article about Ryder
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No easy road for this Ryder
ROBIN SHORT, The Telegram
Montreal—For most of the past seven winters, Claude Julien has been Michael Ryder’s tutor, from junior hockey to minor pro to the National Hockey League.
It was Ryder on whom Julien took a flyer in 1997 when the youngster from small-town Newfoundland turned up in Hull, Que., as a walk-on at the Olympiques’ junior camp. And it was Ryder who Julien selected to play for Canada three years later at the world juniors. And it was Ryder again who showed up in Hamilton as a rookie pro to play for Julien after the latter had been hired by the Montreal Canadiens to run their farm team’s bench in the American Hockey League.
And Ryder has again followed Julien — albeit eight months later — to the Canadiens where the two are among the most recognizable faces — behind Jose Theodore and Sheldon Souray — on the Montreal landscape where church and politics matter almost as much as hockey.
So it’s no wonder Ryder credits Julien with shaping his hockey career. Julien, however, isn’t so quick to accept praise.
“I believed he could be an NHL player,” Julien said last week, “but he’s the one who’s proven he could.
Earned it all
“He got an opportunity and he took advantage of it and he’s definitely earned it.”
The story of Michael Ryder has been told many times this season, in the national newspapers and cable sports networks. It’s one the mainlanders can’t get over — Newfoundland kid taking the NHL by storm, on the Montreal Canadiens no less.
But there’s more to the Ryder story than whence he comes. It’s a story of a young man — humble, despite success — who has emerged from hockey’s hinterland the honest way … through perseverance and hard work.
A story that’s on the cusp of displacing Alex Faulkner as Newfoundland’s finest sports moment.
Few may realize this, but Ryder was cut from the Tri-Pen Osprey (now known as Frost) midget team his first time out. The following season, he led the team with 31 goals in 23 games.
He was invited to the Olympiques’ camp as a walk-on and Julien saw something in the kid. The coach obviously had a keen eye as Ryder scored 34 goals his rookie QMJHL season.
And that despite playing only a handful of games each winter during his critical development years.
“There was one year — first-year bantam, I think,” recalls his father, Wayne, “he only played nine games. And five of those were in the Easter (provincial) tournament.”
Instead, Ryder’s hockey was mostly of the scrap variety at Bonavista’s Cabot Stadium or on the town’s surrounding ponds.
“If you play more when you’re younger, you develop quicker,” Michael Ryder said. “It took me a little longer because I didn’t play as much.”
Named to the Quebec league’s all-rookie team, hopes were high Ryder could be a middle-round pick in the 1998 draft. Instead, he sat in the stands at Buffalo’s HSBC Arena and waited … and waited … and waited. Finally, the Canadiens used their second-last pick to select Ryder 216th overall.
Only 258 names were called in the draft.
Ryder played another two years of junior, winning a silver medal in the 2000 worlds and capping his final season in Hull with 50 goals.
But for the next two seasons, he bounced between the AHL and East Coast Hockey League, a AA semi-pro circuit where NHL dreams go to die.
Twice over two years he was assigned to the Coast, first in Tallahassee and later to Mississippi.
Even Bonavista has a greater hockey tradition than those southern climes where high school football and hoops dominate the sports pages.
Never got down
“You find yourself further and further away from playing in the NHL,” Ryder said, “but I never got down. I just tried to stay positive and hopefully somebody would see me and probably give me a chance.”
That somebody would be Julien, now coaching in the pros and — despite handing Ryder the one-way tickets to the boonies — still believing in the youngster.
Others weren’t so sure. There were concerns about the usual stuff — size and skating.
He was fast enough, alright, but he didn’t have the explosive first step of, say, Bulldogs’ teammate Marcel Hossa.
Even up to last year, Ryder was a healthy scratch in eight of the Bulldogs’ first 12 games.
“Claude told me to be patient, that there’ll be callups and injuries and I’ll get my chance,” he said. “When I got it, I made sure I took advantage of it.”
After cracking the lineup, Ryder averaged almost a point per game in Hamilton last season, but it was the playoffs where the Canadiens really took notice.
