Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk wanted to get him off the payroll, and Bobby Ryan simply wanted off the grid.
As far as players are concerned, the injury-troubled Senators winger represents the cost-cutting club’s heftiest financial commitment, by a long shot: four more seasons at a $7.2-million cap hit, with Ryan’s actual salary jumping to a team-high $7.5 million and remaining at that rate through 2022.
Ryan has been traded once before and emerged intact after allowing himself to ride the emotional roller coaster of hockey’s deafening rumour mill. He knows which way the wind blows.
So Ryan is well aware that, if GM Pierre Dorion had his druthers, he would’ve been packed up as Erik Karlsson’s carry-on for a one-way flight west.
“I thought a couple points this summer I was gone, through very small conversations I’d had,” says Ryan, somewhat surprised to be here, in Ottawa, sitting down for a chat with Sportsnet at the opening of training camp. “When you’re least ready for it, it happens. Having been prepared for it all summer, I said there’s no way it’s going to happen — and here I am.”
Once Ryan learned the Senators posted a two-for-one sale sign on he and Karlsson, he reached out to the Norris winner with questions.
“Even though he knows I’m not going to go anywhere with it, he kinda played it close to the chest,” Ryan says.
“I understand it. I just said, ‘Listen, if there’s something I need to know, please give me a heads up,’ and he’s always going to be gracious enough to do that.”
Ryan can chuckle now, a little. He can sound confidently optimistic when discussing Ottawa’s Grade A prospects, the Thomas Chabots, Colin Whites and Brady Tkachuks. And it feels genuine.
This doesn’t feel like that memorable deadline day in Vancouver, when an emotional Roberto Luongo said, “My contract sucks,” and you felt for the guy.
The richest human beings, we sometimes forget, are still human beings.
Being constantly portrayed as a financial anchor, a blockbuster buster, does that eat at Ryan?
“People are free to say it. I didn’t ask for the contract. That’s why you pay an agent, and that’s why they negotiate with people across the hall,” says Ryan, who rounded the bases back in Oct. 2014 to the tune of $50.75 million.
Much too much, critics scream, for a four-time 30-goal winger who managed just 11 goals last season and hit a career-worst minus-12. For a guy who has missed 20 games in each of the past two campaigns because his fingers keep blocking pucks.
But Ryan — a man who has dealt with much realer issues over his 31 years — refuses to walk around Canadian Tire Centre wearing his paycheque like an albatross.
“A lot of people probably feel that way. I don’t. My contract is alright with me,” he smiles.
“I understand the ramifications of it, but that’s the business side. I get to be pretty isolated. I go home. I turn my phone off and enjoy my time away.
“I just learned a long time ago to control what you can control.”
Ryan can control where he spends his off-season.
So he and his young family — wife Danielle, two-year-old daughter Riley, and newborn son Chase — moved to the last North American city you’d run into an NHL autograph hound: Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
“Honest to God, I wanted to throw a dart at the map and be off the grid as much as I could. Somewhere remote so nobody wanted to visit,” Ryan explains. “There’s no people. I need to get away from hockey for a couple months. I need to recharge.”
Strange as it seems, Idaho is quietly gaining steam as a hipster summertime hangout for pros. Ryan trained with Tampa’s Tyler Johnson, Calgary’s Derek Ryan, plus a cluster of AHL and junior players.
“[Wayne] Gretzky was the first one out there years ago, and some guys followed him. It’s kinda been a trickle effect,” Ryan says. “Tyler and I moved in this year, and now we’re recruiting guys from all over to move in as well.”
Ryan has also had success controlling when his babies are born. He considers himself lucky to be in the delivery room to welcome both children in June — playoff proof.
“If you sat in on a birth, especially if it’s your child, I don’t think you can describe it,” Dad says. Ryan woke up at 4 a.m. on June 25, 10 minutes before Chase came into the world. “Pure elation.”
Obscured by the smoke billowing from Ottawa’s tire fire is the fact a healthy Ryan should still be a difference-maker. Exploding for 15 points in 19 playoff games in 2017, Ryan was essential to the Sens’ remarkable run that spring. He’s been labeled fragile, but cold rubber smashing into his gloves are “just freak injuries,” he says.
He spent the entire first month of the off-season just rehabbing his broken index finger through rubber band work and resistance exercises. Now, he says, it feels good, stronger than it has in two years — and he’ll never take his hands for granted.
“All of a sudden you don’t have them, and it’s hard to pick your kid up,” Ryan says. “I can’t tell people that I’m 10 times more frustrated than you are that I’m not playing. People don’t understand. They just think:
“Because I can do everything except for play hockey, I’m essentially going back to a summer program, which is not a lot of fun to do. You don’t even feel like you’re part of the team. You’re on different schedules. You say hello in and out the door, and that’s it. It’s depressing being out, especially when you know it’s Day 1 of six weeks.”
Like Ryan, the Senators are determined to leave the hurt and drama and losing streaks behind. Stylistically, coach Guy Boucher — of whom Ryan is an ardent supporter — will implement a renewed focus on speed. The attack will be belligerent, the legs younger, the identity… less boring.
“We’ve been guilty of sitting back, especially when we do have the lead. It seems we allow the other team to come at us in waves, then we’re tied and then we give the lead up,” Ryan says. “I like that we’ll be aggressive, that the forecheck is going to change. I thought it was too passive at times. You felt like you were on an island at times, especially when you’re waiting.
“I’m really encouraged. I had a couple meetings with Coach, and he showed me what’s going to change, where we’re going from here. It’s stuff I think our team will relate to and get. It’s going to be very simple and it’s going to work.”
A recharged Bobby Ryan survived the summer, the baby is healthy and happy, and he’s back on the grid, controlling the things he can.
Ryan stops a beat and flashes a grin.
“I just hope I don’t take a puck early, and we’re good to go.”