The Sens’ new star opens up about his lost childhood on the run from the FBI, and how he survived it all.
By Gare Joyce in Ottawa | Photographs by Raina+Wilson
The team gave Bobby Ryan Mondays off. He didn’t even come to the arena. It wasn’t rest he needed. And it wasn’t star treatment, even though he was the second pick in the NHL draft that June. His teammates didn’t resent what looked like a free pass, because they knew it wasn’t. They knew he would have liked to have stayed in Owen Sound and skate with the team and work out in the gym and drink in the fan worship, just like the other guys. Instead, every Monday at 6 a.m., Bobby Ryan, age 18, set out on a two- or maybe three-hour drive down winding roads covered with black ice to Toronto, then sat in a waiting room until it was his turn. When his name was finally called, he would walk into an office and sit, though he never got comfortable. For the next two hours, he would be asked to bare his soul, dig out shallowly buried memories and spill out a story that was hard to believe, and harder to survive.
He didn’t hate Mondays. He knew he needed them.
And on the long drive back to Owen Sound, he had nothing but time to think about what he had said in the office. What had happened one awful night back in New Jersey. What happened back in L.A. over the stretch of years. What he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
Bobby Ryan isn’t looking for your sympathy. A lopsided smile creases his face when he tells you he has a good life these days. At 26, he’s entering year four of a five-year contract that will pay him $25.5 million over its term, and his best earning years are still ahead of him. He scored 30 goals in each of his past four full NHL seasons. He has a beautiful girlfriend and a vacation spread with a view of the mountains in Idaho.
Life looks pretty damn good at a glance. Couldn’t be easier. That’s what people who don’t know Bobby Ryan think. And people in Ottawa don’t know Bobby Ryan. He was drafted there in 2005, but he’s been back to the city only once, with the Ducks, scoring the winner in a shootout a couple of years ago. At this point, Bobby Ryan is just a name in Ottawa. Sens fans will get to know him better, but the first thing they should know about him is that while “Robert Ryan” is on his U.S. passport, it’s not the name on his birth certificate. It was a name he had to remember to use for fear that his whole world would crumble.
It goes back to Cherry Hill, N.J., a suburb of Philly. They were the Stevensons: Bob, who worked in the insurance business, his wife, Melody, and their son, Bobby. They had a good quality of life and financial security, but they weren’t just like any other family in Cherry Hill. Bob was a driven guy, high-compression, like a golf ball. He pushed himself, pushed his son, wanted the absolute best, took control of everything within the bounds of family and still couldn’t be satisfied. He saw bad influences on the fringes where no one else did. He saw them around Melody’s life, around his son’s. And a lot of people in their neighbourhood knew little Bobby Stevenson, a precocious hockey talent on the ice or on Rollerblades. They thought Bobby would go places in the game. Bob was convinced that he could make it happen. Or, rather, that only he could make it happen.
Bob Stevenson knew another Bob: Bob Clarke, the Flyers’ Hall of Famer, owned the gym where Bob worked out. No coincidence then that on Oct. 29, 1997, father and son had second-row seats at the CoreStates Center with the Blues in the house. Bob was pulling for Clarkey’s Flyers, Bobby likewise, even though Brett Hull was his favourite player. No luck for the home team that night–St. Louis won. Bob took his son home, put him to bed and then slipped out for a couple of beers with the boys. The Stevensons’ lives were shattered when Bob got home at 11:30, Bob doing the shattering.
Maybe it was all too good to last. Bob had a temper, never cooler than a simmer. He’d had charges from a bar fight dismissed a few months earlier. Charges from Oct. 29 wouldn’t be. Bob had rigged a tape recorder to the home phone, and when he checked it that night, he found out that Melody had made a call. He accused her of trying to buy drugs. She denied it. Bob didn’t believe her. He blew up. He punched his wife, choked her. When she managed to get a door between them, he ripped it off its hinges. Neighbours called the cops.
Bob was arrested. Melody was rushed off in an ambulance. And 10-year-old Bobby slept through the assault and the arrival of police. That’s what he told his mother when she picked him up from a neighbour’s house after her four-day stay in hospital for treatment of a fractured skull and internal bleeding. Bobby had always known that his home life wasn’t like other kids’, that his parents’ marriage was troubled. He couldn’t have known that life wasn’t going to be the same after that night.
Bob Stevenson was charged with attempted murder, aggravated assault and criminal restraint. Melody told the prosecutors that she wouldn’t co-operate, but they thought they had an airtight case just based on her injuries and neighbours’ eyewitness testimony. Today, she says she still loved Bob, still thought Bobby needed his father. Bob says he still loved Melody, still felt that his son needed him. The idea of public shame, of a trial, of going to jail, of being separated from his wife and, most of all, he’ll say, not being there for his son, was too much for Bob. He was released on $75,000 bail and skipped it a few weeks later, landing in El Segundo, Calif.
