His Moose Jaw Warriors teammates started calling him “the chosen one” before he had even played a game in the Western Hockey League.
Friday the Toronto Maple Leafs chose Morgan Rielly fifth overall in the National Hockey League draft. The pick makes Rielly the highest NHL selection in Warriors franchise history and the seventh-highest pick by the Leafs in their long history.
“There’s a whole lot of hockey history there in Toronto,” said Rielly. “It’s a great franchise and a great opportunity for me. I’m looking forward to proving myself and I can’t wait to get started.”
Rielly knew the Leafs had interest in him, but he tried to go into draft day with an open mind. That became harder once the Leafs were on the clock.
“I had been speaking with them quite a bit, but I didn’t know if they were going to take me or not,” said Rielly. “I had my hopes up a little bit. I was getting pretty nervous and they congratulated a few teams and took their time. They kept me on the edge of my seat. Then they said my name and I kind of blacked out after that — I don’t remember a whole lot.
“It’s a great feeling and I’m extremely proud to be a Leaf.”
Rielly’s father Andy grew up in Hamilton and remains a loyal Maple Leaf fan since relocating to Vancouver. He couldn’t hide his excitement when the pick was announced.
“He loves the Leafs,” said Rielly. “He was pretty excited for me. He was happy to see me put on the blue and white for the first time.”
Toronto chose Saskatoon’s Luke Schenn the last time picked a player in the top five of an NHL draft. That was in 2008 and Schenn has been under the media microscope in the “Centre of the Universe” ever since.
Rielly got his first taste of that in Pittsburgh when he was led backstage to do more interviews.
“There’s a table for each team,” explained Rielly. “I looked over to the Carolina Hurricanes table and there were a few cameras and reporters and then I looked at the Toronto table and the place was packed. I kind of expected that, but it was still exciting and cool to see.”
Since the NHL expanded in 1967, the only other Leafs top five picks were Schenn, Scott Thornton (third in 1989), Wendel Clark (first in 1985) and Al Iafrate (fourth in 1984).
Rielly knows there will be high expectations that go along with his draft position as the Leafs look to end their 45-year Stanley Cup drought.
“I live for that pressure,” said the 18-year-old West Vancouver product. “It isn’t anything that I’m afraid of and I can’t wait to prove myself to the Leaf fans. I’m excited to get started.”
After being chosen, Toronto general manager Brian Burke had a few words for Rielly on the podium. He told Rielly to take a deep breath and relax. It was the first time the two had met.
“To meet Brian Burke for the first time was pretty cool,” said Rielly. “He’s always on TV and he’s equally as scary in person as he is on TV.
“The whole experience was great.”
It’s been an incredible journey for Rielly after he tore his ACL on Nov. 6 and then made an incredible recovery — thanks to a lot of hard work — to be back in time for the Eastern Conference final series against Edmonton on April 20.
“This kid never viewed the injury as a setback, he viewed it as a challenge,” Burke told the media in Pittsburgh. “He met that challenge, it’s legendary the workouts he did to rehab this. While he was hurt, he was meeting his team on the road when he couldn’t play.
“Little things like that showed character. This kid was brought up right.”
Burke also said in his press conference that he would have selected Rielly first overall had that opportunity presented itself.
“We had this player rated first overall. I wouldn’t say that if it wasn’t true just to build up the pick,” Burke told the Canadian Press. “He’s got a high IQ, high compete level, smart decisions. The future’s very bright for him. Our scouts are ecstatic.”
By being chosen fifth overall, Rielly was selected one spot ahead of Edmonton Oiler Ryan Smyth who set the previous mark for the highest-draft Warrior in the 1994 draft.
“That’s a huge honour. There have been some great Warriors in the past and just to be in that category is pretty special for me,” said Rielly.
It’s been a hectic few weeks for Rielly, but he has no plans to take any time off. He wants to get to work to prepare for his first NHL training camp and the Canadian junior team for the Canada-Russia Challenge that will be held in August.
“I’m going to go back to the gym on Monday and keep training hard,” said Rielly.