Ryan Spooner was settling down for a nap when the call came to pack his things.
It was Feb. 4, 2013. Two days later, the third-year Providence Bruin was in Montreal’s Bell Centre as a bonafide Boston Bruin.
It was a moment that Spooner, then 21, had waited for all his life, and it lasted five minutes and twenty-nine seconds.
The next day, he was back in the minors.
Just over two years later, Spooner was called up to Boston for the ninth time. The Bruins’ second-round selection in the 2010 NHL draft, he marked his return on Feb. 22 with an assist against the Chicago Blackhawks. Through his first 34 NHL games, Spooner had notched just 12 points — and no goals.
He has yet to make the impact he believes he can, and the clock is ticking.
“I think the longer you’re (in Providence), the more upsetting it is when you get sent back, just because you kind of think you’re getting older,” Spooner said in December, just over a month before celebrating his 23rd birthday.
Spooner grew up in Kanata, Ontario, a mid-sized Ottawa suburb best known as the home of the NHL’s Senators. Like many Canadian kids, Spooner was on skates before he could tie them. When he was two, his parents picked him up a pair of pink, velcro-on roller skates. Four months before Spooner’s third birthday, they swapped the wheels for blades.
Spooner’s parents signed him up for the local peewee hockey club when he was four. He loved it immediately, and he was good, too. From a young age, he was sure on his skates, as good with a stick as anyone and fearless despite being smaller than many peers. By his early teens, it was apparent he was special.
“[Ryan] always seemed to be a step above the majority of the other kids,” recounted Brad Spooner, Ryan’s father. “I was thinking maybe the Ontario Hockey League or the college route at the time. Not much more.”
Brad Spooner was himself a hockey player, though not as talented as his son. The elder Spooner played through mid-level Juniors before joining the Governor General’s Foot Guard, a Canadian military reserve regiment, at the end of his teens. He would continue playing in adult leagues, but used his fire for the game to ignite a similar passion in his son.
Through age 15, Spooner’s potential seemed capped by his size. After he underwent a growth spurt, the conversation shifted from whether he could merely play junior hockey to how much further he could go. He impressed on the Ottawa Junior Senators in his age-16 season, and was taken fifth overall by the OHL’s Peterborough Peters in the 2008 Priority Selection.
In Peterborough, a 17-year-old Spooner again lacked size compared to his years-older peers but continued to shine — at least on offense. He amassed 58 points in his first season but struggled defensively, posting a plus/minus of -23 in 62 games. He upped his scoring pace in 2009-10, tallying better than a point a game while also raising his rating to -5 over 47 games.
Spooner was invited to attend that May’s NHL combine, where he underwent a battery of tests measuring his athleticism, strength and fitness. He was grilled by 25 of the league’s 30 teams at the two-day event, a grueling trial for the shy Ottawan teen.
At the following month’s NHL Entry Draft in Los Angeles, Spooner was told he could be selected in the first round but warned he would likely slip. For him, the only thing that mattered was being drafted at all.
Spooner had been told the Bruins were interested in him, but they selected fellow OHL product Tyler Seguin with the second overall pick. No matter: Spooner never dreamed of going so early, anyway. With their second pick, 32nd overall, the Bruins again went elsewhere. Thirteen picks later, they called his name.
“It kinda sounds a little bit dumb, but you grow up and you dream about that kind of stuff,” Spooner said after a mid-December practice, his brown hair peeking out from under a black baseball cap with the bill curled almost back onto itself. “When it happens, you’re like, ‘Wow, it actually happened.’”
After making his NHL debut against the Habs on Feb. 6, 2013, Spooner wouldn’t return to the NHL for six weeks. This time he’d stick for three games before finishing the season in Providence. He tallied his first NHL assists in a two-game stint between Oct. 31 and Nov. 2 the following year, and nine more in a 20-game audition spanning early December 2013 through mid-January 2014. He would make a one-off appearance in April of that year, netting no points in 14 minutes of ice time.
In between pro stints, Spooner refined his game in Providence. He remained in the OHL for all but a few games for the two seasons following his selection, but would break out in his first full AHL season in 2012-13. That year, Spooner led rookies in scoring with 57 points in 59 games. The following season, he would net 46 points in 49 games.
In three full years in Providence, Spooner proved himself every bit the offensive dynamo he was drafted to be, but lapses elsewhere kept him in limbo along I-95. He scored three goals in seven games during the 2014-15 preseason in Boston, but was not kept on the scoring-needy squad. A quote from Bruins head coach Claude Julien following the team’s Sept. 23 loss to Montreal — in which Spooner netted a nifty goal but failed to break up a scoring fast break — is telling.