Bob Stevenson took on an alias, Shane Ryan. Ryan was his wife’s maiden name, so it was no stretch for Melody to use it again when she drove across the country with Bobby to rejoin her husband and try to stitch the family back together. The newly minted Mr. and Mrs. Ryan told Bobby that going forward his last name was Ryan too, that the other name was never to be mentioned. “They were serious, so I only had to be told once,” Bobby says.
Given the risks he was taking, it was fitting that Shane Ryan supported his family as a professional gambler. He had to beat the odds and live one step ahead of the law every day. Bobby was home-schooled, an only child isolated from other kids except at the arena. Hockey was the only constant from the Ryans’ previous life. Bobby landed in the L.A. Jr. Kings program and thrived there. “The game was always my saving grace,” he says.
But the game also put him in the public eye. People whom the Ryans met through youth hockey had questions about Shane’s background, thought something wasn’t flush about the family’s story. They had their suspicions, thinking that he seemed a lot like a kid from Philly whom they’d seen in national tournaments, though no one pushed it, simply because they wanted to protect Bobby.
The Ryans lived day-to-day for a couple of years in L.A., but Bobby’s father knew it couldn’t last. Eventually he’d slip up, and the Feds would come knocking. And they did in 2000, when he went into a Blockbuster video store and used a credit card with another alias. Bobby woke up when U.S. marshals broke down the door of the apartment, and he watched as they hauled his father away. Bob Stevenson’s life as Shane Ryan was over, and he would be extradited to New Jersey. The son left behind was broken-hearted. “I felt empty, like I didn’t want to play hockey anymore,” he says.
This time, there was no escape for Bob Stevenson. He pleaded to aggravated assault and jumping bail, was handed a five-year sentence and was shipped off to Riverfront State Prison in Camden.
Melody and Bobby stayed in California. She worked practically every waking hour to make ends meet. During the day she had a job at an arena, where Bobby did his homework dutifully beside her. At night she worked the counter for an airline and Bobby stayed at the apartment by himself. “Bobby wasn’t home-schooled, really. He home-schooled himself,” Melody says.
He kept playing hockey and roller hockey, with friends’ and teammates’ parents helping out when there wasn’t enough money for equipment and registration fees. Bobby was always able to find someone to skate with. “The arena was more of a home to Bobby than our home was,” Melody says. “He knew every single person there.”
Through her job with the airline, Melody was able to get a deal on tickets when Bobby had to travel to tournaments. “Bobby would be the only kid whose parents weren’t on the trips with him,” she says. Before one of the trips with the Jr. Kings, Melody asked Bobby a hard question: Did he want to have “Bobby Ryan” or “Bobby Stevenson” on his ticket? He told her that he wanted to be Bobby Ryan. And so he has been ever since.
Flash forward to 2003. All the hardship had rocked Bobby Ryan, but it hadn’t knocked him off the course of his hockey dreams. He was going to have all kinds of scholarship offers. Bobby and Melody moved to the Detroit area so he could spend a season playing in the Honeybaked program and attract the attention of recruiters from the University of Michigan. That’s when his father’s friend Bob Clarke re-entered the picture. He advised Melody and Bobby that the Canadian Hockey League was his best option to make it to the pros someday. Clarke told them that Owen Sound would be a good fit, that a former Flyer, Mike Stothers, was the coach there. The Attack brought Bobby up the shores of Georgian Bay, showed him around town, something just short of wining and dining. The Attack thought it was going to be a tough sell. It wasn’t. With all the turmoil in his life, Owen Sound offered a chance for Bobby Ryan to get better. “On and off the ice, it was what I needed, what we all needed,” Bobby says. “It was a sanctuary for me.”
On the ice, Bobby was an immediate success, scoring 22 goals as a 16-year-old. Off the ice, his life was as normal as it could be. Not quite normal, what with not being able to see his father, who was still serving his stretch in prison, but still, Bobby had friends, went to a high school, hung out, enjoyed his little bit of celebrity. In his first year in Owen Sound, he lived with his mother in a cottage right on the water. In his second year, she moved back to New Jersey and he moved in with Dick and Gayle Stegehuis, who billeted teenagers. “It’s funny, but I struggled with that at first,” Bobby says. “I hadn’t had a ‘family’ around me growing up. It was outside my comfort level. I had never spent that much time around other people.”
In 2005, Anaheim was runner-up in the draft lottery when Pittsburgh claimed first prize: the right to select Sidney Crosby. Brian Burke’s opinion was that Bobby Ryan was the next-best player, and as the Ducks’ GM, Burke’s opinion was the only one that counted. In the days before selecting him, Burke spoke at length to Ryan (“His interview with the team was the best I’ve ever sat in on,” Burke said), to Bob Stevenson (who had been released from prison) and to Melody (who, like her husband, attended the draft). At Burke’s urging and with the Attack’s support, Bobby set up a schedule of appointments with a sports psychologist in Toronto.
