By Don Hammack
The Sun Herald
It was near the midway point of the second period during Game 6 of the EasternConference Quarterfinals when the Montreal Canadiens rookie took the puck justin front of his own bench, between the center red line and the Boston Bruins’blue line. He gained the zone in a 3-on-3 situation, flicking a pass slidingjust inside the blue line.
BILOXI, Miss. – Michael Ryder came from hockey’s hinterlands, played in unusual Deep South climes and now finds himself a star on the sport’s biggest stage.
He is a finalist for the Calder Trophy, given each season to the top rookie in the National Hockey League. Ryder will be one of three rookies wearing a tuxedo at the league’s annual gala in Toronto on June 10, where Boston goalie Andrew Raycroft is rated the favorite just ahead of him.
In the middle of his trek to the big time, though, he had a stop in Biloxi.
Ryder survived his two trips to the East Coast Hockey League (now just the ECHL), one here and the other to Tallahassee, Fla., to achieve stardom in the big time, where his jersey is now snapped up at 200 bucks a pop around Montreal.
He is the most successful player ever to wear a Mississippi Sea Wolves sweater, bar none.
Of that, there can be no debate.
In fact, there’s a strong case to be made that he’s the best non-goalie, non-goon ECHL alum to ever make it to the NHL. Certainly, he’s off to a start that would lift him past players like Andrew Brunette, Ruslan Fedotenko and Antti Laaksonen – three guys who aren’t exactly household names.
Only two former ECHL players have won NHL honors, both goaltenders. Olaf Kolzig won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender in 1999-2000 and Jamie McLennan won the Masterson Trophy given to players showing perseverance, which he displayed coming back from a devastating bout with bacterial meningitis.
Ryder is the first skater to be a finalist for an NHL award. In fact, he is one of a small group of ECHL graduates with more points than penalty minutes.
That accomplishment, however, follows a winding, offbeat road up the hockey mountain.
The pass looked like it was intended for linemate Mike Ribeiro, but it slidbehind him to Yanic Perreault, who whipped a left-handed shot toward the netbut off Boston’s mountain-of-a-defenseman Hal Gill. The puck deflected back tothe boards and the rookie, who had drifted to the bottom of the faceoff circleto the right of Andrew Raycroft, quickly circled back outside and collectedthe puck just above the goal line.
Mayor Betty Fitzgerald fancies herself a bit of a hockey scout. She’s been around Bonavista, Newfoundland, for a while.
It’s a small town in eastern Canada, in one of the few provinces that isn’t known as a producer of hockey talent. Still, Fitzgerald saw Ryder growing up there and thought he had the stuff.
“Michael used to smile and say to me, ‘How can you tell me that I’m going to be an NHL player?'” she said. “I said, ‘It’s because you’ve got potential and I know you can do it.’”
Fitzgerald, of course, was right. She the elected leader of the town where life used to revolve around cod fishing, an industry crippled when the Canadian government banned it in 1992, forcing folks into crab fishing. The mainly Protestant community of 4,021 saw 1-in-10 people leave during the five-year period between the last two censuses, ending in 2001.
Ryder grew up playing mainly pickup games on the ponds around town or in its Cabot Stadium, named after explorer John Cabot, who legend says landed there in 1497. Sometimes Ryder’s father, Wayne, himself perhaps the best player in Bonavista when he was growing up, would flood a rink in his backyard for Michael to skate in.
It still wasn’t enough to help what was considered one of his weaknesses. Ryder wasn’t considered the best skater, in part because he didn’t play as much as other kids across the hockey-mad country do.
As a 14-year-old, his midget team played something like 10 games. Kids that age in other parts of Canada are often playing five or six times that number.
Ryder overcame that lack of experience, walking on with the Hull Olympiques in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League as a 16-year-old. There, he formed a relationship that has helped carry him to the big leagues.
Claude Julien was the coach at Hull, and the two joined up on Canada’s bronze-medal team in the 2000 World Junior Championships, in Hamilton, Ontario, in the American Hockey League and now in Montreal.
Ryder returned from the 2000 World Juniors to a parade and learned the town was naming a street for him in a new subdivision.
“We just laughed at that,” Ryder’s mother, Debbie, recalled.
That’s how big a deal his accomplishments are in his hometown.
Think Brett Favre and Kiln.
There are two “Welcome to Bonavista, Home of Michael Ryder” signs on the roads into town. It used to be a Toronto Maples Leafs blue-and-white wearing town. Now, there’s a lot of the “blue, blanc et rouge” of the Montreal Canadiens.
“A lot of people have turned over,” Debbie Ryder said. “Some haven’t; they’re just interested in watching Michael. For the most part, people are Montreal fans now.”
More scouts are headed to Newfoundland looking for players now. There’s another Ryder in the pipeline, too. Daniel is a standout with Peterborough Petes, where he was the third-leading scorer this season as a 16-year-old rookie in the Ontario Hockey League. His 52 points ranked fifth among all OHL rookies.
Fitzgerald reckons there are eight others in Bonavista that have the stuff to play in the higher ranks. They’re all following in Michael Ryder’s footsteps, something Fitzgerald predicted long ago.
