It’s difficult to recall a player who endured such devastating lows and awe-inspiring highs on and off the ice in a single year as Bobby Ryan did this season.
Before the 2016-17 campaign began, the now 30-year-old lost his beloved mother to cancer just six weeks after his first child was born. As is wonderfully documented by Ryan, himself, his mother, Melody, was everything and more to him.
And to make matters worse, the roughest offseason of his career slowly, but surely, dissolved into his worst regular season to date.
“I think I changed a little bit as a player and that was the given from Day 1, that I was going to have to,” Ryan explained on locker clean out day during the final availability of the season. “It was one of those years where I had a tonne of growing pains.”
Ryan’s leisurely start in October turned into a dreadful November, which filled an already delicate fanbase with anxiety and anger. Talk radio, social media and blogs - definitely this one - ran rampant with distraught discussion about the winger’s major lack of production.
And just as he wrapped up December and January with some much needed confidence - 13 points in 21 games was reassuring after previously racking up a measly eight in as many contests - Ryan capped off the rest of the regular season with two goals in three months.
No punches were pulled. His name was uttered in nearly every conversation surrounding the upcoming expansion draft and if Ryan had forgotten he made $7.25 million a year, the Senators’ faithful sure reminded him.
He quit Twitter and made fewer appearances in front of the media. Plainly put, the guy looked defeated.
Thank God for the playoffs.
“Something clicked for me,” said Ryan. “In Game 1 of (the series with) Boston, I had the puck early and I felt good. And it’s amazing what it is, right? I can’t explain that click, but when you feel it, you feel like something’s going to turn.”
Something turned. Something turned quickly.
Yes, he was healthy for the the first time in the better part of four years, he says, but it can’t only have been that. His stride was quicker, his decisions were smarter, his hands were smoother and he was simply forcing his way through the opponent.
If there was one play to encapsulate Ryan’s swift resurgence, it was the Senators’ first goal of the postseason. After stripping Bruins defenseman Adam McQuaid of the puck on the rush, Ryan made a power move to the net unlike anything fans had seen from him all year long.
And it wasn’t only a few games. It wasn’t one fantastic series. Ryan’s play rarely diminished over 19 grueling, demanding games.
When the team was getting pushed around, he laid a thunderous hit. When they needed a goal, he was clutch. And on the brink of elimination, twice, he was excellent.
The enormous weight he carried on his shoulders throughout the entire year has undoubtedly been lifted and thrown to the ground with authority. Ryan can go to the grocery store once again, enjoy walks around the downtown core and engage in small talk with a stranger in peace.
Has the season from hell been given a new title?
“Yeah, I don’t know where we’re at now, but it was definitely looking like it for a while there,” he said. “And it felt like it every day for a while, but the last six weeks was the most fun I’ve ever had playing hockey.
“It’s amazing how the city’s embraced us, me, individually, because of the personal success, but watching and communicating with people has just been great. Everybody caught on. We hope we brought some excitement, because we certainly felt it.”
In many ways, tranquility has seemed to arrive for the Cherry Hill, New Jersey native. After a playoff performance of that magnitude, he’s not just in the fans’ good books; he’s in their history books.
“I hope they attribute my name to this run, absolutely,” Ryan admitted. “I guess it’s a bit of a relief, but hockey’s so much about ‘what have you done for me lately?’ that it’ll be forgotten by next year and we’ll be talking about how my October was and all that kind of stuff and I’m okay with that. But it’s not going to be able to take this run from us because that was a lot of fun.”
While they nearly crowdfunded a one-way plane ticket to Nevada for him in early April, fans aren’t too sure anymore that they want to hand him to Las Vegas just yet.
But Ryan isn’t worried. Quite the opposite, actually.
“Are they going to take seven million? No, I’m good.”
He laughed, everyone laughed, and then he laughed again.
So, you’re sure you’re not at all nervous?
“Not even a little bit, no.”