We marvel at hockey players for their ability to do things on the ice few could dream of matching.
For this rare talent, they are rewarded with rich contracts and a degree of fame and renown that is also beyond our imaginations.
Yet, beneath the iconic NHL team crest and the hockey hair beats the heart of a man who bleeds and suffers, laughs and rejoices — has highs and lows like the rest of us.
On Labour Day Monday, a fitting day to honour work and dedication, Bobby Ryan of the Ottawa Senators was awarded the 2019-20 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy. He won it not due to his skill, which he also has in spades, but largely because he rebounded from an alcohol dependence that nearly every family in North America could relate to and appreciate in some way; a common, everyday affliction. Some 21 million Americans face addictions and several million more in Canada, according to Addiction Centre statistics.
Ryan, presented the award virtually on Sportsnet’s game night broadcast by former winner Pat Lafontaine, congratulated Masterton runners-up Oskar Lindblom of the Philadelphia Flyers and Stephen Johns of Dallas, before an emotional address to a national audience.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life,” Ryan said about leaving the team, going through intensive rehab and returning to the lineup. “It took a lot out of everyone around me and thank you for recognizing that.” That was a nod to the Professional Hockey Writers Association, members of which vote for the Masterton.
Talk about dedication — due to a power outage in Idaho, Ryan had to pack up his family and drive 40 minutes to a brewpub for a wifi connection to receive his Masterton and do a Zoom call with reporters. That connection also enabled him to receive texts of congratulations from nearly every one of his Senators teammates.
From these very public surroundings, Ryan thanked the Senators ownership, management and staff for “letting me go to get the help I needed — and hopefully I can continue to be a productive player in the future.
“It was a tough year for D.J. Smith in particular, a first-year coach and you get this thrown at you,” Ryan said. “I’d really like to thank him for his patience with it.”
Doctors and counsellors “taught me how to do this,” Ryan said, “giving me all the tools I needed and, I guess, releasing me back into the game. Their patience with me was incredible and I owe them everything.”
Lastly, but most importantly, Ryan thanked his wife, Danielle, the mother of their two children, Riley and Chase.
“Five years ago, because of her (Danielle), I could feel myself and see myself starting to become the man that I wanted to be,” Ryan said. “And I took a detour, but I’m back. I’m back and I’m trying to get better every day. Every day I wake up and go through this process of therapy and everything so that I can be better for the two of you (his children). Hockey will always be second to that. And I love all of you.”
At times during his Zoom call, Ryan directed his kids as they scooted around the kind of brewpub he once frequented for a different purpose. Ryan will have to confront his addiction for the rest of his life, and he offered this advice to those in similar circumstances:
“Find out a way to reach out, not to me, but to someone close to you that can give you that guidance,” Ryan said. “And that conversation will get you started.”
Ryan’s story is compelling — he returned from weeks at a rehabilitation centre to score a hat trick and engage in a fight during his first game back — on Feb. 27 against the Vancouver Canucks. He was away from the game for more than three months.
Fittingly, the Masterton Trophy is awarded to the NHL player who “best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”
Bill 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 that year.
A $2,500 grant from the PHWA is awarded annually to the Masterton Scholarship Fund in Bloomington, Minn.
Ottawa players have now scooped the award twice in the past three years, covering four winners. Goaltender Craig Anderson was awarded the Masterton Trophy in 2016-17.
In the case of Ryan, 33, he was battling severe personal demons when he sought help last fall through the NHL Players Association players assistance program. Considering his steep contract ($7.25 million per season through 2021-22), it crossed Ryan’s mind that his career could be over when he left the team on Nov. 20 of 2019. Visions of a buyout danced in his head.
“I left knowing I might have played my last game in the NHL,” he said, on the day he was nominated for the Masterton. “And that was the hardest thing to swallow and get over.”
More than 100 days later, after receiving treatment and then weeks of training on his own, Ryan returned to Ottawa’s lineup and played the hero’s role in a script written by Disney.
“It was just an incredible evening,” he said.
Asked if this honour might even be greater than the Stanley Cup or scoring a huge goal, Ryan said “I 100 per cent believe that,” due to the significance of getting clean. He quickly added, he would love to pursue a Cup, however.
Because of his support at home, Ryan termed this a “family award” more than an individual honour.
“It means a lot to me but I hope it means more to my wife, because she set so much aside to get me here,” he said. “I look forward to celebrating it with them.”
Family relationships have changed dramatically since getting help, Ryan says.
“I’m in a better place to be a better father and husband,” Ryan said. “I don’t wake up and have to wonder what I’ve missed.”
Ryan confronted personal demons long before this season, a story well documented in hockey circles. He was born Bobby Stevenson in Cherry Hill, N.J., but neither the name nor the home residence would last. Bobby’s father, Shane, was a fugitive from justice and an abusive husband. He changed the family name to Ryan as they set out for a life on the run. Shane Ryan was arrested in 2000.
Ryan looked to his mother, Melody, as the family foundation, and when she died of cancer in 2016, Ryan wrote an emotional tribute in The Players’ Tribune to thank and honour her.
On the ice, Ryan won’t point to 2019-20 as a great statistical success, but will look back fondly on the year his life changed. His season shortened by his treatment and then by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March, Ryan appeared in just 24 games and produced five goals and three assists. More than half of his goals came in that one-game surge, on a magical night in February.
Though it was tough having his season end so abruptly, it was a blessing of sorts for Ryan, still vulnerable as he returned to the NHL.
“It made everything easier because it got me to slow down,” he says. “I felt like everything was picking up at a pace I’m not sure I was ready for yet.
“I have been able to take all these months and really learn about myself. Continue with therapy. And let go of some things that led me down another road.”
After a successful junior career with Owen Sound of the OHL, Ryan was drafted second overall by the Anaheim Ducks in 2005. A guy named Sidney Crosby went first, to Pittsburgh. In Anaheim, playing alongside the likes of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, Ryan emerged as a scorer with the Ducks, four times scoring 30 or more goals.
Speaking during the pre-game broadcast Monday of the Lightning-Islanders conference final opener, former Ducks GM Brian Burke said he was “extremely proud” of Ryan for his career and recent journey.
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).
Ryan hasn’t yet reached the 30-goal mark in Ottawa, but has found a place as a respected veteran on a young team. During the unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2017, Ryan had six goals and 15 points in 19 games, including two game winners.