By A.J. Atchue || for NHL.com
Cal O’Reilly, set to make his second straight AHL All-Star appearance next week, has always had passion for the game of hockey. The fourth-year pro with the Milwaukee Admirals possesses a remarkable work ethic and has steadily grown in all facets of the game since coming onto the professional scene as a 20-year-old in the 2006-07 season.
O’Reilly, who was born in Toronto and grew up a couple hours west of the city, comes from a sports family through and through. Both of his younger sisters play organized hockey, and his sister Tara is captain of the women’s hockey team at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Cal’s father is a beach volleyball coach and assisted the Australian women’s squad at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. And his younger brother, Ryan, is an 18-year-old rookie with the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche after making the club out of training camp.
O’Reilly, who idolized the great Wayne Gretzky as a kid, began skating at age 3 and tried to emulate Gretzky’s playing style as he became involved in competitive hockey. He and his brother also took pointers from cousin Bill Bowler, who racked up three straight 100-point seasons for the Windsor Spitfires (OHL) in the mid-1990’s.
“We always watched him and followed him, and he was the first friend we looked up to,” O’Reilly recounted. “I always loved the way Gretzky played, and Bill was a similar player where he liked to pass the puck and was just smart out on the ice.”
The “pass-first” philosophy is one that the 23-year-old O’Reilly lives by, and the results have been impressive. Drafted by the Nashville Predators in 2005, O’Reilly followed in his cousin’s footsteps in playing junior hockey for Windsor, and he compiled 81 assists in 2005-06, his final season with the Spitfires.
After getting his first taste of the pros in the AHL during Milwaukee’s run to the 2006 Calder Cup Finals, O’Reilly recorded 166 assists and 213 points in 225 AHL games over his first three full seasons.
He finished either first or second on the Admirals in scoring each year, and he currently paces Milwaukee this season with 26 assists and 35 points in 31 games, helping the club to first place in the AHL’s West Division at 22-12-1-5.
“I’m one who always likes to pass first,” O’Reilly said. “I like to try and set up my teammates. Coaches always try and put people around me who like to put the puck in the net, and I’ve been lucky to play with a lot of good players who can do that.”
O’Reilly, who has rarely gone more than three or four games without a point since turning pro, will suit up for the Canadian squad at the 2010 Time Warner Cable AHL All-Star Classic next week in Portland, Maine.
“It’s a great honor to represent (Milwaukee), and it’s a fun weekend to go and meet some guys you play against,” O’Reilly said. “I’m sure there will be tons of scoring; it’s tough on the goalies, but it’s fun for us forwards.”
At 5-11, 185 pounds, O’Reilly gives up both inches and pounds to other players on the ice, so he has had to tailor his game to fit his physique.
“I’m not a very physical player, so I try to use my smarts and my speed and agility to combat that, especially in the defensive zone,” he said. “(I try) to be smart with my stick and get body position, and use my smarts in the transition game.
Not surprisingly, O’Reilly is frequently called upon by Admirals head coach Lane Lambert in key situations game after game. His offensive abilities speak for themselves, but it’s actually his defensive game that O’Reilly thinks has improved the most during his four years as a pro.
For instance, he now sees Lambert regularly tabbing him to kill a penalty or to win a big defensive-zone face-off late in a game, areas of his game that he said were virtually non-existent during his junior days but are very important in today’s pro game, particularly if he wants to become an NHL regular.
One indication of how his overall game has grown over time – O’Reilly finished minus-11 with the Admirals as a rookie three years ago, but he is now a team-best plus-16 on the season, a mark that ranks among the AHL’s best.
“I like to be a player who can play in all situations and be out there in key times,” he said. “The coaches have given me a lot of ice time over the years here… for them to have confidence in me (in multiple situations), it helps build confidence in myself.”
O’Reilly’s impact on the Admirals has been further enhanced by his remarkable durability. He missed just two games during his rookie year, played all 80 games for Milwaukee in 2007-08, and suited up for 67 AHL games and 11 NHL contests last year.
In 2009-10, he has played in 31 games for the Admirals and 11 more for the Predators.
“Being a smaller and skilled player, it’s key to be able to make a good play and still avoid the guy who’s trying to crash you into the boards,” O’Reilly said when asked what has made him so durable. “It helps you not get hurt, and it also saves you for later in the season and into the playoffs when the physical play really picks up.”
Like most players, conditioning is also a key component to O’Reilly’s development and success. He puts a lot of stock in practice time and on multiple occasions comes to the rink on scheduled off-days, sometimes to the point of being asked to take a break by his coaches.
For a guy who has hockey in his blood, it’s never easy being told to take off the skates.
“I love to play hockey, and I love every part of it,” he said. “I don’t mind a lot of games because games are fun… I love going to the rink every day, and getting paid to do what we do is pretty amazing. So I just try to take it in one day at a time.”
The current campaign is an important one in the fourth-year pro’s development, as next season his contract with Nashville becomes a one-way NHL deal.
O’Reilly has received a few glimpses of NHL action with the Predators over the last couple years, experiences that have allowed him to gain an appreciation of what it will take for him to finally stick as a regular.
“I have to go up there and produce. That’s one of the big things for young guys, especially for young guys, is to produce and produce early,” O’Reilly said. “You show the coaches that, and it gives them confidence to put you out there in all situations.”
For O’Reilly, the chance to join his younger brother Ryan in the NHL is just an added incentive.
“If I can get back (up to Nashville), I know we play (Colorado) a couple more times,” he said. “It sure would be cool to play against him in a real game.”