Cherry Hill native helps power U.S. hockey team

Not long after the U.S. Olympic team was announced on New Year's Day, a text arrived on Bobby Ryan's phone.

Somewhere in there were congratulations, but what Ryan remembers most is the message. "The Americans are always soft," he said. "Canada is going to crush you guys."

Bobby Ryan, here working in the corner, scored the first goal in Team USA's win over Switzerland.

The sender of the text was Bob Clarke, whose barbs remain as sharp as his elbows once were. But Clarke, who was never afraid to rattle a cage as a player or executive, was not going to shake this one.

Clarke may be a Flyers icon - and a Canadian hero - but to Ryan, who was born in Cherry Hill, he was just the guy who let him skate on the ice as a kid after Flyers practice, who set his family up with tickets, and who gave his father a job at one of his gyms.

"He's no more than Clarkie to me," Ryan said.

That ability to be unfazed by life's circumstance - his own or others' - has served Ryan well during his young life, and it is likely a reason he was chosen for Team USA despite this being his first full season in the NHL.

In many ways Ryan, at 6-foot-2, 213 pounds, is the embodiment of a gambit by U.S. general manager Brian Burke - that youthful energy and speed will trump experience in a tightly scheduled two-week tournament. Fourteen of the 23 players on the American roster are 25 or younger. And though Ryan, who is the leading goal scorer for the Anaheim Ducks, is just 22, three players are younger.

"You're never a country that's going to go in and be highly touted," Ryan said of being American. "They're going to look at the Russians, the Canadians, obviously. You get to play a spoiler role - that's what we're going to try to do in Vancouver, just come in and ruin somebody's good day. We're a young team, a speedy team, a team that grinds well and goes to the net hard.

"The beauty of it is it's not a series where generally the best team is going to win. In 60 minutes, anything can happen."

Yesterday, anything did happen as Ryan scored the U.S. team's first goal of the Olympics in the first period of the 3-1 win over Switzerland. He even took a few hard hits, too.

Though Ryan was born after the Miracle on Ice, when the Americans stunned the world by winning the gold medal in 1980, to some degree he has lived one himself.

When Ryan was 10, his life was turned upside down after his father assaulted his mother, beating her badly enough that she was hospitalized for several days. Though his mother, Melody, did not want to press charges, police arrested his father, Bob, on felony assault charges. But he jumped bail, moved to the Los Angeles area under an assumed name, and soon was joined by Melody and Bobby, who changed his last name from Stevenson to Ryan.

For two years, Bobby was home-schooled, which meant spending time at home alone or at an ice rink, where his mother worked one of her several jobs. In 2000, authorities caught up with Bob, and he spent four years in jail.

"It was a lot of adversity for a young teenager to go through," said Ryan, who headed out on his own to play junior hockey at age 15, living with a host family for four years in tiny Owen Sound, Ontario. "But I think everything I went through molded me to be a little bit stronger, to withstand a little more."

Watch Ryan play for even a short while and it is easy to see a sense of calm in his game. He is creative and flashy - sometimes too much so for the tastes of Ducks coach Randy Carlyle - but rarely appears to be in a hurry.

Ryan, who scored two goals last Wednesday in a 3-2 win over Edmonton - the 11th consecutive home win for the surging Ducks - leads Anaheim with 28 goals, the most of any U.S. player in the NHL.

His game-tying goal against Edmonton was typical. He received a pass coming down the right wing and stylishly curled the blade of his long stick around the puck, telegraphing to goalie Jeff Deslauriers what was coming. It did not matter. His wrist shot sailed past Deslauriers' glove and into the far corner of the net.

"He's got sick hands, unbelievable moves," said Teemu Selanne, the NHL's 17th all-time goal scorer who has been paired often with Ryan over the last two seasons. "There are no real limits to how good he can be."

Those were reasons Ryan was selected No. 2 overall in the 2005 draft, behind Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby. But there were also reasons Ryan did not arrive in the NHL sooner; he spent two more seasons in junior hockey and parts of two others in the minors.

"He was right behind Sidney Crosby, so there's a lot of pressure that goes with that," Carlyle said. "We knew Bobby Ryan was going to play in the National Hockey League; we just didn't know when. We didn't want him to be a flash in the pan; we wanted him to understand there's a process you have to experience."

For several years, Ryan had been told to drop weight. Too many "curls for the girls" had left Ryan muscular but a top-heavy 225 pounds, and that diminished his skill, Carlyle said.

Ryan, sick of hearing about his weight, dropped to 207 before last season and scored an NHL-rookie-best 31 goals in 64 games, helping him finish runner-up to Columbus goalie Steve Mason for rookie of the year. This season, he is stronger in his core and legs.

As he prepares for Vancouver, Ryan is not sure how much he will play, or where. Though he is a natural right winger, he has played mostly on the left in Anaheim.

"Hopefully, they're looking for me to add a scoring touch, play in some dirty areas, and get the pucks to guys who make passes," Ryan said. "But to be in this situation, especially at a young age, is a pretty incredible thing."

As he spoke, there was a sense of wonder in Ryan's eyes as well as his voice. But if the past is prologue, it may not last long.