BOBBY RYAN'S journey to NHL stardom had its share of well-documented potholes. But when times were toughest, he often recalled that special night in South Philadelphia in 1996.

Ryan, an Ottawa Senator who is on his way to another 30-goal season, was 9 years old and among the raucous crowd for Team USA's opening game against Team Canada in the best-of-three inaugural World Cup championship series at what is now the Wells Fargo Center.

NHL players were not yet participating in the Olympics, so there was a wonderful novelty to the competition.

Ryan grew up in Cherry Hill and attended the game with his father and his roller-hockey coach. It's been more than 17 years and three different bank names for the old CoreStates Center, but the evening still resonates with Ryan. Flyers forward John Leclair scored a dramatic game-tying goal with 6.3 seconds left for the Americans, but Canada won in overtime on a Theo Fleury tally.

"That game is something that I looked at for a long period of time and said that that was something that I wanted to be a part of - representing our country and playing in games that meant as much as those games did to those guys," Ryan said.

Ryan's home life became shattered a short time later when his father beat his mother so severely that he eventually was arrested on attempted murder and other charges in 2000 and subsequently served nearly 5 years in the case. Sportsnet Canada produced a documentary on the family's troubles that can be found on YouTube.

Ryan has never shied away from this difficult period in his life, which makes it refreshing when he can recall a particularly fond memory from that era.

"I had school the next morning. We were leaving and we were halfway up the stairs" when Leclair scored, he said yesterday. "[We] couldn't run back down the steps quick enough. The building was, well . . . Philly fans. It's a blue-collar city that gets excited and emotional when it's U.S. vs. Canada. It was very loud. I was loud. I was screaming."

The Americans won the next two games in Montreal to upset the Canadians. Ryan, 26, has gone on to an outstanding NHL career.

He played at the Wells Fargo Center last night for the third time in his career and first as an Ottawa Senator with Mom, Dad and 50 others scheduled to be in the crowd. Ryan was scoreless in three shots on goal in the Senators' 5-2 loss.

Ryan now lives in Idaho and is playing in a rabid hockey town after toiling for six seasons in Anaheim (yawn). The Senators are rebuilding and off to a slow start, but he welcomes the scrutiny.

"We're front and center here [in Ottawa]," Ryan said. "It's nice to be held accountable. When you're not performing, you have to answer questions. I think it motivates you. It's been an easy transition."

Ryan has appeared in many of those meaningful international games like the one that stuck with him as a kid. He earned a silver medal for Team USA in the 2010 Olympics, when Canada won the gold in overtime on its home turf in Vancouver. And he will try again for gold this February in the Sochi Olympics.

"Ask any player in my age range, we grew up on the Keith Tkachuks, the Brett Hulls," Ryan said of the 1996 contest. "It meant everything. Especially for me to see it live, made it even more special. Those were the guys that we idolized and they went out and did what they did.

"I hope that we can affect young guys who are playing and watching like they did to us."