“When he became an NHL player, I said, ‘What did I tell you?'” she said. “He said, ‘You were one of the people who had confidence in me.’”
The rookie tried to nose the puck ahead with his stick, but it fell behindwith Boston superstar Joe Thornton on his tail. Gill cheated toward the goalline when it looked like a pass around the boards to Ribeiro camped out behindthe net was in order.
Not everybody had that confidence in Ryder, though.
The Quebec Citadelles sent Ryder down to Tallahassee during the 2000-01 season. It brought simple advice from his parents.
“Go and keep playing like you’re playing,” Debbie Ryder remembers they told her son. “We knew he was really too good to be going there. We knew, but it seemed like no one else knew.”
Ryder wasn’t in Tallahassee long but made quite an impression. In five games, he scored four goals and assisted on five others. Clearly, this wasn’t a guy who sulked upon being sent down the ECHL, a fact remembered by then-Tiger Sharks coach Gerry Fleming.
“He came down with the attitude, ‘I’m down here because I’m not good enough. I’m going to get better and go back,'” said Fleming, whose Florida Everblades are playing in the ECHL Eastern Conference finals.
The Citadelles didn’t give Ryder much of a chance back in the AHL, though. Sure, he played in 61 games, but with six goals and 15 points it’s clear he wasn’t getting a lot of opportunities to prove himself.
Ryder wound up sent down to the ECHL again the next season. Sea Wolves coach Bob Woods, who was then in his first year behind the bench, remembers Ryder had been struggling, lacking a bit of confidence.
Like he’d done the season before, Ryder attacked his demotion with hard work.
“I think Montreal was kind of in limbo with him,” Woods said. “He came down here and got his confidence back, and when he went back up, he was playing on the top line and had a great finish to the season.”
Ryder’s attitude isn’t always shared by players sent down from the AHL. You see, the ECHL is considered a developmental league, but quite often a visit there is a sign that NHL dreams are just that, dreams.
One Sea Wolves legend involves a similar player showing up for a potential elimination game with his car already packed to go back home.
Ryder wasn’t here for the playoffs. In fact, when he wasn’t assigned for the 2002 postseason, it put a huge dent in the fans’ hopes for success. The Sea Wolves still advanced to the Southern Conference finals but fell to eventual Kelly Cup champ Greenville in four games.
Ryder scored 14 goals and assisted on 13 others during his 20-game stint with the Sea Wolves. His strength then is his strength now. He shoots the puck extremely well, with an explosiveness than netted him 25 goals this season for the Canadiens.
“I can remember a bunch of goals, overtime goals,” Woods said. “He was one of those players who could make something out of nothing. When he got over that blue line, he had the potential to score.”
Ryder had six game-winning goals while playing for the Sea Wolves, including two overtime winners. He was picked for the 2002 ECHL All-Star Game but had been recalled to Quebec and never returned.
Instead of the pass around the boards, the rookie delivered a cheekybackhand flick behind his back to Perreault, who was cruising on top of thefaceoff dot. Perreault didn’t try another wrister, not this time.
In 2002-03, Ryder had his breakthrough season. The Canadiens shifted their AHL affiliate to Hamilton and hired Julien as the Bulldogs’ coach.
Sometimes, it just takes somebody who knows you to give you a chance to play. That’s what happened in Ryder’s case, as he flourished and averaged nearly a point per regular-season game. He finished with 34 goals and 33 assists in 69 contests, but he made perhaps his biggest strides in the playoffs.
Hamilton made it to the AHL championship series, losing in seven games to Houston. Ryder was explosive in the postseason, netting 11 goals in 23 games and finishing with 17 points.
That paved the way for a more-than-cursory look by Julien after he was hired as the Canadiens’ coach. He was looking for someone to score goals, and Ryder’s approach to the game – keep it simple, shoot the puck and drive to the net – made that happen.
He earned more than just a spot on the roster with an outstanding training camp, playing most of the season on the first or second forward line. Ryder played in 81 games, leading all NHL rookie scorers with 63 points. His 25 goals tied for the most ever by a Newfoundlander.
And he did all this where hockey matters most, a place where riots broke out near the end of the 1955 season after Maurice “Rocket” Richard was suspended for the rest of the season and all of postseason for hitting a linesman.
When this year’s playoffs got started, The Montreal Gazette described the scene on famed Ste. Catherine Street, where Ryder’s No. 73 sweater was on display in a storefront window.
That’s like having your football jersey hanging in the window of a store on Vince Lombardi Avenue.
It took awhile for Ryder to score his first playoff goal. It came Tuesday night, tying the Canadiens at 2 with the Tampa Bay Lightning, a game they’d eventually blow with Tampa Bay scoring with 16.8 seconds left in regulation and 65 seconds into overtime to take a three games-to-none in the Eastern Conference semifinal series.
“He was a kid that you knew had the potential,” said Woods. “He just had to find the right situation.”
It certainly looks like that’s happened for Ryder, and Sea Wolves fans can say they knew him when.
Perreault’s big one-timer roared over Raycroft’s shoulder and Montreal’sBell Centre went off its pins with joy. Michael Ryder found himself in a grouphug with the four other Canadiens skaters on the ice, in the cradle of hockeywhere there was no question he belonged.