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Ryder aiming to be Bruins' newfound sniper

(Jim Davis / Globe File Photo)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / August 5, 2008

ST. JOHN'S, Newfoundland - Icebergs, some bigger than the world's largest cruise ships, meander silently by the harbor here in late spring and early summer. Michael Ryder grew up in a fishing town to the north, Bonavista, roughly a four-hour drive, depending on the ploddings of the too-frequent interlopers with large antlers that have a way of fascinating visitors and ticking off the locals.

"Moose," grumbled Ryder, the newest Bruin, who returns to his beloved province for a few weeks every summer. "They cause so many accidents. Can't kill enough of 'em."

Ryder, 28, will travel south to Boston next week, checking out places to live after signing on with the Bruins as an unrestricted free agent July 1, getting a $12 million payday (over the next three seasons). After back-to-back 30-goal seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, he slumped to a career low of 14 in 2007-08, the hard-hitting onetime sniper becoming a forgotten part in Guy Carbonneau's up-tempo bleu-blanc-rouge offense.

"A weird year, I'll tell you that," said Ryder, sitting in the lobby of a downtown hotel last week, not far from the condo he owns here. "I started out on a line [with top forwards Saku Koivu and Chris Higgins], got pushed back in the lineup, and then all of a sudden, I was out of the lineup.

"To be honest, I still don't know what happened. All I ever heard from the coaches was, 'Shoot the puck . . . work hard . . . it will all work out.' But . . ."

In the end, Ryder's numbers only underscored his futility and frustration: 14 goals and 31 points in 70 games. In the playoffs, a heated first-round battle with the Bruins that went the full seven games, he went 0-0 -0, bad enough, but even worse considering that he wasn't asked to dress for three of the games.

In the Hub, where he'll be reunited with coach Claude Julien, his longtime mentor dating back to junior hockey, Ryder will be expected to return to his 30-goal-a-year pace, and is the obvious candidate to ride first-line right wing, be it with Marc Savard or Patrice Bergeron dishing him the puck. He was hired for a reason: to score, the heir apparent to the job Glen Murray filled prior to his contract being bought out some three weeks after Ryder signed.

What would be a reasonable number of goals for the new resident right wing?

"More than 14, right?" said Ryder, offering a wry smile. "I'll leave it there."

If that sounds like a young man with something to prove, that's precisely what the Bruins factored into their $12 million investment/gamble. Ryder, the Bruins hope, will be a quick rebound project, with a flick of fire burning in his gut.

In those first three years in Montreal, including his early days with Julien behind the bench, he developed a reputation for knocking opponents to the ice and ripping quick shots into the net. Now he has to prove that was the real Ryder, and that last year, when the Canadiens finished first overall in the conference virtually without him, was the anomaly.

"Yeah, in a way," said Ryder, when asked if he felt he has something to prove. "I mean, you don't want people to think you lost it and can't play. That gives you some motivation, probably."

Not-so-smooth sailing

Doubt is nothing new to Ryder's dossier. Growing up in Bonavista, the spot where Giovanni Caboto (a.k.a. John Cabot) first staked the British flag in 1497, he was hardly in hockey's mainstream, nor on its fast track. Bonavista, even when the economy was good prior to the collapse of the cod fishing industry in the early '90s, was a town of only some 4,500. His youth hockey days, Ryder recalled, never had him playing more than 20 games a season, and typically his squads dressed only two lines, maybe four defensemen, and a goalie.

"One of those years they had only nine games, including an Easter tournament," recalled Debbie Ryder, a nurse who never dreamed her oldest of three children would make it to the NHL. "The season started too late to play more games. They couldn't make ice because the machine was broken, and it took until December to find the part."

The Bonavista boys traveled for some games, but the closest opponent required a 90-minute drive. A few times, Ryder recalled, his youth teams ventured by ship to play on the nearby French isles, Saint Pierre and Miquelon. He didn't like those journeys, because the seas typically were rough, and it was a few shifts into the game before his seasickness would abate. On one trip, he recalled, the father of a teammate was nearly swept overboard, saved by a fellow parent who flashed a one-armed save on the starboard side.

