Bobby Ryan’s comeback from addiction earns him Senators’ Masterton nod

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Ottawa Senators forward Bobby Ryan. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

In the safety and comfort of his summer home in Idaho, Bobby Ryan can admit he thought his career might be over when he left the Ottawa Senators last November to seek help for an alcohol addiction.

“Right when I left was the hardest time,” Ryan said on a Zoom call with Ottawa media Tuesday. “Obviously, with the [big] contract there was that, but I left knowing I might have played my last game in the NHL. And that was the hardest thing to swallow and get over.”

Whenever things look bleak for the Senators, Ryan has a way of stepping up.

In 2017, he was an unlikely playoff hero during Ottawa’s surprising run to the Eastern Conference Final, producing 15 points and two overtime winners.

In late February of this year, the rebuilding Senators were in the throes of a four-game losing streak and had dropped 21 of their previous 26 games when Ryan returned from a rehabilitation centre to lift fans out of their seats with one of the most dramatic comebacks in the 28-year history of the hockey club.

Not having played in more than 100 days since declaring on Nov. 20 that he was leaving the team to take part in the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program, Ryan responded to an expectant crowd at the Canadian Tire Centre with an explosion of pent-up energy and emotion: three goals and a fight (against Chris Tanev) in an inspiring 5-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks.

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Ryan’s first period goal, a tip of a Nikita Zaitsev shot, was Ryan’s first since Oct. 2. It launched the first of too many standing ovations to count.

“It just got harder to keep the emotions down throughout the game … I mean, you can’t write that,” Ryan said, of the script that unfolded that night. “It’s just an incredible evening.”

As he celebrated with his teammates — but not in the way he used to — Ryan heard one of his dressing room pals say, “you just threw your hat in the ring for the Masterton.”

On Tuesday, that comment proved prophetic. Ryan, 33, was named Ottawa’s nominee for the 2019-2020 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy.

Once again, Ryan has put a smile on a dark week, changing the subject matter following a negative news spiral surrounding owner Eugene Melnyk’s breakup with the Ottawa Senators charitable Foundation.

The Masterton Trophy, as voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, is awarded to the NHL player who “best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”

Masterton, a forward with the Minnesota North Stars in the 1960s, suffered massive brain trauma during a game against the Oakland Seals on Jan. 13, 1968. He died two days later. The award was launched in his honour in 1968.

Ryan, battling back from the scars of a traumatic childhood, and in recent years an alcohol addiction, is a worthy candidate for the Masterton award, which has only once gone to a Senators player — goaltender Craig Anderson in 2016-17.

Ryan has experienced personal loss and damage, which, to his credit, he has always been willing to share. In 2016 when he lost his mother, Melody, to cancer, Ryan penned a stirring tribute to her in a Players’ Tribune article. She was his rock as a child and a young man.

Ryan’s family background has been well documented. Born Bobby Stevenson in Cherry Hill, N.J., Bobby’s father, Shane was a fugitive from justice and changed the family name to Ryan as they set out for a life on the run. Shane Ryan was arrested in 2000. For perspective on Bobby Ryan’s bizarre early life, check out the in-depth feature by Sportsnet’s Christine Simpson.

Drafted by Anaheim second overall behind Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby in 2005 — another life moment with scarring potential — Ryan nevertheless emerged as a scorer with the Ducks, four times breaking the 30-goal threshold.

In the summer of 2013, Ryan was acquired by Ottawa in a blockbuster trade that sent forward Jakob Silfverberg to Anaheim along with forward prospect Stefan Noesen and a first-round draft pick (used to select Nick Ritchie).

With Ottawa, Ryan has become as well known for his contract as for his production. In October of 2014, Ryan signed a seven-year, $50,750,000 contract that will pay him $7.25M through the 2021-22 season.

This season, Ryan played in just 24 games, with five goals and three assists. This, after three straight seasons below the 20-goal mark — 13, 11 and 15.

Fans relate to his vulnerability, honesty

Other players have been run out of NHL towns after signing big deals without the points to match, yet Ryan has become a popular figure among the fan base because people relate to his vulnerability and humanity, despite the salary.

Ryan represents the work in progress that many of us are, with our personal hardships and closet skeletons. He wears his heart on his sleeve, for all to see.

“I think when you look at players and athletes, people have a perception that they are making a million bucks and living the good life, and getting to play hockey and flying around, but I don’t think people get a chance to relate to some of the things that go on underneath,” Ryan said.

“Because I’ve been open and candid about that, I think people look at me and say, ’there is a very relatable person.’ Through my familiar [past] and then the alcohol issues, things like that, I’ve never hid from it.

“I’ve said, if I am going to do this, I am going to do it in the public eye and be candid with it. Some of the most rewarding things have been people that have reached out on social media, Instagram or whatever it might be, sending me private messages. And I am able to pay it forward by helping them.

“Some I’ve helped find treatments. Some I’ve helped have the right conversations. These are people I didn’t know that I indirectly affected. It’s incredible I am able to do that.”

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Other than a recent minor surgery, Ryan has been in terrific health and good spirits, with a routine of 6:30 a.m. workouts followed by dad duty with his two kids around 9 am.

“I was until last week when I had a vasectomy, I haven’t moved in five days and I feel like a bag of [expletive] right now,” Ryan said, in classic Bobby Ryan candour.

“I hope we’re not live on anything.”

The initial quarantine after the season ended in March was a godsend, he said.

“I felt like I was running at a hundred miles an hour for the last four months there. And I really hadn’t had a chance to take a step back. At first it was — OK, have another day sober.

“Then you get thrown into daily NHL life and you forget to do the daily affirmations for alcohol control.

“I took those 14 days [of quarantine] to almost re-educate myself in learning how to stay sober. And it helped immensely. It really gave me a chance to slow down.”

He thanked his wife, Danielle, for her role in this “familial” and the team Masterton nomination. He thanked his trainers for whipping him into shape, and head coach D.J. Smith for keeping him on the rails during a terrifyingly long road back to getting in the starting lineup.

“I thought I was leaving for 30 days, practicing and getting right back into things, and learned that wasn’t going to be the case.”

It took weeks to get the medical clearance to play again, to go with the off-ice and on-ice training.

“Coming back I felt I was having another obstacle every day, another obstacle every week and another thing to progress from, until I was part of the team again.”

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The Masterton nomination is a “great thing that came from all the tough things through the year,” Ryan said. “I’m extremely pleased to be the Sens representative.”

The other day, Bobby and his wife had a conversation about their journey.

“We talked briefly about how far we’ve come in the last six months, how far I’ve come with things that have led to the day-in, day-out rewards I’m getting now,” he said.

Assuming the Senators want him back, he vows to return in great condition, no longer a player who takes a drink.

“I’d like to continue to be a top six player, I think I still have that in me, I think I showed that a little bit in the four games I played [after the comeback] and if it’s with the Sens, I just want to help the kids get better and help them toward the path of being a consistent playoff team, because all the pieces are there. And they are going to continue to get there with all the drafting they have coming forward.”

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