The 2019-20 season was, in many ways, a microcosm of Bobby Ryan’s life.
By now, the story of Ryan’s turbulent childhood has been public knowledge for many years. The fact that he developed into a bona fide star NHL player, let alone 2005’s No. 2 overall draft pick, was a small miracle given the emotional trauma he endured as a child. When he was 10, his life was uprooted after his father was charged with assaulting his mother, jumped bail and fled to Canada. Bobby and his mother ended up reuniting with his father, going on the lam. Eventually, they found their way to California, Bobby’s father was arrested, and Bobby settled into a life that allowed him the opportunities he needed in hockey. His complicated past always followed him around, but he persevered.
The 2019-20 version of Bobby Ryan endured a similar dynamic, with the personal life bleeding into his hockey life. He tried to give his best on the ice and maintain the standard needed to be an NHL player, but achieving normalcy was a battle every day because of what was going on away from the rink. It wasn’t known to the public in the first few months of the season, but the Ottawa Senators right winger was at war with alcoholism.
It culminated in the form of what he likened to a panic attack in November and, after years of trying to fight his way through the cycle himself, Ryan came to terms with the fact he needed help and entered the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program. By February, he decided to speak publicly about his struggles. He found it difficult to do so but hoped he’d inspire others to seek help. He reached a good enough place in his battle for sobriety that he felt physically ready to return to NHL action. His first home game back, played Feb. 27, couldn’t have been scripted better: a hat trick at the Canadian Tire Centre and a standing ovation that left Ryan moved to tears.
Ryan’s battle back from the brink and willingness to face his demons so openly and vulnerably made him a natural choice to win the 2019-20 Masterton Trophy. He was announced as the winner Tuesday night, beating out fellow finalists Stephen Johns and Oskar Lindblom. The award, voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association, goes to the NHL player “who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”
Ryan graciously accepted the award Monday night via a Zoom conference call, but he doesn’t view the honor as his. He called it a “family award” and wants to give much of the credit to his wife Danielle for helping him take control of his alcohol abuse.
“For my wife and kids, you almost feel like the award is a cherry on top for the past eight, nine months, the work that we put in and I continue to put in, getting better as a father and a husband,” Ryan said Monday. “The award is one thing, but the fact that my relationships have drastically changed and I’m in a better place to be a better husband and father for my wife, and all those little things, we’re seeing the fruit of the labor every day. And it just continues to get better. I’ve had up days, I’ve had down days, and my wife’s been there every step of the way to encourage me or to kick me in the ass if I need it.”
As Ryan said Monday, typically, winning an award would call for a celebration or a “letting your hair run down to your shoulders a bit,” but that’ll never be the case anymore, and he has no intention of changing that. He’ll celebrate things differently now. He’s devoted to staying sober.
And, in a way, the COVID-19 shutdown helped. Ryan had been back in the Senators’ lineup for just eight games when play was paused March 12. While he was adamant Monday in clarifying that there’s no such thing as a pandemic being a blessing for anyone, he feels the long layoff came at the right time for him and his family.
“I felt like everything was picking up at a pace that I don’t know if I was ready for yet,” he said. “I was handling it well, but I’m not sure if I was all there yet. I certainly know that I am now, because I was able to take all these months to really learn about myself, continue with therapy, continue to let go of some things that led me down the other road…
“It gave me a chance to really be comfortable settling into a new lifestyle, learning about myself and ultimately just giving me time not that I missed, but that I took for granted with my children. With COVID, with the lockdown, there have certainly been more ups and downs for everybody and me as well, but it gave me a chance to rededicate myself to something.”
Ryan never saw himself as someone who would share his story with the world, and it was only his stature as a pro athlete returning from a mysterious hiatus in the midst of a season that forced him to tell his story in February. But, so many months later, he views the circumstances differently now. Being put in that position has made him a role model and someone who can help others, and he wouldn’t have it any other way at this point.
“Some people just need to have a conversation and get an understanding of that – I’ve done that with people I know, I’ve done that with people I don’t know that have reached out,” he said. “That’s been probably the most rewarding part of all this, that I’ve gotten to pass it forward. You don’t get the gift of sobriety, but you can absolutely tell somebody this is what worked for me, this is how it worked, and maybe it’s something for you. I didn’t plan for it, but now that it has been such a positive thing, I’m looking forward to continuing it for other people.”