Football hotbed can't lure Wings prospect Ryan O'Reilly from hockey

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — Most of the prospects at this week’s Detroit Red Wings development camp have come from areas where hockey is the main sport around.

Then, there’s Ryan O’Reilly.

O'Reilly, a forward who was drafted in the fourth round by the Wings last week, is from suburban Dallas — Southlake — and hockey wasn’t exactly a way of life.

“That’s a football hotbed there,” O’Reilly said after Friday’s camp practice. “There was a stretch where they won the state championship five years in a row.

“That’s hard to do in 6A football down there.”

But in that glare of Friday Night Lights, O’Reilly preferred the din of a hockey rink. Ice, rather than a grass field. Sticks and pucks, rather than a football and cleats.

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“Growing up with culture like that, in my school, it was pretty different playing hockey, especially in Dallas,” O’Reilly said. “I enjoyed it, though.”

Not that Southlake football coaches didn’t try to get him out of hockey equipment and into football pads.

“My freshman or sophomore years in high school I had a few classes where coaches were my teachers, and they were kind of always messing around with me,” O’Reilly said. “They would say, ‘When are you going to play with us?’

“But I had a passion for hockey.”

O’Reilly wasn’t the most popular or well known of the players the Wings drafted last week — at the NHL Entry Draft in Dallas, incidentally — but he’s one of the more intriguing.

He has good size at 6-foot-2, 201 pounds. He has a good shot and an apparent knack for offense — 21 goals in the USHL last season. And going to the University of Denver this autumn (O’Reilly will be a teammate of goalie Filip Larsson, another Red Wings’ prospect), O’Reilly will play for one of the nation’s better programs.

But there is room to grow, room to get better.

Skating is an area that O’Reilly needs to concentrate heavily on if he’s to advance in his career. It’s one factor that kept him from possibly going a bit higher in the draft.

His play on the defensive side needs fine-tuning.

But given O’Reilly’s athleticism and potential, the Red Wings couldn’t pass him up in the draft.

“He’s a big guy, a little bit of a late bloomer,” said Tyler Wright, the Wings’ director of amateur scouting. “He scored (21) goals, he’s a big body, had a good touch around the net. He has to work on skating.”

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O’Reilly is not a stranger to the Detroit area, having lived in Novi during his peewee-major year in 2012 while playing in the Little Caesars program.

O’Reilly’s mother and siblings made the trip to Michigan that year.

“I had a blast here, I love it,” said O’Reilly, whose two older brothers also played locally for Little Caesars and Victory Honda.

O’Reilly’s parents were big hockey fans growing up in St. Louis (dad was a high school hockey player), and both shared their love of the sport with the boys.

“My dad was always a (St. Louis) Blues fan growing up, so was my mom, and they loved hockey,” O’Reilly said. “My oldest brother got into it because of the passion of my dad.

“Me, being the youngest in the family, I just followed in their footsteps.”

The hockey scene in Dallas today is significantly different from the one O’Reilly skated onto years ago.

The interest in Dallas last week, during the draft, showed how far the sport has come in Texas. Participation numbers are growing in the youth leagues, and the Stars have become a big draw over the years.

Although it probably will never pass football for pure interest, hockey is building its presence in Texas.

“Definitely it’s growing,” O’Reilly said. “Triple-A hockey has grown after the Stars won the Stanley Cup in 1999. The under-16 team has always made it to the national tournament, and they’ve really created a name for themselves.”