O’Reilly returns to where it all started

Photo: Scott Paulus

by Jason Karnosky | AHL On The Beat

It is not often when you spend more than a decade away from a professional hockey organization, that you get the chance to go back.

For Cal O’Reilly, it was hard to turn down a chance to return to the place where his 18-year pro career began, and at the same time, to give back to an organization that meant so much to him.

“I was super excited to come back here to where it all started for me,” O’Reilly said of his return to the Milwaukee Admirals. “I’ve talked with the Nashville organization in other years when I was a free agent, and it just hasn’t worked out.”

The cherry on top for O’Reilly was when his younger brother Ryan, one of the National Hockey League’s top two-way forwards, also chose to sign in the Music City this summer.

“It’s awesome to get to play in the same organization as Cal,” Ryan O’Reilly said. “This is where he started his career, and where he played for many years. There was so much excitement when I found out he was coming here with me, and to be able to share that experience, especially as brothers, later in our careers.”

Drafted by Nashville in 2005, Cal O’Reilly played in 262 games with the Admirals and 85 with the Predators from 2006 to 2012. Cal’s wonderful memories made it easy to convince Ryan that the Nashville organization was the right place for them.

“Cal always talked so highly about Nashville (and Milwaukee),” Ryan said. “Just hockey-wise when he was talking about the team, he told me that all of the young pieces here were really impressive. Cal helped make my decision to sign here that much easier.”

While the chance to play together once again was certainly unexpected, it is something that both O’Reilly brothers and their families truly embraced. The pair were together with the Buffalo Sabres from 2015-17.

“To be able to do it once again later in my career, and a little bit later in his career, was awesome,” Cal said. “I went down early to Nashville and stayed with Ryan and his family there for training camp. That was a special experience.”

Cal is in a much different place in his career than he was when he joined the Admirals as a 19-year-old in the spring of 2006.

“He’s got three kids now and his family has moved back here,” Admirals head coach Karl Taylor said. “He is in a position where he wants to extend his career and assist the organization where he had his start. He wants to win games in Milwaukee, but also wants to help the young guys here understand what it takes, help with how we develop them, and help them move forward to achieve their NHL dreams.”

Photo: O’Reilly Family/The Tennessean

Cal’s first taste of Milwaukee came at a pivotal point for the Admirals, when the franchise was at its peak of its AHL history. After a 99-point Ontario Hockey League campaign with Windsor in 2005-06, O’Reilly joined Milwaukee and appeared in two regular-season games before playing 10 postseason games during the Admirals’ run to the Calder Cup Finals.

“It was amazing to be part of that at a young age and the Admirals had such a good team that year,” said O’Reilly, who also reached the Finals in 2015 as a member of the Utica Comets. “I got to experience playoff hockey as a pro, play in some games, and to be a part of that run. The coaches here in Milwaukee got to know me a little bit and I got to see what it took to compete at this level.”

O’Reilly grew and matured into an elite player with Milwaukee, racking up a career high 79 points in his second full season in the AHL (2007-08). The following year, the forward got into his first NHL action with the Predators and scored his first NHL goal in a 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings on March 28, 2009.

O’Reilly became a full-time Nashville forward starting in January of 2010. He has since had NHL stints with the Arizona Coyotes, Pittsburgh Penguins, Buffalo Sabres and Minnesota Wild, plus AHL stops in Portland, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Utica, Rochester, Toronto, Iowa and Lehigh Valley.

“It was pretty special for us to be a part of the same team and organization for a couple of years there in Buffalo,” O’Reilly said. “I was up and down with Buffalo and Rochester, but we were both so close to our home in Toronto while playing there, so we had a lot of family and friends coming to games to watch us play. To play with your brother in the National Hockey League is not something many people can say they have done.”

While Cal was playing in Lehigh Valley, Ryan accomplished the signature moment of his career, starring on a St. Louis Blues team that won the 2019 Stanley Cup and capturing the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs. It was a moment Cal was able to share with his brother.

“That is what we have both always dreamed about, and Ryan did it,” Cal said. “I was able to be there with him and to experience that with him. He lived out his dream, and I was a very proud brother.”

For Ryan’s part, sharing the moment with Cal was meaningful.

“Winning the cup was something Cal and I always talked about as kids, and we grew up imagining what it could be like,” Ryan said. “I remember after we won, I came down through the tunnel in Boston and I was able to see him. I was really excited, but just to see that look on his face of how proud and excited he was for me that it actually happened and that I had achieved that goal. It made me appreciate it that much more.”

While Ryan serves in a leadership role in Nashville, Cal is an alternate captain with Milwaukee this season, and has worn the “C” for the Phantoms, Wild, Amerks and Comets.

“Cal is one of our leaders, and a big part of our organization,” Taylor said. “He is in a really good place right now and is playing very well for us.”

O’Reilly knows he has a lot to give to Milwaukee this season.

“I feel like I can still play and be a good player, and I want to help this team win and contribute as much as I can,” he said. “I know last year Milwaukee had a great year, so we want to build on that and go deep in the playoffs.”