ST. LOUIS — It’s springtime and Ryan O’Reilly is in love.
Head over heels, madly, truly, deeply in love. He loves so much that it hurts. Poor guy. Hockey and the Stanley Cup Playoffs can do that to you.
One year ago, O’Reilly spoke from his heart when he told reporters after another dismal season with the Buffalo Sabres that he had lost his love for the game, and that players there had become “OK with losing.”
“I’ve lost the love of the game multiple times and just need to get back to it because it’s eating myself up, and eats the other guys up, too,” O’Reilly said. “It’s tough.”
An alternate captain on the Sabres and a nine-year National Hockey League veteran universally respected in the game, O’Reilly’s stark assessment was an intervention, an attempt to spark change to the culture in Buffalo. Instead, it got him traded to the St. Louis Blues.
“I was just trying to make the changes and kind of step up, and it went the other way,” O’Reilly, 28, tells Sportsnet. “But I think I’m very lucky that I got to this team.
“When I got traded and looked at the roster, I was excited. The core and the leadership is already established and has played and won. Not, obviously, the whole thing, but they’ve been in winning situations and are confident. Jumping into that, it was cool to see. I went from Buffalo being, ‘OK, we’ve got to find a way to rebuild and get back in (to the playoffs),’ to in St. Louis, ‘We can do this.’”
The Sabres traded O’Reilly to the Blues hours before he was due a $7.5-million signing bonus payment last July 1, part of the seven-year, $52.5-million contract he signed in 2015. Buffalo took back a pile of assets that included St. Louis’ first-round pick this June and former first-rounder Tage Thompson.
The Blues got a quiet superstar in O’Reilly. And O’Reilly got his mojo back.
“I think my passion was always there for the game,” he says. “Losing is miserable. This is my 10th year now and I’ve done a lot of losing. I tried to be honest in Buffalo and take a step forward. To stick around there, I had to make some serious changes to better help the team and become a better leader. I was getting ready to do that, but then I got traded and the mindset shifts.
“Sometimes changes happen and I couldn’t be happier with this one.”
After nine seasons with the Sabres and Colorado Avalanche, which had two one-and-done playoff appearances with the centre from Clinton, Ont., who made the NHL as an 18-year-old, O’Reilly is playing in a conference final for the first time.
He won a faceoff — O’Reilly does this a lot — and helped set up Vince Dunn’s goal in the Blues’ 4-2 win Monday against the San Jose Sharks that evened the Stanley Cup semi-final series at 1-1.
Game 3 is Wednesday in St. Louis and the Blues, who joined the NHL in 1967, are three wins away from their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1970.
After a career-best 77-point regular season that ended with a Selke Trophy nomination, O’Reilly has 11 points in 15 playoff games and is fifth among all forwards with an average ice time of 22:03.
“He carries himself as good as I’ve seen any player, and his work ethic is beyond,” St. Louis coach Craig Berube says. “He never stops working. He plays the game the right way. All the little things, he does well. He’s been a tremendous player for us all year.”
“I pinch myself sometimes,” O’Reilly says. “When we won the first series (against Winnipeg), that was the first series I ever won. It was like, oh my gosh, it was crazy. But it was so difficult. And then the second round, coming down to Game 7 in overtime against Dallas… we win and I pinch myself again. It’s the most exhilarating time but also the most exhausting. It’s been a big education being in the playoffs and playing with this group — how hard it is to win in this league and what it takes.”
“Looking back at Buffalo, where the Sabres disintegrated in the second half of this season and missed the playoffs for an eighth straight year, O’Reilly says: “It was a good lesson to never be too honest with the media. But when I said I lost my love for the game, absolutely. If you aren’t unhappy about losing, there’s some issues.”
“It’s the most fun I’ve ever had playing hockey,” he says. “(Playoffs) are also the toughest hockey I’ve ever had. But it’s a beautiful time in the game, for sure.”