Michael Ryder's path isn't always easy
BOSTON -- Sometimes where you come from defines who you are.
Sometimes that means the road from there to here is straight and broad. And sometimes it is narrow, curvy and dotted with the occasional pothole.
For Michael Ryder, the path from a small town in rough and tumble Newfoundland to the Eastern Conference finals cannot be measured only in miles.
You watch his play this spring, the big goals he has scored, his simpatico state with surprising rookie Tyler Seguin, and the temptation is strong to suggest that Ryder has "arrived."
But the reality with the big winger with the heavy shot is that no one quite knows what he's capable of, so whether he has "arrived" is difficult to assess.
Surely, he has come a long way from having earned the nickname "Easy Ryder" in junior hockey. As in, taking it easy, as in, the opposite of trying hard.
"He's one of those guys, just like Tyler [Seguin], that had to grow through his first year, not used to practicing or being on the ice every day, and that's where he earned the nickname Easy Ryder, because there were some days where he would have preferred being off the ice," head coach Claude Julien recalled.
Julien knows Ryder as a hockey player and a person perhaps better than anyone else in the game.
He coached a raw teenaged Ryder in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and later as the head coach of the Hamilton Bulldogs, the top farm club of the Montreal Canadiens, and then in the NHL with Montreal and now with Boston.
"When he came to our junior team at the time, the Hull Olympiques, I could tell right from training camp he had a lot of raw talent," Julien said.
Does Ryder hear Julien's voice in his head when he falls asleep at night?
"I pretty much know what he's going to say," the 31-year-old said.
For all of their shared history, Ryder said he doesn't think too much about their parallel journey.
"Yeah, I actually don't really think about it, to be honest. I've been with him for a while. But I haven't really thought about it like that. He knows what type of player I am. He knows what I can do out there. It's good to know sometimes that the coach has that confidence in you and knows what you can do out there," Ryder said.
In his first year in Hull, Ryder scored 34 times and followed that with seasons of 44 and 50 goals. In the summer of 1998, the Canadiens took a flier on the big kid who had had little in the way of formal hockey training growing up, selecting him with the 216th pick overall.
Growing up in the small town of Bonavista, Newfoundland, Ryder's hockey opportunities were different from those of kids in more populated areas. When he joined his first AAA team, the distance was so great from his home, some 2½ hours, that he never practiced, just met the team for games.
"It was different for me because I just came from back home in Newfoundland. I wasn't getting noticed very much on the mainland to get away and play hockey. For me, I grew up in a really small town, so the only time I really got to play was on the weekends," he said.
In his last year playing AAA hockey, "I only played like 20-something games, and I never practiced, just played the games. There was a bit of an adjustment getting used to the junior the way it was and how the game was played," he acknowledged, the distinctive eastern Canadian twang still evident in his speech.
Big, blessed with a terrific shot and a great nose for the net, Ryder was an attractive prospect. But the challenge for Julien was marrying that raw talent with a less apparent work ethic.
Julien recalls one of those days when Ryder appeared to want to be somewhere else. The coach looked down the bench to see that Ryder's distinctive curly hair sticking out from his helmet was dry. Too dry for the way Julien liked his players to play.
The next day, Julien invited Ryder to join him for a pre-practice skate.
Julien got cones out and had Ryder skate drills around the cones. Then, he had him do a drill that involved going around the cones, then racing in one end of the bench and out the other end. By the end, Ryder told Julien he was getting dizzy.
"I don't want to remember, but I remember," Ryder said.
Even now, he recalls not being particularly happy about the exercise in tough love.
"Well, I wasn't [happy] at the time, that's for sure. I wouldn't want to do it again. I was young. Come from Newfoundland not playing much hockey, and I guess he just thought that would be a way to teach how it goes, I guess," Ryder said.
In Ryder's first year as a pro, the Canadiens sent him down for a short stint in the ECHL in Tallahassee. The next year, he spent about a quarter of a season in Mississippi of the ECHL.
