Monday, December 19, 2005
Updated: April 15, 12:46 PM ET
By Gare Joyce
Kids were swarming Bobby Ryan, begging for autographs, even though he was just a kid himself. Banners at the J.D. McArthur Arena read "Welcome Bobby Ryan." It was June 2003, and Ryan was in town to meet with the staff of the Owen Sound Attack, the team that had called his name in the first round of the Ontario Hockey League draft. A reporter from the local paper wanted to interview the 16-year-old right wing. "Tell me about growing up, about your family," he said. Everyone wanted to know about the kid from New Jersey.
This was Ryan's first visit to Owen Sound. He'd never even heard of it, had to get out a map just to find it. There it was, tucked into the south shore of Georgian Bay, 120 miles northwest of Toronto. With a population of 22,000, it's the smallest town in the OHL. Because of that, some prospects tell the team not to draft them. Coaches even use Owen Sound as a motivational tool. Got a slacker? Hint that you're talking trade with the Attack.
But Ryan liked what he saw in Owen Soundnot the limo that picked him up at the airport or the flowers for his mother. Other stuff. "I'm a city kid, but I knew I could relax and be myself here," he says today.
Be himself. How hard could that be? Harder than you might think, actually. What the fans didn't know was that those autographs he was signing, that name on the banners, that wasn't always the one Ryan has had. Because for a few long years, being himself meant being someone else.
DOB on Bobby Ryan's birth certificate: March 17, 1987. St Patrick's Day. Fitting for a kid with a name as Irish as Ryan. Except the name Ryan isn't on it. It's Robert Shane Stevenson.
Bobby Stevenson grew up in Cherry Hill, N.J., just outside Philly. His father, Bob, was a tough guy, built like a bank vault. He owned an insurance company and, truth be told, when people looked at him--he boxed back in his day--they thought they might need some.
Which brings us to the events of Oct. 29, 1997. They come hard and fast. On that night, father and son sat in their second-row seats at the CoreStates Arena, Flyers vs. Blues. Dad was rooting for the home team because he knew he'd be seeing his friend, Bob Clarke, the Flyers GM, at Clarke's gym the next day. The son was also rooting for the Flyers, even if the Blues' Brett Hull was his favorite player. It should have been a good time for Bobby--the Blues won--and, like so much of his life after that, it was, for as long as Bobby was at the arena.
After the game, the Stevenson men came home. With his son heading to bed, Bob met up with some pals for a couple of beers. He came home around 11:30. Bobby, 10, was fast asleep. "We had a good life," Bob says. "Homes, security. Right up until that night." And the Stevensons did have a good life, as good a life as you can have when Dad has a wicked temper--he'd had charges from a bar fight dismissed earlier that year--and when he suspects Mom of having a substance-abuse problem. Bob was certain Melody Stevenson (née Ryan) was using drugs (she denies it). That's why he'd rigged a tape recorder to the home phone.
When he came back from the bar, Bob checked the tape. There was one call--innocent, Melody says. Didn't matter. It set Bob off like the bell ringing. He went after Melody. Lefts and rights. Choking. What started in the bedroom spilled into the street, then to a neighbor's house, where Bob, burning like a four-alarm fire, ripped a door off its hinges. The cops were called, and Bob was arrested.
Bobby didn't wake up. Or at least that's what he told Melody when she picked him up at a neighbor's house after she'd spent four days in the hospital being treated for a fractured skull and internal injuries. He still says that today. Bobby knew his parents' marriage was troubled, even as he knew they loved each other. Says Mark Ellis, Bobby's roller hockey coach: "It's not that Bob didn't care. You get the sense he cared too much."
But Bob wasn't charged with caring too much. He was charged with attempted murder, aggravated assault and criminal restraint. Didn't matter that Melody wouldn't cooperate with prosecutors, who still figured that the physical evidence and the eyewitness accounts would net a conviction. Didn't matter that she stayed by her husband, that she thought Bobby needed his dad.
Bob was released on $75,000 bail, which he skipped in December. He fled to El Segundo, Calif. Later, the wife he'd beaten and their only child drove across the country to be with him. Not just for a new life, but for a new identity. Bob Stevenson, insurance executive, became Shane Ryan, professional gambler. And Bobby Stevenson, young hockey star in New Jersey, became Bobby Ryan, hockey prodigy and new kid in town. Bobby played along with the charade. "My parents made it clear," he says. "They were serious, so I only had to be told once. You're Bobby Ryan to anybody who asks, no exceptions."
