Morgan Rielly knew he was no longer in Moose Jaw – and in a hockey spotlight like no other – when he was walking back to his downtown hotel from the Air Canada Centre recently after a Toronto Maple Leafs morning skate.
The prize teenage defence prospect was waiting to cross the street when he heard the two guys standing next to him talking about him.
“They were talking about what should happen to me,” Rielly said Friday. “One guy said I should be sent back to junior. I kept walking. If he had said something good about me, I would have stopped and said thanks.”
But at the same instant, the fellow who thought Rielly should be sent back to the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL looked up and recognized the blonde 19-year-old striding away from him. “He noticed me and apologized,” Rielly said.
It was the most unusual example of what Rielly has discovered in his first NHL training camp: Maple Leafs fans are so immersed in their team they can recognize the most obscure training-camp hopefuls. As the fifth pick overall in the 2012 NHL entry draft, Rielly has a little more visibility than most, which he quickly discovered as fans stopped him for autographs and photos practically every time he ventured out in the city.
“You get the same kind of thing in Moose Jaw but nothing like it is here,” Rielly said, shaking his head in wonderment.
His visibility factor is about to take a big leap forward, as a knee injury to veteran defenceman Mark Fraser means he will make his NHL debut Saturday against the Ottawa Senators. Even Rielly recognized the familiar storyline of the youngster getting his big chance thanks to an established player’s misfortune.
“You know what? That’s pretty cliché, but as a kid you dream about that kind of opportunity,” he said after the Leafs’ practice Friday. “If I got a chance to play in a Leafs home opener on Hockey Night in Canada that would be pretty special. If I get that chance I’ll be pretty lucky.”
Rielly kept saying “if” because Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle had not said anything about his plans for replacing Fraser, who went on the long-term injured reserve list. Fraser will be lost for a minimum of 10 games, which means he cannot return before the Leafs play the Edmonton Oilers on Oct. 29.
Players who are still eligible for junior hockey can play nine games before their team has to decide if they will stay in the NHL for the season or go back to junior. While Fraser’s injury complicates things, Carlyle has always said the decision will be based on what’s best for Rielly and the Leafs.
“I haven’t even heard anything from the coaches,” Rielly told a group of reporters. “It’s just been you guys talking about it, so I’m not sure it’s going to happen. If I get a chance to play, that’s pretty exciting for me.”
Nevertheless, it seems he is preparing to have his parents, Andy and Shirley, fly to Toronto from West Vancouver in time for Saturday’s home opener at the ACC. “If I get a chance to go, I’m sure my parents will be here,” Rielly said.
It will be a moment he has been dreaming about since he was about 14, and made the decision to leave home for the most famous high-school team in hockey, the Notre Dame Hounds in Wilcox, Sask. It was a path taken by an earlier generation of Leafs stars, most notably Wendel Clark, Gary Leeman and Russ Courtnall.
“I think when I was in Grade 8, I made the choice to go to school on the prairies and play for the Hounds,” Rielly said. “It was tough but I told my parents I wanted to do that. It was pretty hard on my mom.
“But I had a great year and got drafted by Moose Jaw and told myself I wanted to be a player. It’s all been going well, but I haven’t proved anything yet.”
It is not clear who will be Rielly’s blueline partner against the Senators. He played with Jake Gardiner in Friday’s practice, but Gardiner, 23, is also an offensive defenceman, not to mention inexperienced as well. Carlyle said they were together in practice simply because both of them can play on the power play.
All Rielly needs to worry about is concentrating on what he does well, the coach said. And there are a lot of things he does well.
“He plays the game with his head and his legs,” Carlyle said. “He’s got all three assets that separate him from other people.
“He’s a strong puck-mover, he can get the puck through on the point on the power play, he’s got great wheels to get up and down the ice and he’s smart in his reads so I don’t know what more I can say that doesn’t put an exclamation point on the type of player he is.”