Revisiting Bobby Ryan’s Triumphant Return to the Senators’ Lineup

The scene is nearly unforgettable for Ottawa Senators fans. It was Feb. 27, 2020 – exactly two weeks before the season would be suspended due to COVID-19 concerns. The Vancouver Canucks were in Ottawa for only the second meeting between the two teams all season. With just under two minutes left in the game and the Vancouver Canucks’ net empty, Brady Tkachuk was on the forecheck and working to dig the puck out of the corner on the right side. At the same time, Bobby Ryan was moving through the neutral zone and was bumped by Tanner Pearson, pulling him out of stride.

At this point, Ryan had two goals on the scoresheet in his first game back in Ottawa since leaving the team in November 2019 to enter the player assistance program related to substance abuse. Back on the ice in Ottawa, he was feeling good and had already taken fans at the Canadian Tire Centre and those watching the game on television on an emotional ride. But, as Pearson made a slight move toward the corner with the intention of supporting his defenseman, Ryan moved toward the slot and was wide open in front of the empty net.

He found his space.

Tkachuk gained control of the puck in the moments after the separation between Ryan and Pearson and fed it out to number nine. He received it on the backhand as three Canucks attempted to converge on him. As he brought it to his forehand, Josh Norris (now infamously) hollered for a drop pass, and the body language of the three defenders changed as they could tell that it was too late to make a play.

In this moment, roughly 12,166 hockey fans could also see what was coming. Ryan was about to cap off the night and a remarkable return to Ottawa with a hat trick, one of the most celebrated offensive displays in one game for hockey players and fans. It was statistically only his fourth goal of the season, but it clearly meant so much more to Ryan, the Senators, and Ottawa fans who slapped the glass around Ryan and his teammates celebrating each goal, tossing hats on the ice to celebrate the hat trick, holding and waving “we missed you” and “welcome back Bobby” signs, and chanting “Bobby, Bobby” throughout the game. It was one of the most memorable and special moments in recent hockey history and, certainly, in Ottawa Senators’ history.

Detroit Bound

Bobby Ryan currently wears the red and white-winged wheel for the Detroit Red Wings, but it was during his time as a member of the Ottawa Senators in November 2019 while on the road in Detroit that a pressing concern about personal substance abuse patterns came to a head. While speaking to Ray Ferraro and Darren Dreger on episode 21 of The Ray and Dregs Hockey Podcast (originally posted March 5, 2020), Ryan said that he drank throughout his career but never regularly. He said he could go a while without drinking but then might get caught too deep. He admitted that these patterns seemed to get worse in recent years and would try to quit, but it never stuck beyond a few days or weeks at most.

After experiencing a panic attack on the morning before a skate in Detroit, he made his way to the rink and tried to go through the motions and routine of a professional hockey player. Ryan’s discussions of routine after returning to the NHL and during his ongoing recovery are some of the most interesting moments. These routines can seemingly ground us during difficult times but hinder us in moments when we need to break them to get help. At its most uncomfortable moment, the routine is part of what normalizes harmful patterns. Ryan told Ferraro and Dreger that he got through nearly three drills that morning and then pushed himself to leave the ice and seek the foundation and guidance that could help him break the patterns.

Ryan’s honesty about the entire process is encouraging. He admitted to Ferraro and Dreger that the first 30 days were challenging. He wanted to get back to his family, the team, and the familiar places of hockey, but he learned along the way that the intricacies of his routines would have to change. He frequently mentions how he takes time each morning to clear and set his mind before diving into the tasks of the day. It sounds like a mindfulness tactic, but it actually sounds more like a brain pattern realignment process.

Wake up. Clear the haze. Set the mind on a positive track. Engage with the day.

Certainly, the details of this process are and will be unique for everyone, but it seems to be working for Ryan.

Bobby Ryan Detroit Red Wings
Bobby Ryan celebrating another goal with the Detroit Red Wings (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

Detroit has played a key role in Ryan’s recovery in unexpected ways. Red Wings’ general manager Steve Yzerman signed him to a one-year contract in October of 2020 after the Senators bought him. The unexpected landing spot allowed him to expand on some of the memories tied to the city. He scored in his Red Wings debut and, at the time of writing, leads the team in goals and is tied for the team lead in points. He sought out a new trainer in the off-season to help him work on his skating and looks reenergized and positively reacquainted with the game he’s played for many years now (starting as a roller hockey player). He likely won’t wear the red and white in Detroit for much longer as contending teams look to fill out their forward depth with a talented forward on a team-friendly contract like Ryan, but his time in the Motor City has been well spent.    

