Johnston: Old rivalry spices up Battle of Ontario

September 19, 2013, 1:21 PM

The last time Bobby Ryan and Phil Kessel were part of a rivalry as intense as this one was when they were teenagers competing for a national championship.

It was Ryan and the Los Angeles Junior Kings that came out on top of Kessel’s Madison Capitols in the Bantam AAA final — a fact that isn’t lost on either man more than a decade later.

“I try to remind him every chance that I get that we beat him in the national championship,” Ryan said during a recent interview. “He was a big baby with the Madison Capitols. He was so good then that we just stuck two guys on him everywhere he went on the ice. So he had a heck of a night, I think we won 3-0 if I remember correctly, and he had 21 points in the other five games or something incredible like that.

“He wasn’t a quiet kid that game. He was doing a lot of yapping because he had nothing else going on.”

Kessel’s memories of the event basically mirror those of his opponent. It doesn’t take him very long to recite the details of the difficult defeat when asked about it now.

“We lost 3-0 and there was a guy on their team that followed me around the whole game,” Kessel said Thursday before Toronto faced Ottawa in a pre-season game. “I remember it well.”

The Kessel-Ryan connection is a reminder of how small the hockey world can be. The players were also supposed to be roommates at the U.S. national development program until Ryan chose to play in the Ontario Hockey League instead and they went on to win a silver medal at the Vancouver Olympics together.

However, the rivalry has essentially been on the backburner since minor hockey because they’ve been based in different conferences during their time in the NHL.

At least until now.

The July 5 trade that brought Ryan from Anaheim to Ottawa also added a little extra spice to the Battle of Ontario. The Leafs and Senators are division rivals who both feel like they are on the rise. And in Kessel and Ryan they are led offensively by players that possess remarkably similar talents – game-breaking speed and twine-bulging wrist shots.

Over the past five NHL seasons, they sit one-two in goals by American-born players, with Kessel holding a 155-142 edge.

Both he and Ryan are in the prime of their careers and enter this season looking to hit the 40-goal plateau for the first time — a milestone that should be within reach if things go well. They also possess a healthy respect for one other.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anybody that quick in their first few strides other than Teemu (Selanne),” Ryan said of Kessel. “Phil’s one of the best I’ve seen if he gets moving down the wall, whether it’s cutting to the middle or taking that outside shot, he’s doing it at such a good speed that the shot comes off pretty well.”

Kessel thinks his counterpart will become a popular figure at the Canadian Tire Centre.

“He’s a great player,” Kessel said. “The fans in Ottawa will love him there. I don’t think a lot of people on the East Coast know how good he is. … If you watch him play, he has some great moves and scores some unbelievable goals.”

The level of emotion in games featuring the Leafs and Senators could be at the highest point in years this season. Clarke MacArthur signed with Ottawa over the summer after three seasons in Toronto while Leafs coach Randy Carlyle has his own history with Ryan — the two often clashed while they were together in Anaheim.

When you add that to the fact the teams will likely be in a playoff race together there is no shortage of storylines.

Despite the tough-love approach Carlyle took with Ryan early in his pro career, the veteran coach has nothing but respect for the way the 26-year-old has grown and matured.

“He’s a player that’s dangerous as soon as he steps over the blue line in the offensive zone,” Carlyle said. “He can score from all areas. … He’s an offensive weapon that we’ll have to deal with.”

Ryan was a major acquisition for the Sens and will be under pressure to perform in the nation’s capital. He was looking for a move out of Anaheim the last couple seasons and seems to have whole-heartedly embraced his new situation.

The only aspect of it that gives him pause is the inevitable comparisons to departed captain Daniel Alfredsson — which are probably unavoidable since his trade was announced just hours after Alfredsson bolted for Detroit.

“Truthfully I wish Ottawa would have waited a day instead of making it hours afterwards,” Ryan said. “I think you just try to block it out honestly. I’ve done a pretty good job so far trying to quiet the questions on that just because I don’t want to be compared to a guy that had 17 years there. …

“I just want to come in now and find my footing.”

Lining up across from Kessel on a regular basis should at least bring back some old memories.

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