He is the highest scoring born-and-bred Newfoundlander to play in the National Hockey League.
He is, by all accounts, a genuine sniper who will find the back of the net more often than not when the puck lands on his stick near the goal crease.
But these have been trying times for Bonavista’s Michael Ryder, in the third and final year of his contract with the Boston Bruins.
Last year might have been the toughest, when Ryder learned of his brother’s troubles back home. Daniel Ryder, a fine hockey player in his own right, was charged with robbery, being disguised with the intent of committing a crime, using an imitation firearm to carry out a crime and theft under $5,000 in his hometown.
“It’s your brother, you know,” said the older Ryder. “It’s been real tough, and it’s still going on right now. You kind of don’t want to think about it, but it’s there. It’s always there.”
Michael Ryder struggled last season, scoring only 18 goals, a far cry from the 30 he netted in each of his first two years. This year, he has 16, and the Bruins are hoping for more, a lot more.
Michael Ryder can’t remember when he got the call. Might have been on the way to the rink. Could have come in the locker room.
Even now, it’s all a blur.
It’s Daniel. He’s been arrested. Armed robbery.
Or something like that. Ryder can’t remember the details.
“I think I might have been coming to the rink,” he says today. “I don’t know. It never really kicked in right away.
“You think about it, over and over, and you can’t see it happening. No matter which way you try to picture it. More than anything, I think I was in shock.”
A year ago last month, Daniel Ryder, the Boston Bruins hockey star’s younger brother by six years, allegedly walked into a corner store in their hometown of Bonavista and held up the place.
Daniel Ryder is charged with robbery, being disguised with the intent of committing a crime, using an imitation firearm to carry out a crime and theft under $5,000.
He apparently informed the lone cashier he had a gun and demanded cigarettes.
Daniel Ryder was a hockey star in his own right, a former Ontario Hockey League playoff MVP, and a Calgary Flames’ draft pick.
There was a provincial court hearing in Clarenville last month, where Debbie Ryder, the boys’ mother, testified that she and her husband, Wayne, brought their son to the RCMP the day following the robbery after hearing a man wearing a jacket like the one her son had been wearing robbed the store.
Closing arguments in the case are expected to be made next month.
It was but another blow to Michael Ryder, who was languishing through a difficult 2009-10 season with the Bruins.
After scoring 27 goals in 2008-09, his first year in Boston with a new three-year, US$12 million contract, Ryder would settle for 18 tallies.
It was better than the 14 he’d scored in Montreal two years earlier, when he fell out of favour with then-Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau, who had grown tired of Ryder’s lack of attention to defence.
“It didn’t affect my hockey, at least I don’t think it did,” he says. “But it’s your brother, you know? It’s been tough, real tough, and it’s still going on right now.
“You kind of don’t want to think about it, but it’s there. It’s always there.
“At least hockey gave me a chance not to think about him and everything that was going on with him, and with Mom and Dad.”
From pillar to post
Though he’s on pace to crack the 25-goal mark this year, the 2010-11 campaign has had its moments for Ryder.
He’s been bounced from pillar to post, playing from the first line with Marc Savard (now sidelined for the year with a concussion) and Nathan Horton to the third string with Blake Wheeler and rookie Zach Hamill.
Problem with Ryder is his consistency. He scores in bunches.
Against Ryane Clowe’s San Jose Sharks last Saturday, Ryder was virtually invisible in a 2-0 Bruins’ loss. Four nights later, with his parents in the crowd, he was one of Boston’s top three forwards with a pair of goals in an 8-6 win over Montreal, giving him 16 on the year and 31 points.
Before the Canadiens’ game, he had not scored for eight straight games. Prior to that, he tallied goals in three consecutive starts. Before that, Ryder was dry for seven straight. Before that, two goals in three games.
If Claude Julien had any hair on his head, he’d be after hauling it out by now.
“I don’t know what it is,” said Julien, the Bruins’ coach, of Ryder’s streaky play.
“If you find out, tell me, will you?
“Michael, when he’s at his best, is a player every team wants. He’s got that quality to score goals, and probably the thing that stops him from being a 40- or 50-goal scorer has been that inconsistency in his game.”
So concerned are/were the Bruins, there was talk of sending Ryder to the minors to start the season — chatter, in part, predicated by the Bruins’ salary cap crunch. Ryder caught a break when Savard and the since-traded Marco Sturm couldn’t start the season because of injuries.
“It’s frustrating for me, too,” Ryder says. “I want to win, and I want to be out there when it matters. I want to be the difference-maker.”
Some might say Ryder dodged a bullet. Others could suggest it’s another example of Ryder’s survivor skills.