“To that point, I had done things alone,” he says, his expression betraying no reluctance to talk about reaching out for help. “I could go to friends. They knew my story. They could help out, but they were teenagers too, and I didn’t want to be a burden to them. There were other people with the team, and Dick and Gayle, but I knew that I was better off talking to someone professional who could help me find a passage.”
In therapy, Bobby talked about the pressures that spun out of a family life that had too many painful stretches. How he came to believe his success in hockey represented the best shot, maybe the only shot, to keep his parents together.
And in therapy, Bobby saw his life more clearly. “I realized I was stronger than I ever knew,” he says. He came to understand his father better. When Bobby was young, Bob pushed him relentlessly. He made it almost impossible for Bobby to live up to his expectations. “He should be tougher,” Bob would tell people. “He should be stronger.” Even now, with his son an established star, Bob Stevenson wants more from him. “He plays the guitar and collects wine, but this year I just hope he focuses on hockey and puts other stuff aside and gets that I-just-want-to-be-the-best-player-in-the-world desire,” he says.
Bob Stevenson says he’s glad that Bobby sought out a therapist’s help. “It’s something we never talk about,” he says. “Not a conversation we have. Every day I think about the hurt I caused Bobby and Melody. I’m lucky that I didn’t lose them for the awful mistakes I made. Our way of putting it behind us is not to talk about it between us. I’m sure there are scars–there would have to be. I don’t believe in [psychologists], but he needed someone to talk to about them. And it helped him.”
When Bobby hears this, with his first camp in Ottawa just a few days off, he smiles and stifles a laugh. “My father sees the world differently than other people,” he says. “I benefited from him pushing me all the time. I don’t think it hurt me. I rebelled against it, but only in a way that I wanted a day off, or to see my friends. To be like just another kid.”
Today, Bobby Ryan isn’t just another kid, of course. At 26, he’s a man, not a child. He’s the new face of the Senators franchise. But through all the change, he remains the sum of life experiences that would claim almost anyone else as a casualty.
He has almost 400 NHL games and an Olympic silver medal on his resumé, yet fans might know Bobby Ryan best for a video: Gold vs. Silver, a spoof that aired at the NHL awards back in 2010, in which Ryan Getzlaf, his teammate in Anaheim and a member of the Canadian team that came away with gold in Vancouver, subjected Bobby Ryan to a passive-aggressive humbling at every turn. Bobby Ryan took it all with a stone face for laughs, the ultimate good sport about the toughest loss of his career. A tough loss still just a game. Everything in balance.
Moving into his place in suburban Ottawa, he didn’t unpack that silver medal. He didn’t bring it. It’s in a drawer back in Idaho. “I only show it if someone asks,” he says. A tough memory blocked out.
He pulls out of his driveway and heads off to buy groceries and cleaning supplies so that their home will be good to go before his girlfriend, Danielle, flies in from L.A. He spots a nanny pushing a carriage eight blocks from home. “I saw that same woman, that same carriage, that same kid four hours ago, a long way from here,” he says. A heightened awareness of all things around him.
As he’s driving, people point and wave at him, and he wonders how he’s so instantly recognizable, at least until he realizes the car dealer has placed a big “BR6″ decal in the window. He says that he likes to go to his place in Idaho because he’s “anonymous” there and “never recognized” and can relax with his girlfriend with the mountains in the background. A desire just to blend in and not be conspicuous.
He says he has “grown by leaps and bounds” and that he’s “strong and more mature” than he was at 18. But he also says that everything in New Jersey and L.A. is still there, memories that aren’t erased. He didn’t go back to Philly to see his parents during the summer after his rookie season, staying on in California to train instead. He did the same after his second year. His parents had moved back in together when a court-enforced restraining order expired, and Bobby felt he needed distance from them, a chance to focus on the game and decompress. Since 2010, he has spent summers in Idaho but visits his parents for stretches. They’ll come up to Ottawa to see him during this winter one at a time, as someone has to stay home to look after their Siberian husky.
Like Owen Sound, Ottawa represents the chance for a reset. He can win over the fans in the city with his skill on the ice and his wit and charm away from the game. He can be secure in the knowledge that his parents are set up to lead a great life, one unimaginable when he was young and wary of tripping an alarm. He has helped his father to buy out Bob Clarke’s gym. Now Bob Stevenson trains kids who want to grow up to be just like Bobby. Looking ahead, Bobby Ryan can have what looks like a Happily Ever After. But he knows “there’s still work to do,” and that he has an appointment to keep on Mondays.