"Always a rough trip over to Saint Pierre," agreed Wayne Ryder, now a retired gym teacher who coached nearly all of his son's games until Michael reached his mid teens. "The boat would dip, and all around you would see nothing but blue water; then it would come back up, and you'd only see blue sky."

The combination of small teams and few games, though, did not daunt Ryder's hockey ambitions. Beginning in kindergarten, he wrote the same school essay every year: "When I grow up, I want to be a hockey player." Debbie and Wayne Ryder still have a few of the old essays tucked away with family photos.

"One year mom made me write something else," recalled the multimillionaire NHL right wing. "I put down 'phys ed teacher,' because that's what my dad did. I wanted to get her off my back."

"I think it was Grade 6 when I said to him, 'Michael, maybe you should put down something else - you know, it might not happen,' " recalled Debbie Ryder, whose other son, Daniel, was a third-round pick (2005) of the Calgary Flames. "We knew he was really good, and you always hope for the best for your child, but we figured here, in Bonavista, everything is so small, what chance do you have, realistically?"

Connecting with Julien

In his late teens, eligible to be drafted into Canada's top junior ranks, the little-known Ryder put his name into the Ontario Hockey League draft. No one selected him, in part, he figured, because his skating was choppy, undeveloped. In the NHL draft, history nearly repeated itself: Ryder wasn't selected until the Canadiens used the 216th pick overall in '98.

Weeks after the OHL draft, after playing well in a Chowder Cup tournament that brought him to Boston for the first time, Ryder was invited to try out for the Quebec League team in Hull, Quebec. He made it. As a walk-on. Julien, Hull's coach, liked the kid from Bonavista who was strong on his skates, kept plucking pucks out of corners, and knew how to finish off hard wristers.

"Every time I've had him, he's had a good year," recalled Julien, who later coached Ryder in Hamilton (AHL) and with the Habs. "When he came to Hull, he had a lot to learn, eh, because in Bonavista, he really hadn't played much. He had a lot to learn."

The biggest lesson came the morning after Julien's squad lost in Shawinigan. Julien called Ryder to the ice for what turned into a one-man boot camp - Julien's bootprint firmly planted on the back of Ryder's hockey pants.

"I had to bench him for the third period in Shawinigan," said Julien. "Like I say, he had to learn, that's all. He was just a kid. After two periods, he hadn't broken a sweat. He wasn't lazy. He's never been lazy. He just had to get the message.

"Hey, players don't have to like you, they just have to understand."

The grueling drill, Ryder recalled, had Julien ordering him not only to skate, but to hop over the boards and then hop back on the ice, return to skate, hop, skate, repeat.

"Finally, I was, 'OK, uncle!' " said Ryder. "Did I have a bad game? Apparently. I try to block it all out."

No doubt, the Julien connection, made in the fall of 1997, is a large part of the reason Ryder chose to sign with Boston. He had an identical offer, he said, to sign with Vancouver, but opted for the Bruins because of his familiarity with Julien and the less torturous travel of playing for an Eastern team.

"What I like about Claude is that he knows how to get every inch out of every player," said Ryder. "It's what he does well. Even in junior. We didn't have the most talented team, but we beat teams just by working hard."

Nonetheless, Ryder anguished over his choice. In his four seasons with Montreal, he said, he never had more than a one-year contract. He wanted some security, and he wanted the right fit, a coach and a team that would lead to getting his game back on track. He also had his mother, who saw her son's career blossom every time he played for Julien, dropping not-so-subtle hints in his ear.

"He was weighing all the pros and cons," said Debbie Ryder. "And I'll admit, I was leaning to Boston, because every time he's played for Claude, he's done well. Hull, then Hamilton, then Montreal.

"At one point, while he was making up his mind, Michael said, 'OK, I get it. You love Claude. You love Claude Julien!'

"I think he made a good choice. For us, the time zone's better, too. It's much easier for us to watch games in the East."

Newfoundland time is 90 minutes ahead of Causeway Street standard time. The 6-foot, 195-pound Ryder will be on the job in about two months, hoping to dial his career back to a time when the goals flowed as easily as those icebergs that he could see from the front door of his Bonavista home.

"You grow up here, you see icebergs, whales all the time, and it's like you take it all for granted," said Ryder, who remained in Montreal this year through most of June. "I think this is the first time, being back, I could smell the sea air. It's kind of nice."

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com


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