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Why Not Us?

May 15 2017
Photo by
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports
Photo by
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports
Bobby Ryan
Ottawa Senators
May 15 2017

I had to stop going to the grocery store this season.

For one reason or another, the grocery store has always been where I get recognized the most in Ottawa. I can hang out in pretty much any restaurant or bar and be in the clear, but at the grocery store I’ll pretty much always be spotted. For the most part, I’ve always enjoyed that. Engaging fans is one of the most rewarding things about making it to the NHL. But one thing you learn after playing in Canada for a while is that Canadian hockey fans are … honest.

I might be in the produce aisle squeezing a tomato or something when an elderly woman will approach me.

“Pardon, but are you Bobby Ryan from the Senators?”

I’ll perk up, clear my throat, and in my best I’m A Professional voice respond, “Yes ma’am, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

And without hesitating, she’ll go full beat-reporter on me, “You haven’t scored in a while, eh? Maybe you’re holding the puck too long at the point?”

After hearing that, I might set the tomato down (or maybe squeeze it harder, I’m not sure) before responding. My impulse will be to defend myself, so I’ll say something like, “Well, uh, yeah, I’ve been in a bit of a slump. But I managed to redirect a couple of pucks last game, and I think the goals are going to start comi—”

And that’s when I’ll stop myself and think, Why the hell am I talking about my job at the grocery store?

That type of scenario played out a lot this season. By the time I’d get home, my wife would be confused because I’d be super stressed-out from buying a couple of bags of groceries. Eventually she started doing the shopping. It was for the best, I suppose.

Yes, I know I didn’t score as many goals this season as I have in the past. Yes, I’ve gone stretches where, if you looked at a score sheet, you probably would have had a hard time telling I’d been on the ice at all. I get it. Sometimes, I was frustrated too. But whenever I got down this year I just had to remind myself that this was by design.

Before training camp started last September, I sat down with Coach Boucher and for about two hours we talked hockey. Some of it was specific to our team, but much of it was a broader discussion about hockey philosophy. What makes a good team tick? What causes a talented roster to fail? How do you construct a consistently good power play?

He told me that if our team was going to succeed, we needed reliable “net guys.” For his system to work, he needed players who could do the dirty work in front of the goalie and behind the net in order to set up chances. I agreed with it, but didn’t realize he was implying that he wanted me to step into that role. Once training camp began and he started putting me in those situations, it became clear that I was going to need to alter my game pretty drastically.

That wasn’t easy for me to do. For most of my life, I’ve been asked to make plays by floating to the outside and putting pucks on net. Suddenly I was being asked to be more physical and screen goalies to help set up chances for other guys.

That meant fewer scoring opportunities for myself, which, for most of my career — and according to people at the grocery store — me not scoring has meant failure. There were stretches this year where I’d be doing everything the team asked of me, and doing it fairly well, but I wouldn’t show up on the score sheet for four or five games at a time. At one point, I went 16 games without a goal, which felt awful.

But I stuck with it, because I knew that I was part of something more. I had seen what this team was like when I was a sniper and honestly, it wasn’t bad… but it also wasn’t great. In that first meeting, Coach told me that things were going to change around here, and that if I was willing to buy into it — to truly buy in and change the way I played the game — the results would come.

And now, here we are.

In terms of personnel, this team isn’t drastically different from other Senators teams of recent years. There aren’t a bunch of new faces. For the most part, our core group of guys has been the same for a while now. But even though our roster was mostly the same, if you asked around the locker room, you could tell that this team had a different feel from the very beginning of this season.

Our coach being let go last year was a wake-up call for sure. The new GM, Pierre Dorion, came in and told us we had to come to training camp in shape and ready to play, because this year was going to be different. Even if nobody viewed us as a team that could compete for the Stanley Cup, we were going to start carrying ourselves like one.

And Pierre had one more message for us, one that’s become more and more relevant the longer we keep playing: Why not us? Why not now?

From the beginning, we knew we weren’t going to score as many goals. Look no further than myself for proof of that. But we also knew we didn’t need to because the guys we had defending our net weren’t going to let the other team score much either.

One of those guys is Andy, our goalie:

Yup, that’s him.

That was from Friday and yes, I’ll admit, it was staged. Every day when we come out to practice, there are two cameras set up in the same exact spot to record us taking the ice. On that particular day, Andy decided to help out the media, who always get the same shot, by yard-saleing out on the ice.

Now it might seem a little odd for a goalie to be goofing around like that the day before playing the defending Stanley Cup champions, but that’s kind of his style. He’s the guy in the locker room who keeps everyone loose. He has this really dry sense of humor. He’ll almost go down the line chirping every single guy in the room — before delivering a heaping helping on himself so nobody gets left out.

