The story of Michael Ryder reads like a traditional, Canadian hockey fable. It is a tale of a young man who overcame many obstacles, in pursuit of a dream, traveling a long road to the National Hockey League, finally, emerging triumphantly as the top goal scorer with the legendary Montreal Canadiens.
Coming from the small town of Bonavista, Newfoundland (population 3,764), Ryder quickly emerged as a sort of a folk hero, emanating from this small town on Canada’s eastern shores. Never the fastest skater, or the most talented player, Ryder possessed a skill that can’t be taught. Despite his deficiencies, Michael Ryder excelled at the most important part of the game, all he did was put the puck in the net.
Spending three years with the Hull Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Ryder was a scoring machine, tallying 128 goals in 201 games during the regular season. Most impressive was Ryder’s ability to better these numbers in the playoffs, scoring 35 goals in only 48 games.
Even with the impressive goal scoring totals, Ryder was considered by most to be a mere afterthought to many of the decision makers at the 1998 NHL entry draft. Selected by the Canadiens with the 216th pick, Ryder was the tenth player chosen by Montreal (54 spots behind future Habs all-star Andrei Markov).
Being such a late selection; little was expected of Ryder. Instead of being sent to the Canadiens top farm team in Quebec City, Ryder was shipped to the East Coast Hockey League’s Tallahassee Tiger Sharks. To say that the road to the NHL from Tallahassee to Montreal was a long one is a huge understatement. None of Ryder’s teammates on the Tiger Sharks have been able to enjoy consistent careers in the hallowed confines of the NHL.
After dressing for five games, wearing the number ten, and potting nine points in only five games, Ryder was promoted to the Habs top farm team in Quebec. However, at this moment Ryder’s path to the Habs was temporarily slowed, as for the first time in his career, he had trouble putting the puck in the back of the net, resulting in his demotion to the Mississippi Sea Wolves of the ECHL.
Regaining his goal scoring stroke down south, Ryder was once again promoted to Montreal’s top farm team, and after struggling in Quebec in 2001-02, he found his groove when the team moved to Hamilton the following year. After leading the team in goals, Ryder was finally given the chance to achieve the dream of many, Canadian youngsters, beginning the 2003-04 season wearing the famous jersey of the Montreal Canadiens.
It was a season that exceeded everyone’s expectations. Not only did the Canadiens make the playoffs, but they knocked off the first place Boston Bruins before being eliminated in the second round by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Despite that disappointment no one could put a damper on Ryder’s achievements that rookie season, as he led all rookies in points, power play points, shots, and goals.
Suddenly, Michael Ryder found himself an NHL star, and the favorite son of all Newfoundlanders throughout Canada.
After a one year hiatus, due to the work stoppage, Ryder returned to the Canadiens and quickly proved that his rookie season was no fluke, as he led the team in scoring the next two years; each time hitting the 30 goal plateau.
Last year, in the last game of the season, against their traditional rivals, the Canadiens in a must win situation were paced by Ryder’s natural hat trick. Unfortunately, for Ryder and the Habs it wasn’t enough, as the Leafs stormed back to win the game, eliminating Montreal from the playoff race.
Now almost ten months to the day, the Canadiens are fighting the Ottawa Senators for first place in the Eastern Conference. Montreal rapid rise to elite status in the ranks of the NHL has been one of the biggest surprises of the season. For the first time in many years, fans of the Canadiens, are beginning to entertain thoughts of that elusive 25th Stanley Cup.
And Michael Ryder, the team’s leading goal scorer the past two seasons, has a front row seat, watching the Canadiens, from the comfort of the press box, as a healthy scratch.
Since that April 7th night at the Air Canada Centre, the magic, the most important ingredient to Ryder’s success, has gone missing, and has proven to be stubbornly elusive.
Suddenly, it seemed that a black cloud began to hover over Ryder, as his feel good story took a decided detour.
Spending his summer at home in Newfoundland, his car was fire-bombed in one incident and pelted with eggs in another, and then at the first day of Montreal’s training camp, he missed a body check and banged his face on the top of the boards, leaving him with a heavily swollen left eye.
Unable to come to an agreement on a long term deal, Ryder signed a one year contract that paid him $2.95 million for the season, making him an unrestricted free agent this upcoming summer.
At the time, many questioned Montreal General Manager, Bob Gainey’s inability to sign Ryder to a longer contract. Now in hindsight, it begs the question; was the failure to sign Ryder long term a calculated move by Gainey, or a stroke of luck?
Ryder remains an enigma to those who follow the Canadiens. Naturally mellow, by nature, Ryder has taken his benching with an attitude bordering on nonchalance, claiming “that it’s out of his hands.” This seeming lack of passion is stunning, when Ryder’s situation is concerned.
Generally, a player in the last year of his contract, with impending free agency on the horizon, is committed to putting up big numbers, in order to maximize their potential payout during the summer.
Ryder openly defies this logic. Most players would be demanding to be played, loudly. Ryder however, sits up in the press box, silently watching his potential big money payout going down the drain. Perhaps, Ryder has a strong sense that a trade is imminent, and has decided to maybe, give less than his best in both practice and game After all, if one is consistently named as a healthy scratch, it must be tough to retain your devotion to a franchise that seems to have lost confidence in you.
The sad part is that the Canadiens need the goal scoring process of Michael Ryder now more than ever, as Koivu and Higgins struggle to put points on the board. Many prognosticators feel that the Canadiens need to find an established scoring forward to help increase Koivu’s production . For the past two seasons Ryder fulfilled that role with gusto; this year he seems unable or incapable of being the sniper who used to be.
Currently sitting in ninth on the team’s goals for list, Ryder finds himself in the worst of positions. With the Canadiens fighting for a top spot in the conference, they simply can’t afford to wait Michael Ryder out. The problem facing Canadians coach, Guy Carbonneau, is that if he keeps giving Ryder a large amount of minutes, and Ryder still continues to struggle, at what point is he hurting the team more than helping.
The situation doesn’t figure to get any better for Ryder in the near future with the return of Roman Hamrlik and Ryan O’Byrne to the lineup, meaning that Mark Streit will probably be pushed up to forward, putting another obstacle to Ryder’s potential return.
The overriding question surrounding Michael Ryder these days isn’t whether he’ll hit the thirty goal mark for a third straight season, but instead whether he’ll ever play for the Montreal Canadiens again.