Rielly adjusting to life as Leafs’ great hope

defenceman Morgan Rielly will remain with the Maple Leafs and not be loaned to Team Canada for the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship in Malmo, Sweden. (Claus Andersen/Getty)
October 7, 2013, 8:32 AM

A fishbowl is a fishbowl is a fishbowl. Only the sizes vary.

After playing junior hockey in Moose Jaw, Sask., Morgan Rielly may be better prepared for his new life than might be expected of a 19-year-old trying to play in the NHL for the first time, in perhaps the league’s most scrutinized market.

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ defenceman is the franchise’s best prospect in more than a generation. He’s just beginning to get a taste of what that role means in a city starved for someone to be their generation’s Keon or Sittler or Clark or Gilmour.

If things unfold as the organization hopes, Rielly plans and fans dream, his largely impressive NHL debut in the Leafs 5-4 win over the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night was the start of something.

He’s seen fans wearing his jersey at the practice rink, even though he’s not yet a permanent resident on the roster. He’s overheard fans debate whether he should stay with the big club or be sent back to the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL (at 19 he’s too young to be assigned to the American Hockey League) as he’s walking behind them on his way to his hotel.

He’s aware that Leaf fans can be like hovering parents – well-intentioned, but over-invested in the day-to-day success or failures of their prized offspring.

“You can feel it at times,” says Rielly, who played 18 minutes Saturday, improving as the night went on to point he was on the ice to start overtime. “When you’re going in the mall and people are asking for pictures and everyone’s always tweeting at you or about you … it’s been a pretty cool experience, but I’m trying not to pay too much attention to that stuff.”

It’s a challenge. The last player the Leafs selected higher than Rielly — taken No.5 in the 2012 draft — was Scott Thornton at No. 3 back in 1989. Thornton would only play 33 of his 949 NHL games for Toronto. Luke Schenn, taken fifth by Toronto in 2008, lasted four seasons before being dealt to Philadelphia, his fall from prospect to suspect complete.

The last great player to be drafted by the Leafs and star in Toronto was Wendel Clark, who went No. 1 in 1985 and is now a civic icon. It can swallow up a player and even an organization. Every franchise hopes for saviours, but with the Leafs there’s a slightly desperate quality to the longing.

Toronto’s sometimes unhealthy fascination with its prospects is such that Nazem Kadri – who went No. 7 overall in 2009 — became a household name thanks to the controversy surrounding the length of his AHL apprenticeship.

“It’s cool, but it’s kind of surreal when it first happens,” says Kadri of the rush of attention that comes with being a Leaf prospect. “It gets to the point you can’t go anywhere for too long. You like to stop and mingle with the fans and they’ll tell their stories about the experiences they had before I was even born.

“You just want to be a teenager and a normal kid living your life and it forces you to grow up a lot faster than you should, really,” he says. “Even though I wasn’t as mature at that time, I had to act like I was and like I was grown up. It was a little tough as a teenager.”

At 19 Rielly seems more mature than many a decade older. He left home in Vancouver for high school and hockey at age 14, attending Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in Wilcox, Sask. – the same school that Clark helped make famous – and has already overcome losing most of his draft year to a serious knee injury.

And while being Toronto’s next great hockey hope is something he’s still processing, it’s his experience in Moose Jaw that he’s drawing on. The Warriors are the focal point of the southern Saskatchewan city of 35,000, and for the previous three years he’s been the focal point of the Warriors, eventually going higher in the NHL draft than any other player in the history of the franchise.

“When you play junior hockey, maybe in other places like Edmonton or Calgary or even Vancouver, you’re not really known around town,” Rielly says. “In Moose Jaw everyone already knows you. When you go out to eat people are always asking to take a picture or something. It’s not quite to this scale (as Toronto) but it is pretty cool in that sense and it’s helped me a lot.”

He can even relate to the plight of a franchise trying to right itself after years wandering in the barrens. The Warriors have never won a WHL championship and in some ways are only now recovering from the Graham James sexual abuse scandal. It was in Moose Jaw that James began his WHL coaching career.

Rielly’s presence has helped the Warriors look to the future rather than the past.

The burden in Toronto is not quite so heavy, but Rielly knows the Stanley Cup drought stretches back further than the Leafs run of poor luck or management with top prospects. The idea of Rielly – an elite cornerstone defenceman the team’s been lacking since the days of Borje Salming – almost as much as Rielly himself, is what makes otherwise rational people prone to giddiness.

“The anointment of players has taken a lot different intensity level in the last 30-plus years. As a young kid stepping in (back then), it was like you were seen, not heard, more along the lines of: Shut-up and do as you’re told,” said Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle, who made the Leafs as a 20-year-old in 1977. “The accolades at that time in that era of hockey went to people who were prominent members of your hockey club.”

That was before Rielly’s debut. Afterwards, Carlyle himself was stoking the fire.

“As the game went on, he got better,” said Carlyle. “You got to see more of what he’s about. He’s a young kid who has skill and he earned it. You could see him separate himself with his skating ability and the way he reads plays. It makes for a tough decision on young player.”

Should Rielly stick with the Leafs he’ll have his own decisions to make. Will he bring his beloved Labrador Maggie out east to live with him? Where will he live after he moves out of his hotel?

Will he reach his potential sooner, later or not at all?

Those are the unknowns. But he’ll be ready for the fishbowl.

Rielly’s seen it all before.

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