The Initial Return and the Rest of the Hat Trick

Ryan had only played 16 of the team’s 63 games before his return to Ottawa’s lineup on Feb. 25, 2020. His initial return came when he joined the team for a road game in Nashville against the Predators. He had left the team on the road and was joining them as they were in the same routine on the road in another city. This time, however, he had completed 100 days of sobriety and had addressed some of his personal challenges. The process wasn’t and isn’t over, but he was in a place where he could play hockey again and step back into certain routines, with others modified.

It wasn’t as cheerful as the return would be two nights later in Ottawa, but he played a solid 15:38 of ice time, had four shots on goal with two hits and two blocks. He finished minus-1 on the night, and the Senators would leave Nashville with a loss (3-2), but it was a low-pressure game for Ryan where he could get his legs going at game speed and feel the brush of contact with an opponent again.

Of course, Ottawa was a different return. Danielle Ryan (Bobby’s wife) was present, which was important for the family. She is repeatedly recognized as the individual who supported Ryan but also carried the weight for the couple and family when he hit low points and when he was away in the program. He is quick to note that she is the reason that he could get and wanted to get help. There are professional challenges and personal challenges, and he admitted to Ferraro and Dreger that once he realized that the harmful patterns were affecting his immediate family in addition to his personal states of mind, he increasingly knew he needed more help to move past the temporary moments of recovery that he could produce on his own.

With Danielle present for his return to the ice with the Senators, fans were excited to lend their support to the Ryan family. The Senators were lifted by the energy in the building that night, even before Ryan scored a goal. Connor Brown notched one just over seven minutes into the first period, and then Ryan really sparked the Canadian Tire Centre. He headed into the same corner where Tkachuk would later fish out the puck and help cap off the hat trick. This time, he pressured the Canucks defender who tried to move the puck to the breaking forward, but it slid by onto the stick of Nikita Zaitsev. He finished a check on the defender, which gave him space to turn and move quickly toward the net. Zaitsev fired the puck on net, and Ryan deflected the puck up and over Thatcher Demko.

Ryan punched the air in what seemed like a moment of release. Senators fans cheered with encouragement, with many likely expecting this to be the emotional high point of the evening. Ottawa held a one-goal lead late into the third period when Ryan added some insurance for his second of the night. Nick Paul and Chris Tierney entered the Canucks’ zone on a two-on-one, but it was broken up before they could get a shot off. Ryan came off the bench and hustled into the zone as the late third attacker, while Tierney gathered the puck at the left side of Demko’s net. Tierney circled behind the net and fed it out to Ryan at nearly the same spot where Tkachuk would shortly be. If the empty-netter was a show of great positioning and awareness, and the first goal displayed great forecheck pressure and timing, Ryan’s second goal was his slickest of the evening.

Ryan received the puck in his left skate and kicked it up to his stick, where it spent no more than one second. As the puck fluttered, he snapped it up past the small space between Demko’s head and the top corner where the posts meet. Nineteen seconds later, he scored the empty-net goal that finished the hat trick. Fans couldn’t help but stand up and cheer. As he bent over on the bench after the third goal to hide the inevitable emotional overflow at that point, there’s no doubt that he wasn’t the only one in the building overcome with emotion.         

Measuring Positives

Ryan mentions Nate Thompson as another player (and former teammate) who battled similar issues and is someone that he respects. Thompson’s confidence and comfort in situations where teammates do go out for a drink is something he admires and a place he wants to get to, even if he’s not ready yet, or every time the option is presented. Part of the recovery is certainly checking-in with yourself regularly and understanding when boundaries can’t be tested on a more difficult day.

Nate Thompson #17, Ottawa Senators
Nate Thompson during his time with the Ottawa Senators (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Ryan and Thompson are positive stories for the players, their families, their teams, and the NHL. Yet, for every player who makes it through the program (or their own process) and is engaged in ongoing recovery, there are players who don’t make it or don’t have the confidence to ask for help. The NHL and NHLPA need to continue to support players and their families and make it easier for everyone affected by a player’s substance abuse issues to get help and take time away if needed. If part of the personal process of recovery is about changing routines, the league needs to recognize how hockey culture can normalize certain routines, habits, and patterns over others and model an approach to address potentially harmful patterns.

Ottawa, Detroit, and the league are proud of Ryan’s ongoing recovery. He’s looking more comfortable on the ice than he has in recent years, and the numbers are proof. Depending on where he finishes out the season, the nature of divisional play in future seasons, and Ryan’s health as he moves into his mid-thirties, it’s unclear whether he’ll play another game at the Canadian Tire Centre in front of Senators fans again. If he does, I’m certain he’ll receive a warm welcome and hear the caring cheers of his supporters. If he doesn’t, Sens fans will always remember the night he returned to Ottawa and lifted the team, organization, and city with his inspiring play.    

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