That kind of loose attitude is reflected in how we play, and it comes from the very top. I’m not sure you’re going to find a more unassuming superstar in today’s game than Erik Karlsson. When you think of defensemen, your mind jumps to huge guys like Chara. And I can tell you, playing against guys like that is really tough. I spent two weeks during first round getting whacked by his stick, which is basically a glorified two-by-four. It sucked.

But Erik doesn’t fit that profile.

When you see him in street clothes, it’s easy to imagine him getting lost in a crowd. He’s six feet tall on his tippy toes and weighs 100-and-something pounds. He’s also mild-mannered for the most part. He says what needs to be said and not much more. He’s just a guy, basically.

But I’m not going to mince words here: This postseason, Erik Karlsson has been the best hockey player in the world. There’s not another guy I’d rather have on our team. He’s elevated his game to another level entirely.

Over the past four years, it’s been amazing to watch him evolve. The skill has always been there, but now that his confidence level has caught up, he’s able to take over games in a way that very few players can. Many people view him as an offensive-minded defenseman for good reason, but what’s lost in that is what he does for us on the other end of the ice. He’s smart enough to know what the other team is trying to do, and skilled enough to almost single-handedly throw a wrench in it.

There was never any one defining moment of our season, but if you watched closely, there were some signs that this team might make a run. All year long, we’ve played our best hockey against the top teams. Nobody thought we had much of a shot in the first and second rounds, but if you looked at the regular season, we won our season series against the Bruins and the Rangers … and also the Pens. We’ve already proven we can play with those guys.

The biggest reason for that is we know our strengths and play to them. We have great goaltending and an all-world defenseman. That’s enough to keep us in any game. And if we can stick around until the end, all it takes is one blocked shot or one screen to distract a goalie for half a second and tilt an entire series in our favor.

It’s those situations that we’ve been preparing for all season. We changed our culture and our system to set us up to be ready for those subtle plays that don’t stand out on a score sheet but have such a big influence on energy and momentum. I learned to start taking pride in the kinds of plays that I used to take for granted. And even when the goals weren’t coming, I stuck with it. Then finally, when the playoffs came, that system we’d been working on all came together. We started playing our best hockey at the best time. And it was no coincidence. Playoff hockey is different. A lot of the goals aren’t pretty – they’re a battle. And the longer you play, the more toughness starts to count for more than skill.

So going into it, we knew we had a shot, even if nobody else thought so. Every single game in the Bruins series was decided by one goal. That was when we got the sense that there was something brewing here. Even if man-for-man, we didn’t match up well with our opponents, it didn’t matter. Playoff hockey isn’t played man-for-man. It’s all about who’s better team.

And that’s why we keep winning.

It’s funny, I played in Ottawa only one time during my six seasons with Anaheim, and honestly … I did not care for it. I didn’t care for it at all.

I remember we stayed at a hotel downtown, and I caught a cab at around 4:30 in the afternoon to go to the rink, which is located just outside the city. At that point, I was fully adjusted to the Newport Beach lifestyle — sunshine and flip-flops every day.

Ottawa is not Newport Beach.

I remember walking outside, and even though it was the middle of the afternoon, it was pitch black. As we made our way to the arena, traffic was awful and I distinctly recall thinking to myself, “Man, this must be a horrific place to play.”

Of course, my only impression of the city was limited to that one drive when I was stuck in terrible traffic in the middle of winter. We ended up winning the game in a shootout and my immediate thought was, Let’s get moving, boys. Let’s get on the plane right now.

So when I was traded here a few years ago, I admit I had a pretty warped view of what I was getting myself into. But once I actually got here, and explored the city — really explored it — I fell in love. The architecture, the culture, and really just passion these people have for hockey and life in general has made it an amazing place to live. That’s why I didn’t really hesitate when I signed a long-term deal to stay here.

It never clicked with me until recently how the way I had underestimated Ottawa because I was only viewing it on the surface level is not too different from the way the rest of the hockey world has kind of written us off throughout the playoffs. Just like our team, Ottawa is only appreciated if you look a layer below the surface. When you look at this place with an open mind, you grow to realize what makes it special.

And in that sense, we’re a hockey team that’s built to play for this city. Up and down the roster, there are guys who are quality people both on and off the ice. Throughout the playoffs, even when the odds have been stacked against us, we’ve come together and played for each other. And so far, that’s been enough.

When we landed back here after winning the Boston series, I stopped by a bookstore on my way home. At this point, I was sporting a playoff beard so there really was no hiding. While I was there, a few fans approached me and offered some typically honest feedback.

“Hey Bobby, thanks for having a great series. Let’s keep it going!”

I’ll admit it — that felt really good.

This has been a fun ride so far, but I think this team still has a lot left in the tank. This is the moment we’ve been preparing for all year, and now that it’s here, we feel ready.

I mean, why not us?

Why not now?

Bobby Ryan
Ottawa Senators