By rights, the disintegration of Morgan Rielly’s hockey career should have commenced within an hour of his selection at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. As the old saying goes: Those the gods would destroy, they overhype. Brian Burke stood at the podium and summoned Rielly down to the stage. The Maple Leafs owned the fifth-overall pick and they were taking a defenceman from the Moose Jaw Warriors who was considered a first-round talent, maybe top-10, but who had also missed nearly the entire season with a torn-up knee. What could possibly go wrong? But by the time Rielly made his way down to press row, Burke, the soon-to-be-former Toronto GM, was in his Category 4 bluster and, as per usual, said without equivocation: “We had this kid rated one. Wouldn’t say that if it wasn’t true just to build up the pick, but this is a guy [who] had we had the first pick in the draft, we would’ve taken him.”
Managers are expected to manage not just operations but also, as importantly, expectations. This was the exact antithesis of the old one-game-at-a-time. In a hockey market that routinely eats its young, Burke was announcing: “It’s dinnertime.” The Leafs’ 2008 first-rounder, Luke Schenn, had already played his last game with the club, and the local media had been gnawing away at 2009 first-rounder Nazem Kadri, deeming him at best an enigma who might not stick with the big club or have a lasting impact. But to shift the intense focus onto Rielly, well, that had the makings of a disaster. “The psychological evaluation he did was really off the charts,” Burke said. “Psychological evaluation is often as important as the physical one.”
When Rielly arrived on press row moments later, wearing a Maple Leafs sweater for the first time, he was clearly unaware of Burke’s pronouncements and seemingly ready to put it down as a media prank when the GM’s uncharacteristically effusive quotes were read back to him. Yet he didn’t rattle. He was neither daunted nor impressed by the circumstances. “It’s pretty sweet, to be honest, with all the cameras on,” he said. “It’s pretty cool. I don’t think it will be a big problem.”
Those three uncomplicated sentences pretty well sum up what that battery of psychological tests found: an inability to get too impressed by anything, including himself.
Flash forward four years: Morgan Rielly, he of 236 NHL games, none of them in the playoffs, is taking questions from the media at the World Cup of Hockey. At 22, he’s a veteran on the roster of the confection that is Team North America, a congregation of emerging stars that was intended to fill out the field at the event but fast proved a lot more intriguing than that. The lion’s share of attention is on Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, as expected. The driving local interest on the Team North America roster is Auston Matthews, the 18-year-old whom the Leafs selected with the first-overall pick in the draft last June. And yet early on it becomes clear that Rielly isn’t just a passenger on the team—in a pre-tournament game, he’s out on the point in the last minute with the young stars when the goalie is pulled in favour of a sixth skater.
Just to be in this event, played on the Leafs’ home sheet, just to be on the ice with these other kids seemed pretty sweet, pretty cool and no big problem. Sounds like the same kid he was on his draft day: “We’re just going to have fun here.”
So often, so many things have gone sideways with the Leafs in recent years—consider that Burke had already been fired before Rielly so much as skated in a practice with the team. Yet Rielly, hyped above what can be expected as a reasonable threshold for a teenager, avoided painful struggles, never mind a crash and burn. Somehow he and the team got it right. How did they do it? Nothing less than the future of the franchise—that is, the care and feeding of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and all the Leafs’ future first-rounders—rides on the formula.
The easy answer: His team didn’t rush him. In fact, circumstances—namely the lockout-shortened season—virtually prohibited the Leafs from rushing him. In the wake of the hype, Rielly started the season with Moose Jaw and finished it there as well, with only brief interruptions for the world juniors and the Leafs’ mid-winter training camp.
At the World Cup, Rielly isn’t the young star with the highest profile, but he could be the one most at ease with the attention given the team. “At 18, I wasn’t as ready as Auston to be a part of a team like [Team North America],” Rielly says. “I wouldn’t know how to handle myself in terms of being around the older guys. On the ice, there’s always an adjustment period when you’re moving up to play against the best players in the world [in the NHL and at this tournament]. Auston is ready for that.”
Matthews is not going back from whence he came—the Leafs can’t hold him back a year and work him into the lineup at 19, like they did with Rielly. So there’s no lesson to draw from the easy answer.
The more complicated explanation is that Burke was right—psychological evaluation is often as important as the physical one. Rielly possesses a low-key makeup and intelligence, heavy on self-knowledge, well-suited for the spotlight in Toronto. Was he the best player in the 2012 draft like Burke suggested? The jury is still out on that. But doubtlessly he was the player who could best handle the hype, the one who could tune out the disappointments and frustrations of a tanking team on the ice and all the noise away from the arena. He wasn’t spooked by the media’s Klieg lights like Phil Kessel. Nor did he overly court attention like David Clarkson. Watching the Vancouver native walk around the World Cup press-conference centre making polite small talk, it’s not altogether clear whether he took media training or taught it.
Look again at that draft and the players taken ahead of Rielly: Nail Yakupov at No. 1 has been a bitter disappointment and malcontent in Edmonton; Ryan Murray hasn’t established himself as a likely top-pair defenceman in Columbus; Alexander Galchenyuk has been promising, but his coach seems bent on making the least of his talents; Griffin Reinhart has already been traded, spent most of last season in the American Hockey League and might not even wind up an NHL blueliner. Would any of those four have fared as well as Rielly in Toronto with expectations inflated by a GM trying to hold on to his job? Not even close, and yet, somehow, against all odds, Morgan Rielly has made it look fun.