Did Bob jump bail to save his own hide? No, says anyone who knows him. This wasn't a guy who was afraid of prison. This was a guy afraid of not being there for his kid. "My son is the only thing I ever got right," Bob told friends at the time. And Melody says that the plan was always for Bob to turn himself in "when he thought the time was right, when Bobby got 15 or 16."
Talk to Bobby now and you get no sense of hardship or crisis during the family's undercover days. Didn't matter, he says, that his father was away a lot of the time, gambling in the casino at Hollywood Park. Didn't matter that the family lived in a tiny apartment. Bobby loved looking out the window and watching the waves break on Redondo Beach. He loved being able to find a roller hockey game every day, just a couple blocks from his home. "Those were good times, because we were together," Bobby says. "At first, I had to think when I was asked about my name or where I came from or my parents. But after a while, it was like I was an actor. I stayed in character."
But nobody is that good an actor. Bobby Stevenson was already a force in national roller hockey circles back in Cherry Hill. Now, as Bobby Ryan, he was skating for California teams that he'd played against in tourneys. Bob could hide as Shane Ryan, but Bobby's talent gave him away. "There were rumors, this secret that everyone knew," Ellis says. "But no one asked. No one wanted to hurt Bobby."
The secret lasted until 2000. Maybe Bob got too comfortable. At Blockbuster one day, he used a credit card with an older, different alias. That night, U.S. marshalls broke down the door of the Ryan home. This time Bobby woke up from his deep sleep. The life of Shane Ryan was over. Bob Stevenson was cuffed and taken from the house while his 12-yearold watched. "That was the hardest time," Bobby says. "I felt broken. I was down. I didn't know if I wanted to keep playing hockey anymore."
With Bob extradited to New Jersey and serving time at Riverfront State Prison in Camden after pleading guilty to aggravated assault and bail jumping, Melody worked two jobs--as a rink manager during the day, taking Bobby along with her, and at an airport at night, with Bobby at the apartment doing homework (he was homeschooled by his mom). "At the arena, Bobby could get free ice time, and at the airlines, I could get him discount airfare to tournaments," Melody says. Hockey's not cheap, and Melody was strapped for cash, so teammates' parents helped out with gear and tourney fees. That motivated Bobby to give ice hockey his all. "I decided that we came this far and I had to go for it," he says.
He also decided to go for it as Bobby Ryan. Melody was booking a flight for him not long after his dad's arrest, and she had a question: did he want to go as Bobby Ryan or Bobby Stevenson?
"I told her I wanted to stay Bobby Ryan," he says.
And so he has, to this day. Through his father's four-plus years as a guest of the state. Through the rest of his age-group hockey career. And through a prospects camp in Toronto before the OHL draft in the spring of 2003.
"WE SAW this right wing with amazing skill and great size," says Mike Futa, Owen Sound's GM, of the 6'1'', 220-pound Bobby. "The most impressive player at the prospects camp."
Futa and Attack coach Mike Stothers knew about the kid, about his story. Stothers, who'd played and coached in Philly, knew Bob Stevenson from Clarke's gym. And Clarke had kept in touch with Bob, saying that he'd be there when Bob was released. Clarke knew Bobby too and let the boy skate with Flyers vets in summer workouts. Clarke told the Attack that Bobby's story was just thathistory. "He's a great kid," Clarke says. "Solid. Not damaged goods in any way."
Futa selected Bobby with the seventh pick in the OHL draft, but they still had to convince the kid to pass up college-he wanted to play for Michiganand come to Owen Sound, to a franchise that many top players spurned. Bob was still in jail. Going to Owen Sound meant Bobby wouldn't see his father for a long time, until the season was over, until he went back to New Jersey and the last days of his father's sentence ran out. No visits at Christmas. No birthdays. Bob told Bobby to go. "It was the best thing for him," the father says, "for his hockey and his life."
When Bobby and Melody came to town, Futa and Stothers showed them a refurbished arena. They showed them a photo gallery of players who'd gone from Owen Sound to the NHL, overachievers like Kirk Maltby in Detroit, Sean Avery in LA and Dan Snyder, who was trying to make it with the Thrashers. Futa and Stothers tried to address the issue others have had with Owen Sound: nothing to do. They worried that a kid who grew up in Jersey and at the beach might look at their town and see Podunk. Bobby told them not to worry. "I wanted to play hockey," he says. "That's why I was going there. Not for other things. Nothing else to do-that was fine by me."