He caught fire in the post season, finishing with 11 goals and 17 points in 23 games, helping bring the Bulldogs to within a game of the Calder Cup.
So while Julien, by now entrenched as Montreal’s coach after replacing the canned Michel Therrien in January, kept a close watch on Ryder, fact was there was a new sheriff in town and Bob Gainey was poised to put his own stamp on a Canadiens team that had missed the playoffs four of the past five years.
“I hadn’t seen him play a lot,” said Gainey, hired as the Habs’ new GM in June, “but he didn’t have to do a whole lot to convince the people here he could play.
“So based on that, and his playoff in Hamilton, we let a couple of right-wingers go (Mariusz Czerkawski and Randy McKay were bought out of their contracts) in the hopes it would open some opportunities for the young guys.”
Ryder has surpassed all expectations, even his own. For someone aspiring for a fourth-line job, Ryder is skating on the Habs’ top line and No. 1 power play unit.
Heading into Friday night’s game in New Jersey, he was second in team scoring with 22 goals (10 on the power play) and 35 assists, four points behind Mike Ribeiro for the team lead.
He tops all rookie scorers and the Calder Trophy for the league’s rookie of the year will be a two-horse race between Ryder and Boston Bruins backstop Andrew Raycroft.
Ryder is three goals off Tony White’s total of 25 in 1975-76, the most goals in a single NHL season by a Newfoundlander.
Gamble paid off
A restricted free agent following this season — he signed only a one-year contract after accepting the Habs’ qualifying offer last summer, a gamble that’s paid off for the player and his Toronto-based agent, Thane Campbell — Ryder will get a significant pay hike next season on the $605,000 US he’s currently taking home.
For comparison purposes, Yanic Perreault is earning $2.8M US, while Richard Zednick makes $1.85M US a season. Even Jan Bulis draws a salary of $1.15M a year.
The Canadiens like everything there is about Ryder. He’s adored by teammates and fans, who pay $200 a pop for the No. 73 RYDER jerseys for sale at the Bell Centre souvenir shop. He minds his own business and brings a workmanlike approach to every game.
And, if nothing else, he’s consistent. Consider this: since Nov. 11, he has not gone three straight games without picking up a point. Heading into the Meadowlands last night, Ryder had three goals and three assists in his last four starts.
“He’s a good example,” Gainey said, “of the anticipation and hope we have for our younger players.”
But what is it about Ryder’s game that’s set him apart from other rookies — and many an NHL veteran, for that matter?
He’s a strong skater, but not especially quick. At six-foot and 200 pounds, he’s got good size, but is no dominant physical presence.
Still, he ranks ahead of Brendan Shanahan, Ryan Smyth, Glen Murray and Tony Amonte in NHL scoring.
Simply put, Ryder drives to the net and his shot is one of the game’s best. The puck explodes off his one-piece Easton Synergy, but more importantly, he has a hair-pin trigger release and doesn’t need a lot of room to get it off.
Shoot when ready
“I shot the puck a lot when I was younger,” he said. “It’s just something I always did. That’s the strong part of my game. If I don’t do that, I’m not much of a factor. Everyone tells me to shoot when I get the chance.
“I knew if I came here, they needed somebody who can take the puck and drive to the net, somebody who shows a little grit.
“So I make sure I get to the net and create something, find an opening or a loose puck for somebody else or even myself.”
Adds Julien: “What people sometimes don’t realize is he’s a smart player. He has the right frame of mind.”
The other Newfoundlander on the Canadiens (bet you never thought you’d hear that one), Deer Lake’s Darren Langdon, admires Ryder for hurdling the obstacles — a topic Langdon knows a thing or two about.
“It looked for a while like he was going nowhere and all of a sudden he got a chance and picked it up,” Langdon said.
“Guys like us, we’re just happy to be playing hockey. I didn’t even know I’d be playing in the East Coast. It was great just to do that.
“Ryder, on the other hand, played Quebec major and whatever. From talking to him, it didn’t seem like he got too depressed when he got sent down there. He said he worked hard.
“But I can’t believe him,” Langdon says, “when he says he’s working hard.”
Langdon was winking at the time, a mischievous grin creasing his lips. He knows the difference.
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