

“My life improved the day I met Vinnie. This man had a way of brightening my day and many others who were blessed to have known him could say the same,” Demask wrote. “His energy and passion for boxing and the community was inspiring. … I will miss his friendship.”

Lyla Simon from Toronto expressed her condolences for “the loss of a giant in the sport of boxing.”

“May Vinnie’s humor, dedication, wit, and fiery energy continue to inspire all who have had the good fortune of knowing him,” she wrote.

Others described him as a “legend,” a “true hero,” “inspiration” and “a good man with a heart of Gold.”

As a positive force in Hamilton and the boxing world, Ryan was honoured with Boxing Ontario and Hamilton Coach of the Year awards, the Wearing of the Green award for Hamilton’s Irish person of the year and City of Hamilton Citizen award. He was inducted into the Boxing Canada Hall of Fame in 2018.

The three-time Irish champion at the welterweight level was honoured as a Niagara Boxing Legend in July 2019. His wife Val (a native of the Niagara community of Beamsville) was also recognized with that honour in 2022. Val of Ancaster was born in London, England, and later became the president of Boxing Ontario.

Bay Gardens Funeral Home Chapel in Hamilton will host a memorial service for Ryan today (Nov. 10) at 1 p.m. followed by a reception. Those who wish to make memorial donations are encouraged to donate to the Parkinson Society.

Ryan is survived by his wife of 56 years Valerie, his son Sean, daughter Jackie and his brother Desmond of Ireland. He was predeceased by his parents Joseph and Eileen, and sister Joan.

Vinnie Ryan McGrory's Boxing Club Hamilton boxing champion Boxing Ontario Boxing Canada

COURTESY OF MCGRORY’S BOXING CLUB

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