Melody moved to Owen Sound with Bobby, taking a yearlong lease on a cottage on the bay in late summer 2003. "Bobby just needed a place to call home," she says. "He needed stability in his life." He found it, but Bobby's new life in Owen Sound was nothing like his Cali days. The former home-schooler enrolled in a local high school, West Hill Secondary. He hung out with all sorts of kids, no longer worrying about blowing his cover, no longer tensing up when he saw a police cruiser. When locals saw him driving his beat-up Mountaineer with Jersey plates, they waved.
Not long after Bobby arrived, Dan Snyder died from injuries suffered when fellow Thrasher Dany Heatley crashed his Ferrari. Snyder was a journeyman, a player who had split time between the minors and the NHL. But in Owen Sound, they grieved for the former Attack captain as if he were a legend. "It was like the town just shut down," Bobby says. "None of the players had ever played with Dan, but around town it seemed like so many people had known him and took it hard. We all signed cards that were sent to Dan's family."
Bobby felt these were people he could trust, people who cared about the players, and in the 2003-'04 season, that good feeling found expression on the ice: 22 goals, 17 assists. "There were some things that Bobby had to work on-conditioning, skating-but you could see that he was making adjustments," Stothers says. "Not just to the game at this level and the league, but in his whole life."
Last season, with Melody moving to Florida to be near her family, Bobby moved into the home of Dick and Gayle Stegehuis, across from the arena. Dick is a Harley Davidson salesman, but the home is more American Dreams than American Chopper. "Bobby is such a sweet and thoughtful kid," Gayle says. "He doesn't have a mean bone in his body."
That's not how the scouting reports read. Last season, Bobby's game took flight: 37 goals, 52 assists. And every game he was good for half a dozen huge hits, maybe more. In coaches' polls, he ranked as one of the OHL's most improved players. NHL scouts had him in the top five of skaters eligible for the 2005 draft. Still, many teams have been scared off by prospects who come from families less troubled than Bobby Ryan's.
Two days before the draft last July, Anaheim brought Bobby in for an interview. Ducks scouts had already talked to him, but that was before the team hired Brian Burke as GM. The Ducks owned the No. 2 pick. Sidney Crosby was the lock at No. 1. Burke didn't know what he'd do with his pick-until he met Bobby.
"I told Brian, you're a straight shooter, and I am too," Bobby says. "I told him that I thought I needed another year of junior. I told him that I thought I had to grow up a bit still, and that I wanted to play for the U.S. at World Juniors. And I said, I'll tell you anything you need to know. Ask me anything about my past. I'm an open book. Nothing's secret."
And he laid it all out. How he was spending his summer with his father in New Jersey. How a condition of his father's May 2004 release prevented Bob from associating with Melody. How Bob couldn't go to family counseling, couldn't even speak to her over the phone.
Front-office people vet prospects, looking to be convinced. Burke wasn't just convinced. He was moved: an innocent kid caught in the middle of a tough situation, but one who never thought of himself as a victim. "The best interview I ever had with a young player," Burke says. "We asked him what he had to work on, and everything he said was right there on his scouting report. He understood exactly what he had to do. He knew he'd have to go back to Owen Sound in the fall."
On draft day, Burke had breakfast with Bobby, Bob and Melody. Other players' families sat at nearby tables--the Crosbys were right beside them--and the Ryans looked like just another happy family on this day. But it was just for this day. Bob had come up from Cherry Hill, where he was now working in Bob Clarke's gym, while Melody was in from Florida. Being with Melody was a violation of his conditions of release. (She was okay with his being there, but Bob served three months' house arrest for the violation.) Both put on a brave face, but they were churning inside. They wanted so much to make sure things would go right for Bobby, for him to finally catch a break.
Burke, who told them that morning that he planned on taking Bobby, was too busy talking to pick up a fork. Melody and Bob were too nervous to eat. Bobby inhaled his fruit plate. "Nothing bothers him," Melody says.
Two hours later, the Ducks were on the clock. And then: "Anaheim is pleased to select … from the Owen Sound Attack, Bobby Ryan!"
Didn't matter that Ryan wasn't the name on his birth certificate, not to anyone at all.