TORONTO – Reporters are not the only ones with questions for Morgan Rielly these days. Andy Rielly, Morgan's father and a die-hard Maple Leafs fan, has been desperate for details since his 18-year-old son started training camp in Toronto on Sunday.
"He's been trying to talk to me a lot. It's a little annoying at times. I ignore him sometimes, but we've been chatting a little bit," said Rielly with a laugh. "He's asking so many questions about all the guys I'm with, because they're NHL players and he's a fan so he wants to know everything about them."
In a feature that aired on TSN during the recent World Junior Hockey Championship, Andy Rielly, who grew up in Hamilton, Ont., admitted he can get carried away when it comes to his son's exploits.
"I kind of have to step back a little bit sometimes and just remind myself that, you know what, this is happening to Morgan," he said.
The proud pops will likely have a boatload of questions for his son based on what happened at Wednesday's practice as Rielly was paired with captain Dion Phaneuf.
'I THOUGHT HE WAS KIDDING AT FIRST'
It was a development the teenager himself didn't believe initially.
"It was obviously a pretty cool experience when I came in," said Rielly, picked fifth overall by the Leafs in last June's draft. "He told me we were partners, but I thought he was kidding at first. I was like, 'Whatever.' But I checked the roster and it was true so it was pretty cool. He helped me a lot on the ice, kind of chatting with me and trying to give me some confidence and it helped a lot."
The decision to put the kid and the captain together came after Rielly and head coach Randy Carlyle had a chat following Tuesday's practice.
"I had a conversation with Morgan Rielly about getting him to play more of his game," Carlyle explained. "I asked him what his strengths were and he said his number-one strength was his skating so I said, 'Well, I don't know if we've really saw you skate in the first couple of days. We saw you skate and pass the puck, but not really get up on your toes and get up the ice.' And maybe there wasn't much of an opportunity to do that, but I thought it was important that he feels comfortable and plays to his strengths."
"He was open with me and asking me how camp's going and how I've been playing and he was extremely helpful," said Rielly. "He just wanted to chat. I think he understands I'm 18 and, you know, it's a pretty hard experience with all these guys. He was extremely open."
Carlyle decided to have Rielly and Phaneuf line up together in the team's first scrimmage of training camp, because he wanted Rielly to know that he was going to get a chance to play big minutes and to just relax. He referred to Phaneuf as a "security blanket" for Rielly. And the move worked.
"I thought he showed flashes of his ability to skate and move the puck," said Carlyle when assessing Rielly's performance in the scrimmage.
"I think he's playing well above his age that's for sure," said Phaneuf. "He came into our training camp here and definitely fit in and does not look out of place at all. He's practised like a professional and he looks really good. Playing with him today, he moves the puck well, that's the biggest thing that I've noticed since the start of training camp."
An injury to Jake Gardiner appears to have opened the door for Rielly to stick with the Leafs for at least the first couple of weeks of the season. Carlyle has not shied away from keeping an 18-year-old on the roster in the past doing so with Cam Fowler in Anaheim. And the coach certainly appears to be leaning toward giving Rielly an NHL audition.
"You're going to have to make a decision on him and it doesn't have to happen on Friday," said Carlyle referring to the NHL deadline for setting a 23-man roster. "Yeah, it has to happen to have the roster spot, but he has five games to play."
The Leafs can have Rielly suit up for five games without burning the first year of his entry-level contract.
A LONG JOURNEY
Playing on Saturday in Montreal against the Canadiens would be an incredible way for Rielly to make his professional debut. And it would only be the latest stop on a whirlwind and worldwide journey.
Back on Dec. 10 Rielly arrived at Team Canada's World Junior selection camp in Calgary. He made the team and flew to Finland for a weeklong training camp. Then it was off to Ufa, Russia for the tournament. He was on his way back to his club team in Moose Jaw, via a layover in London, England, when the NHL lockout ended so he went directly to Toronto instead.
"I've been in a hotel since early December, but as an 18-year-old hockey player that's unbelievable. I had a chance to go to Europe to play for Canada and now I'm here at a pro camp so I can't complain about anything," he said. "It's been a pretty cool experience."
The World Juniors didn't end the way he wanted – Canada lost in the semi-finals to the United States and then fell in overtime of the bronze-medal game against the host Russians – but despite the pair of bitter defeats the West Vancouver native believes the experience ultimately made him a better player.
"It helped me in terms of playing with some high-end guys and obviously it's not what we wanted in terms of how we played, but I think it was just a great experience playing against the top guys in the world and just having the chance to do that," said Rielly, who had a goal and three assists and a plus-two rating in the six games.
Rielly's maturity in dealing with the World Junior losses and the extended absence from home is something his teammates are picking up on.
"He's a really good kid," said Phaneuf. "Been to dinner with him a couple of times and he's a well-grounded guy and he's learning a lot. The way he's playing is good to see. It's exciting for the organization to see a guy come in at the age he is and play the way he has."
And while the best may be yet to come, Rielly refuses to get ahead of himself.
"I don't think I have any expectations like that," he said. "I'm just trying to approach each day as a challenge, keep working hard, keep trying to prove myself and I know camp's almost over and I got to keep doing that stuff. If I got the chance to play a game or two it would be a huge honour. I'm just going to keep working hard."
For the full feature on the relationship between Andy and Morgan Rielly click on the related video: "An Emotional Ride".