“We love his game offensively,” Julien told CSN New England in September. “But at the same time, if you score a goal and you give up two, then you’re not really helping your team.”
With center David Krejci on injured reserve to start the season there was an opening night roster spot for Spooner, but he was sent to Providence after five scoreless games. After a dreadful November that saw him record a -8 rating — by far his worst month as a pro — Spooner was sidelined in early December with an upper body injury.
Spooner lounged in the empty rinkside cafe at the Rhode Island Sports Center after practice on Dec. 17, a wispy black beard sprouting on his cheeks and under his chin. He’s listed in the roster at 5’10” and 180 pounds, about half of that in his calves.
The ever-optimistic Spooner was trying to shrug off his struggles, but it was clear he had taken Julien’s blunt appraisal to heart. Since his first reps in peewee, Spooner had generated his value with offense. The other end of the ice had been an afterthought, so it’s no surprise he’s had a hard time redefining himself as a tenacious defender.
“It’s a mental thing,” he said. “It’s moreso just going out and doing it. You try to focus on it. It’s not something I’ve had to do, I guess, a lot. I think, for me, it’s just kind of going out there and just trying to do it, just trying to stick with it.”
In a way, Spooner’s story mirrors that of the player the Bruins took 43 spots ahead of him. He’s by all accounts the model citizen Seguin wasn’t, but Spooner shares the now-Star’s strengths of speed, creativity and vision on the offensive end — and his weaknesses elsewhere. That Seguin’s All Star-caliber scoring wasn’t enough in the team’s eyes to offset his defense sets a troubling precedent for Spooner’s sticking with a team that so demands two-way play.
It doesn’t help there’s no natural spot for Spooner, a center since childhood. He’s not about to permanently supplant Krejci or Patrice Bergeron on the team’s top lines, Carl Soderberg has a firm hold on the third line, and it’s unlikely Julien sits blue line stalwart Gregory Campbell to give him a place on the fourth.
Spooner had a 10-game dalliance at wing earlier this season, but as his first flirtation with the position since childhood, results were mixed. Still, he was willing to try.
”If they want me to play wing up there, I’m glad to play wing,” Spooner said. “If they want me to play center I’ll play there, if they want me to play defense I’ll play there, I don’t care”
For all that’s weighing on him, Spooner has managed to keep a level head. He’s popular with his teammates and always smiling, says roommate Rob Flick, a third-year player with Providence.
“He’s not a big talker, but he kind of goes out there and does his thing,” Flick said. “He’s flying around the ice. He sets a good example for a lot of the guys to get it going and play well themselves.”
Krejci suffered a partially torn ACL on Friday and is expected to miss 4-6 weeks, opening the door for Spooner’s return — but after 34 games in Boston, his NHL future is as unclear now as it was the day he returned from that first Montreal trip.
Fully healed from the injury that derailed him from December through mid January, Spooner tallied five goals and eight assists in the ten games preceding his comeback. It’s as good a stretch as he’s ever had in the pros, and it’s come not a moment too soon.
When he’s done hockey, Spooner hopes to become a police officer or a teacher. If the latter, he hopes to teach history.
Whether that career shift comes in a year or a decade down the line is murky. With Krejci set to miss more than a month, it appears Spooner will get an extended audition. A strong performance over his next few games will go far, whether in convincing the Bruins to keep him here or another team to acquire him by the March 2 trade deadline. The Bruins’ brass hopes its the former.
“He has the speed and talent to play,” Bruins assistant GM Don Sweeney told the Metrowest Daily News before the game Sunday. “It’s just a matter of whether he’s going to do it. He’s shown flashes that he can do it, now it’s just a matter of time of whether or not he can sustain it and take somebody’s job.”
Spooner centered for Milan Lucic and David Pastrnak on the Bruins’ second line Sunday night. He was on the ice for three of the Bruins’ six goals, assisting on one and neutralizing a defender on another. He took four shots, one of which pinged off the pipe. He also coughed up a few early turnovers, but tightened up as the game went on.
It was a showing typical of his career: promising offensive playmaking, questions elsewhere, and an even rating.
With his mix of speed, creativity and stickwork, Spooner could well find a permanent fit in Boston or elsewhere — especially if he can refine his defense. But after three months of trying, he knows that’s easier said than done.
Failure isn’t an option, but it is a possibility. Just not one Spooner’s expecting to confront any time soon.
“I’ve definitely thought about it,” he said. “It’s not going to stop me, though.”