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No Looking Back

Feb. 09, 2009
Feb. 09, 2009

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Feb. 9, 2009

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No Looking Back

Drafted second to Sidney Crosby four years ago, the Ducks' Bobby Ryan has overcome a slow start to his career and a harsh chapter of his family life to become the NHL's hottest rookie

FOR ONCE something newsworthy hung over Bobby Ryan that wasn't about his potential or the salary cap or his extraordinary (and messy) family story: a message on the jumbotron. As the puck was dropped to start the third period of last week's Blackhawks-Ducks game in Anaheim, the scoreboard reported that Ryan's 11th goal of January—a power-play tip-in during period one, in which Ryan planted himself to the left of the Chicago crease, extended his improbably long stick and redirected a Chris Pronger shot—was the most by a rookie in a month since Alexander Ovechkin's 11 in March 2006. "I probably shouldn't be telling you this," said second-year center Ryan Carter, sitting next to Ryan on the Ducks' bench, "but that's awesome." Fearing a camera would catch him, Ryan, a 21-year-old with dancing eyes, suppressed a smile.

This is an article from the Feb. 9, 2009 issue

This might have been the first time Ryan had been linked to Ovechkin. Usually the winger has been juxtaposed with the NHL's other young darling, Sidney Crosby—and not in a good way. Crosby went first to Pittsburgh in the 2005 draft. Anaheim then made Ryan the answer to a trivia question, choosing the Owen Sound Attack forward at No. 2 over defenseman Marc Staal, whom some in the Ducks' organization coveted. Crosby leaped immediately to stardom and sports drink commercials. Ryan? At his first rookie camp, three months after the draft, his fitness level was so poor that the Ducks' trainer had him ride a stationary bike for two of the three days instead of skating with the others.

"How long do I have to go?" Ryan called out one day while pedaling furiously.

"All the way back to Owen Sound," said then general manager Brian Burke, who, unbeknownst to Ryan, had slipped into the room.

Ordinarily the second player drafted goes to a team that needs him immediately. The 2005 draft, however, was anything but ordinary because the order of selection in that post-lockout summer was determined randomly. Ryan went to an organization stacked at the NHL level, one that would reach the Western Conference final in 2006 and win the Stanley Cup in '07. "We were loyal and didn't make changes," says Bob Murray, then Burke's second in command and now his successor. "No young players were making our team." While Ryan was stalled in juniors and later the AHL, others picked behind Crosby were making an impact, including Staal (selected at No. 12 by the New York Rangers) and, gallingly, Anze Kopitar, who had been taken 11th by rival Los Angeles.

"Everybody was kind of wondering, Where's our kid?" recalls Pronger, a defenseman taken second overall in 1993. "Everybody wants to write off a 19-, 20-year-old when they don't even know how good he can be."

Finally arriving on Nov. 15—following a few quick peeks last season and a strong preseason in September, Ryan was kept in the AHL until the Ducks could clear cap space—he has been worth the wait. Ryan had a five-game goal streak snapped last Saturday in Colorado but still ranked first among rookies, with 17 goals and second in points with 34, despite playing 11 fewer games than Chicago's Kris Versteeg, the leader through Sunday with 38. The 6'2" Ryan has shuttled between lines, but his size and vision have earned him important power-play time. He has thrust himself into the Calder Trophy conversation along with Columbus goalie Steve Mason and Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, who calls Ryan the toughest forward he faced in junior hockey.

He is a righthanded shot who shifted to left wing last season, providing him a better angle to shoot one-timers. He is a svelte 208, down some 15 pounds from his biking-to-Owen-Sound weight. Although hardly an elegant skater—he bends from the waist so his body resembles a question mark—Ryan moves with surprising alacrity and purpose when the puck is on his stick. Says Burke, now Toronto's G.M., "God smiled when He handed out those pair of hands to that boy.... If Bobby turns into the player I think he can, he'll be a star."