He was a minor hockey phenom, albeit in a small town. As a first-year bantam, he tried out but was cut from the Tri-Pen Osprey AAA midget team. Returning to bantam hockey in Bonavista, he played all of nine or 10 games, and five of those were in the provincial tournament held during the Easter holidays.
Regardless, there was no denying he could play.
“He knew what to do when he got the puck on his stick,” said his one-time minor hockey and high school linemate, Thomas Duffett. “He always had the knack for scoring goals.
“There was always talk about how good he was, but that was only talk from people about someone who was good in a small town.”
The next year, Ryder tried out for the Osprey again, and made the cut.
Every Friday, his grandfather would drop him off at Goobies where Tri-Pen’s coach, Kevin Hurley, would pick him up. Ryder would stay at the Hurley household for the weekend.
“He had great hands,” Hurley said. “No matter how big the goalie was, or how small the opening was in the net, he’d find a spot (to score).”
Ryder would lead the Osprey in scoring and would attract the attention of the Hull (now Gatineau) Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. A Hull scout, Bob Leblanc, saw Ryder taking part in the Chowder Cup camp in Moncton. After the tournament, held in Boston ironically enough, the Olympiques offered Ryder a walk-on tryout.
“He was very raw,” said Hull’s longtime governor, Charlie Henry, “an average skater, but he had that hard, heavy shot. It was just a matter of getting him to bust in there and shoot the puck.”
The shot. Mention Ryder’s name, and undoubtedly his ability to shoot the puck will come up.
“He’s a shooter,” Henry says. “A pure, pure goal scorer. No mystery.”
In Hull, Ryder was introduced to Julien, a union that’s lasted until today. Julien selected Ryder to the 2000 world junior team, and when the Montreal Canadiens hooked up with the Edmonton Oilers to share their prospects to the Hamilton Bulldogs, it was Julien the Canadiens hired to coach the AHL club.
Ryder has been drafted by the Canadiens, the 216th player taken in 1998, and had been bounced between the AHL and the East Coast Hockey League for two years.
“He could have easily hung it up, said he was going back to school or something, but he stuck with it,” said longtime friend Freddy Diamond, the Conception Bay North CeeBee Stars’ goalie.
The Bonavista connection
Diamond, who also hails from Bonavista, is a cousin of the Ryder brothers. In fact, all three professional hockey players from Bonavista — Calgary Flames defenceman Adam Pardy and Andrew Sweetland of the American Hockey League’s Binghamton Senators are the others — are related.
“But that’s Michael. He’s competitive at whatever he does. I don’t care if it’s a game of darts or a game of cards — he wants to win. He’s the most competitive person I know,” Diamond said.
Even on the golf course, where Ryder routinely scores in the mid-70s.
“No gimmes,” he grins. “Well, sometimes ... maybe.”
Under Julien, Ryder thrived with 34 goals in his first full American league campaign. And when Julien took over behind the Montreal Canadiens’ bench full-time in 2003-04, guess who earned a starting spot in the Habs’ lineup?
Ryder repaid Julien, scoring 25 goals, and was named a finalist for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year.
Years later, when Julien was coaching Boston and Ryder was a free agent, guess who wound up in Beantown?
“It’s Claude who really made him an NHLer,” says Henry.
“He’s still in the NHL because of Claude Julie.”
But the coach will have none of that praise, opting instead to credit the player.
Granted, Julien says, he gave Ryder the break he needed. But it was up to the player to prove he belonged.
“When he turned pro, somehow, he wasn’t getting any breaks,” Julien said.
“But I saw some things that I believed in and we were able to keep him in Hamilton, even though there was some debate about sending him back down to the East Coast league.
“I was able to convince Montreal to keep him and he had a great year, and the next thing you know he’s in Montreal. It just so happens I was there.”
Whether Julien is able to go to bat for Ryder again next season is anybody’s guess when the right-winger becomes an unrestricted free agent. If the Bruins are interested, it won’t be for a $4 million payday.
But if it isn’t Boston, it will be some NHL club looking to take a flyer on a goalscorer. Either way, for Ryder, it’s hard to believe seven years in the NHL will have passed him by.
“When you think about it, time’s nothing,” he says.
“Before you know it, it’s over.”
The Telegram's Sports Editor Robin Short was recently in Boston, on assignment covering Ryder. He also checked in on Fermeuse native Ryane Clowe of the San Jose Sharks, and Newfoundland’s finest young hockey player, rookie Luke Adam of St. John’s, recently reassigned to the American Hockey League from the Buffalo Sabres. Find them all in upcoming editions of The Telegram.
Robin Short can be reached by email at email@example.com