“Let’s go win a Cup.” —Ryan O’Reilly, July 1, 2018
BOSTON – While the rest of the St. Louis Blues party and pose for photos and take turns hoisting and twirling the big silver thing at the far end of TD Garden, where those fans brave enough to wear blue in black-and-gold territory pressed and pounded the glass to join in jubilation, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner skates the other way.
Most of the friends and families have already filed in, but not yet Ryan O’Reilly’s. So, the playoffs’ best player and highest scorer makes himself tall and sways his head back and forth, eyes fixed on the Zamboni entrance, waiting for Mom and Dad.
And when Bonnie and Brian finally step onto the ice, their grizzly-bearded, gap-toothed, rib-cracked youngest son swallows them in his arms, both at once. Two-way player, y’know.
It feels like he’ll never let go.
“Well, we’re a very affectionate family, and we hug a lot, but the special hug in that for me was, we did it. It was a we-did-it hug,” says Brian, forever Ryan’s first post-game phone call, once the embrace relents.
“We’ve been working together for years, and the resilience of this kid to just keep working on his weaknesses and get better and get better and find himself in it — he deserves this. He’s put in the miles.
“That hug was all about, ‘Dad, we did this. We did it.’”
Ryan “Snook” O’Reilly was three years old when he won his first Stanley Cup. Big brother Cal would’ve been eight.
The two would eventually both grow up to play in the NHL, but not after rehearsing winning the chalice thousands of times in the O’Reilly kitchen, taking shootout turns on a mini net and then fighting about the outcome.
“I believe he’s as good as he is because you play against someone five years older than you your whole life,” says Brian, a sports psychologist.
“Snook had to learn to be very defensive, so I think it’s made him into a two-way player. To see them hug at the end… Cal, I know he feels I’m a part of this, because I know you and I have fought those battles, won those wars. Oh, it’s awesome. You can’t describe the feeling.”
Ryan O’Reilly was 28 when he won the Stanley Cup for real on Wednesday.
At what point during the Blues’ historic 4-1 romp of Boston did it start sinking in, start to feel real: 3-0? 4-0? One minute on the clock?
“I still don’t believe this is real,” O’Reilly says. “I see the look on my parents’ face, and I can’t believe that as a kid pretending to win the Cup and to actually have it… I can’t believe it.”
For kicks, it came as a result of the first four-game goal-scoring streak of his 10-year NHL life, something no one since Wayne Gretzky in 1985 has accomplished in the final.
It came in the throes of a six-game point streak, something no one since Mark Messier in 1994 has accomplished.
It came a day after O’Reilly ran into a young man at a Boston Guitar Center and decided to buy a stranger, John Corrado, a brand-new axe:
It came by out-Selke’ing Mr. Selke himself, Patrice Bergeron, despite playing with one winger who was a healthy scratch to start the series and another scratched in last year’s Final.
“Put the team on the back,” Brayden Schenn says. “He’s an absolutely stud. He’s a beast, all playoffs. Does it in both ends. Selke winner, chances are, Conn Smythe winner, Stanley Cup champion, all in one year. The guy is an absolute beast.”
The Beast Mode lore gets enhanced with the knowledge O’Reilly did all this with a cracked rib he’d suffered in the Winnipeg series and had kept quiet until Dad let the cat out of the bag because who cares now?
“It took him a bit to play through the pain and find a different way to do things that he would normally do, which he never complained about,” Brian says.
“We’d talk before games, and I’d focus on, ‘OK, what are the things you can do? What are the things you can actually affect? And how are you going to do it?’ He was always extremely clear. It was in the Dallas series that I saw more life in him, and then from there it’s been up, up, up, up.”
When O’Reilly lifted the Cup up, up, up, even with the bad rib, he was surprised it didn’t feel heavy at all.
“I think all the adrenaline coursing through me, it felt so light, I could toss it into the crowd,” says O’Reilly. Adding, as the good Lady Byng winner he is: “I wouldn’t have done that.”
The F-bomb O’Reilly dropped in his Scott Oake interview post-game wasn’t as telling of his character as his immediately and repeatedly apologizing for cursing on live TV.
Like the rest of us, Ryan O’Reilly tries to do the right thing.
Like the rest of us, it doesn’t always come out that way.
But unlike most of us, he wears his emotions all over his face.
Brian recalls an old photo of his son when the Colorado Avalanche were eliminated in the playoffs, and he can see Ryan sponging up all the disappointment and blame.
“It’s the same thing in Buffalo. If the team loses, he takes it personally,” Brian says. “Give me a group of athletes that completely hate losing. I’d rather those athletes than athletes that expect they’re going to win because they’re more talented.”
Ryan calls it “the beginner’s mind.” Keep growing. Keep pushing. You’re not as good as you will be tomorrow.
The Buffalo comments at the Sabres’s 2018 locker cleanout, the words that ultimately led to O’Reilly’s trade to St. Louis in July, they were harsh but at least they were true.
O’Reilly said the Sabres had gotten comfortable with losing, grown comfortable with making mistakes. Maybe his hatred for losing was waning. It was eating him. He admitted, at times, he’d lost his love for the game.
“We told our kids, ‘If you want to find the truth, you gotta remove and point out what’s false.’ Point of the falsity you see. He pointed out the falsity [in Buffalo]. There were some false things there, and he called them out,” says Brian.
“He had no intention of leaving. He wanted to stay there and build it.”
O’Reilly’s honesty had thrust him onto the trade market, and when others balked, Doug Armstrong pounced, in hindsight fleecing GM Jason Botterill for a player he knew well from their mutual success internationally.
When Armstrong called O’Reilly to inform him of the trade on Canada Day, the player said, “Let’s go win a Cup.”
And right before Armstrong hung up, O’Reilly added, “I won’t let you down.”
“The raw emotion came out last year at his end-of-the-year meeting,” says Armstrong, wearing a Cup champions hat and a smile. “Ryan, if he could take it back, he wouldn’t have said it like that, maybe, but at the end of the day, it worked out for the St. Louis Blues.
“Ryan’s worked out perfect for us.”