"Well, I was a bit discouraged when I was in the East Coast and further away from where you want to be. But my family always supported me just saying play hard, work hard, you'll get your opportunity, and that was what I was just hoping for. I knew I could probably play if I could really get the opportunity. Somebody noticed me, and that was what I was just hoping for. And eventually it paid off. I think, going through all that, you learned a lot and [it] helped you as a player," Ryder said.
Boston GM Peter Chiarelli, the former assistant GM in Ottawa, got many opportunities to see Ryder up close in junior and when he came through the Montreal organization.
"He was always a dangerous player," Chiarelli told ESPN.com. "He was always a player we had to watch in Montreal."
When Ryder fell out of favor in Montreal after back-to-back 30-goal seasons, Chiarelli targeted him as a player who could help a Boston offense that was in need of a pure goal scorer in the Glen Murray mold and signed him to a three-year deal worth $12 million before the 2008-09 season.
Not that Ryder's stay in Boston hasn't been without its own set of challenges.
There have been times in the regular season when he wasn't working as hard as Julien would have liked. There have been conversations with Julien and Chiarelli about focus and delivering on a nightly basis.
"He does come with some baggage in that way," Chiarelli. "It's not without its trials and tribulations. But Michael cares."
Ryder scored 27 times in the first year of his deal, but his production has dropped to 18 goals in each of the past two seasons.
"He's been a bit of a lightning rod for criticism in Boston," Chiarelli said.
There have been off-ice issues, too, that may have impacted Ryder's head-space.
"He's been through some tough times the last couple of years with his brother," Chiarelli said.
Ryder's younger brother, Daniel, a Calgary prospect, was charged with robbery in the family's hometown in January 2010. Daniel Ryder is living at home awaiting sentencing, and Michael Ryder said he tries to talk to him as often as he can.
Definitely I want to be a guy that makes a difference. And try to be a guy that is doing what he can to help the team win.” -- Bruins forward Michael Ryder
But it's family, and it's difficult.
And yet, through all of this, Michael Ryder has persevered, and the Bruins have been rewarded for their faith in him.
For the third straight playoff year, Ryder has elevated his game to deliver goals and plays.
He has scored five times this spring, including two game winners. He has six assists, and his 11-point tally ranks fourth in team scoring.
"For the past three playoff years, he's been one of our top playoff performers," Chiarelli said.
"The playoffs are a heavier game," the GM said, and Ryder rises to those occasions.
That's just how it goes for some players. Ask players and coaches who knew Claude Lemieux, and they'll tell you that sometimes his regular-season focus and performance bore little resemblance to when the games mattered most; that was when Lemieux was at his best. Some players are the complete opposite, paralyzed by the pressure of playoff hockey.
"I feel excited when playoffs come around, that's for sure. It's pretty hard not to. That's what you play for all year, and just when playoffs come, everybody gets that excitement and you want to win. And that's what I want. I know we have a good team here. We still have a ways to go yet, but it's fun, and this is the time of the year that you want to play in," Ryder told a small of group of reporters recently.
Julien, of course, has been pleased with what he has seen this spring.
"There is no doubt I believed in his ability to score, that I've also been one of those guys at times that felt like I needed to push him and he's had his ups and downs and it hasn't been all great," Julien said.
But Ryder has delivered some important performances this spring and it's not overstating it to suggest he will need to do so again if the Bruins are to advance to their first Stanley Cup final since 1990.
"So he's served us well, and I know sometimes we expect more and everybody does, but overall he's been a pretty decent player for us," Julien said.
You get the sense from talking to Ryder he isn't entirely comfortable talking about issues of disappointment or underachievement.
Who among us is?
But what seems to be clear is the kind of player he wants to be even if there is sometimes a disconnect between the desire and the result.
"Definitely, I want to be a guy that makes a difference. And try to be a guy that is doing what he can to help the team win. That's what I want to be. I want to be in those situations that can help us win, and I enjoy it," he said.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.