As the media walked away from Bobby Ryan’s locker stall at 10:20 p.m. ET on Thursday night, the Senators forward was exhausted.
After two live television interviews and a lengthy scrum with reporters, Ryan had just spent the last 15 minutes trying to articulate his feelings about a night that was – in so many ways – indescribable.
“I need to take a deep breath,” Ryan said aloud, as the assembled crowd headed for the locker room exit.
If movie studios were cautious about buying the rights to a film about a 42-year-old Zamboni driver beating the Toronto Maple Leafs on a Saturday night because it seemed implausible, they might express a similar skepticism about purchasing the Bobby Ryan story.
Consider that a week ago, Ryan stood in the exact same spot in front of the glaring lights of television cameras and admitted that his three-month absence from the Ottawa Senators was due to an ongoing battle with alcohol abuse.
He alluded to unresolved childhood issues from an unstable upbringing as a potential root cause for his issues. Ryan – who is still actively receiving therapy – was sheepish about admitting his missteps in public, but understood it was a necessary step if he wanted to return to the NHL.
The 32-year-old Ryan talked about hitting a “reset” button and getting one more chance to fulfill his dream of playing in the NHL. He vowed to not take his professional career for granted any longer.
Against this backdrop, not even the most clichéd scriptwriter from Disney would suggest a plot where the main character as described above, would come back and score a hat trick in his first home game six days later.
And yet, we all witnessed that very storyline unfold in front of our eyes Thursday night at the Canadian Tire Centre.
“You can’t write that, right?” Ryan said incredulously after his three-goal performance. “The way that went, it was just an incredible evening.”
Ryan’s hat trick – his first in 1,886 days – left many with the impression that hockey gods are a real entity, doling out good fortune and luck to those who are deserving. Ryan admitted that he does subscribe to the theory of a higher power in hockey, but he never imagined it would cast any good fortune in his direction.
“Yeah I do,” Ryan said. “But I didn’t think I’d be on their good side for everything that’s gone on in my personal life for the last little while. But I guess they granted me some reprieve and gave me a good night.”
Thursday night in Ottawa was also a reminder that the most genuine and visceral sports moments can come without a trace of forewarning. There was no palpable electricity surrounding this game in the hours leading into it. A major winter storm blanketed the city with a heavy, wet snow several hours before the game, leaving many to wonder how many fans would actually show up to the arena.
The announced attendance ended up being 12, 166 – an excellent indicator for the lack of voltage around the contest.
But 10 years from now, twice as many fans are going to claim they were inside the building in Ottawa to witness the improbable heroics from Ryan. It certainly felt like a capacity crowd when the chants of “Bobby, Bobby!” rained down.
The last time that chant was heard inside the Canadian Tire Centre was during Ryan’s unexpected surge during the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs, when he became Ottawa’s most dangerous forward during a remarkable run to the Eastern Conference Final.
It was so captivating inside the building Thursday that even the other players and coaches – who are often laser-focused on the game unfolding on the ice – were paying attention to the repeated chanting. The Sens players were even getting in on the fun.
“For sure I did,” said head coach D.J. Smith, when asked if he could hear the chanting of Bobby’s name. “It was going on – on our bench.”
One of the drawbacks of the salary cap era is that fans in rabid hockey markets often view NHL players through the singular lens of their salary. It’s often an impossible task to separate the contract from human being.
Ryan’s $7 million dollar salary, coupled with his disappointing production in a Senators jersey, creates the perfect recipe for the prototypical whipping boy in a Canadian market. But the fans were able to park their cynicism about a multi-million dollar contract on Thursday night and simply look at Ryan as a vulnerable human being. It was a refreshing moment that was not lost on Ryan.
“I knew that Ottawa, being the community that it is, that the reception would be good,” Ryan said.
As the chants grew louder – and Ryan clinched his night with the hat trick – he appeared to be overcome with emotion on the bench as the game clock expired. The television cameras appeared to show him wiping away tears from his eyes as he soaked in the moment.
“It just got harder to keep the emotions down throughout the game. It was incredible they supported me,” Ryan added. “Thank you to all of them.”
The biggest thanks from the veteran forward, however, was saved for his wife Danielle, who was sitting close to where all three of Ryan’s goals went in.
While Ryan received a tremendous amount of support from the hockey world – including frequent texts from the likes of Sheldon Souray and Nate Thompson who also battled addiction issues – it was the care from his wife that was ultimately a catalyst in his recovery. Danielle served as a guest telephone operator for the Senators Foundation telethon on Thursday night, allowing her to get a close vantage point for her husband’s signature performance.
“I’m glad my wife was here. I’m glad I was able to do it at home,” he said to TSN’s Brent Wallace during his live post-game interview. “It’s been a long 100 days. And a lot of that unfortunately fell on her. She carried the slack and she allowed me to go away and address things. If she hadn’t helped me recognize it, then I don’t know where I’d be. She was the first star.”
Ryan’s comeback performance on Thursday may have essentially engraved his name on the Bill Masterton Trophy for the 2019-20 campaign, the award handed out to the player who demonstrates the most dedication and perseverance towards the game.
There will certainly be other worthy candidates, but none will have a redemption story quite like the one Ryan has authored.
“I set the bar too high tonight, because you guys are going to give it to me unfortunately next week,” Ryan said with a laugh.
When it comes to redemption stories in a single NHL game, Ryan may have set the bar so high that nobody else can reach it.