At last Ryan is making a name for himself, though it is a name he was forced to adopt after a sin of his father's nearly destroyed his family.

THE DUCKS scheduled their annual Father's Trip around games with the Rangers and Islanders last month in New York, a few days of team and generational bonding. Ryan asked if the father-son dinner was mandatory; Murray, the G.M., said yes. "I'd wanted time to catch up with my dad and not be in a crowd," says Ryan, who hadn't seen his father since June. "He's not good in that environment, not comfortable with a lot of people around after what he went through when he was away."

"I missed a lot of years with him," says Bob Ryan, who drove from his home in southern New Jersey and sat with Bobby and forward Drew Miller and his father. "I'd rather spend that time [with Bobby] alone."

Bob Ryan—he occasionally refers to himself by his original name, Bob Stevenson—missed those years because he was in prison. This is the story, as painful and abridged as it is ultimately hopeful:

In October 1997 Stevenson assaulted his wife, and Bobby's mother, Melody, in the family's Cherry Hill, N.J., home. Bob, who had been drinking, fractured Melody's skull, broke four of her ribs and punctured a lung. Bobby, an only child, says he remembers nothing of the incident; the 10-year-old had fallen asleep after attending a Blues-Flyers game in Philadelphia that night with his parents and recalls only waking at his grandfather's house the next day and wondering how he'd gotten there. Bob Stevenson was arrested and charged with six felony counts, including attempted murder. Although Melody obtained a restraining order against her husband, the couple soon reconciled and she asked that all charges be dropped. When a Camden County judge decided to proceed with the case, Stevenson, in late 1998, jumped bail. Melody and Bobby would join him the next summer in L.A.

The father and son took the surname Ryan, from Saving Private Ryan. "My father wanted something really Irish," says Bobby Ryan, born on St. Patrick's Day. The identity switch was only troublesome when Bobby was forced to feign ignorance after kids at the rink told him he looked and played like Bobby Stevenson—a roller hockey star on championship teams from New Jersey that had played tournaments in L.A. To lay low, and to clear time for hockey, Bobby was schooled at home.

Bob Ryan always intended to come back to face the charges, he says, but he wanted his son to be settled first. The timetable was abruptly adjusted in early 2000 when state and federal agents raided the family apartment in Hermosa Beach. "I was sleeping on the couch on our first floor so they had to come right through me," Bobby says. "It was 4:45 in morning. Quick. It was like, 'Oh, bye.' And then I went back to sleep."

"The way I like to look at it is maybe at ages 13, 14, 15, I wasn't meant to be the influence in his life," says Bob Ryan, who in July 2000 pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and bail jumping. Even with Bob in prison, Bobby prospered, embraced by families in Michigan and Owen Sound and wherever youth hockey took him. He spent summers with Melody and his grandparents in New Jersey, periodically visiting Bob in the state prison in Camden.

Bobby Ryan has been telling his unconventional story since before his draft—"This is who I am, I'm not running, I'm not hiding," he says—and it does have an unconventionally happy ending. Bob Ryan, a former insurance executive who became a personal trainer after his incarceration of nearly four years, and Melody Stevenson (she never changed her married name) are still married. The personal training business is booming and Bobby, earning $850,000 this season, is praised by teammates who tag him with one label that makes a father most proud: "Good kid."

Two nights after that father-son dinner at a Manhattan restaurant, Bobby, with Bob in the Madison Square Garden crowd, scored a goal.

"I missed a lot of years with Bobby," says Ryan's father, Bob. He missed those years because HE WAS IN PRISON.

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PHOTOCHRISTIAN PETERSEN/GETTY IMAGESTHE LONG VIEW Ryan's skating skills are so-so, but his soft hands, his former G.M. Burke says, show the potential of a star.PHOTOPhotograph by Debora Robinson[See caption above]PHOTOKIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT/US PRESSWIREBEARING DOWN With his 11 goals in January—tied for the most in the league—Ryan skated into the race for the Calder.