Team WHL will square off against Team Russia Wednesday night in Game 5 of the Subway Super Series in Vancouver, B.C., but for one prospect of the Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s more than just a chance to play elite hockey — it’s a homecoming.
Moose Jaw Warriors defenceman Morgan Rielly hasn’t played a hockey game at home since the age of 14, after leaving West Vancouver to play bantam hockey for the Notre Dame Hounds in Saskatchewan. Not only has it been more than five years, but the opportunity to play in front of his family and friends comes after a tough year of recovery and triumph for a young hockey player, who’s grown to become one of the most notable prospects in the CHL.
After playing only 18 games in the 2011-12 regular season, Rielly blew out his ACL and missed the remaining 54 games, with no choice but to have surgery to repair the damaged ligament. He says the process was one of the toughest things he’s endured, but he seems very self aware of how being injured during such a demanding time in his career may have changed him as a person.
“I had to go home to do quite a bit of treatment and it was hard being at home while the team was on the road and playing games, knowing I couldn’t do anything to help them win,” he said. “For an 18-year-old kid to experience something like that, it’s hard, but I think I grew a lot at a person during that time and it’s only going to help me down the road.”
For Rielly, keeping up to date with his teammates made sitting out easier to cope with, and thanks to Twitter his closest teammates made him feel like a part of the road trips. But it was the goal he set upon being injured that kept him focused and working hard to get back on the ice.
“I tried to keep it positive and the whole time, I told myself that I was going to play in the playoffs. During the treatment, I tried to keep that in mind and I knew that if I did everything right, I had a chance of playing in the playoffs.
“I think it worked out pretty well,” he said with a laugh.
Rielly re-joined his Warriors teammates April 20 and went on to play five games in the playoffs, recording three points before Moose Jaw was knocked out of the Eastern Conference final. Once the WHL season ended for Rielly, his mindset shifted to the 2012 NHL Draft, where he was expected to be selected high in the first round.
“Heading into the draft I tried to keep an open mind and I wasn’t sure if the injury was going to have a huge impact on it or not, so I wasn’t sure how what was going to happen. I just kept an open mind and kept positive and it all turned out pretty well.”
Despite injury and having missed most of the season, the 6-foot, 205-pound blueliner was chosen fifth overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs. To him, being chosen by Toronto was an honour because of the history of the franchise, but it was also special for someone else close to him.
“My Dad grew up in Hamilton, Ont., so he was extremely happy that I was chosen by Toronto. I think he was quietly hoping the whole time I would get chosen there and after it happened, it was a dream come true and it was a pretty special moment for him.”
After everything he’s persisted through in the past year, the opportunity to hit the ice in Vancouver Wednesday will no doubt be an exhilarating moment for Rielly.
“I’m extremely honoured that I have the opportunity to play two games and it’s such a great group of guys that they picked,” he said. “I’ve had the chance to play with a few of them for Team Canada and I’m so excited about it.
“It’s going to be such a great experience and of course, my parents are pretty happy about it, so hopefully I’ll have a crowd of support there.”
He’s often described as a man among boys on the ice, contributing to his team with skills that scouts swoon over, so it’s no surprise that it’s projected he’ll be called up to Toronto sooner rather than later. But, according to Rielly, while it’s an exciting thought, it’s not something he’s thinking about.
“I couldn’t be happier with the group that we have here and we have a great coaching staff and I have some pretty great teammates so, it’s been a good experience this year,” he said.
Moose Jaw sits eighth in the WHL’s Eastern Conference with a 8-9-3-3 record but just 23 games into the season, Rielly leads the Warriors in assists with 17, in addition to four goals for 21 points. In September, just five months after returning from a debilitating injury, Rielly scored a season-high five points in a game against the Prince Albert Raiders, so it’s safe to say Rielly is focused on the season while staying positive about his future.
“I just want to keep being a good teammate and help my team win, and that’s my only concern right now.”