Morgan Rielly woke up Friday morning hoping he would get on a plane to Montreal that afternoon to make his National Hockey League debut.
Instead, the 18-year-old got a plane ticket back to the Western Hockey League.
“It’s tough, but I’m just going to have to keep working hard,” said Rielly before picking up an assist in his return to the Moose Jaw Warriors lineup against the Saskatoon Blades Friday. “I need to keep going forward.”
It’s been a busy six weeks for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ fifth overall pick. He left Moose Jaw on Dec. 9 to attend world junior training camp in Calgary and since then has lived out of a suitcase as he made his world junior debut in Ufa, Russia before attending his first NHL training camp in Toronto.
Rielly was paired with Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf in camp Wednesday. That helped feed the belief that Rielly might be in the lineup when the Leafs opened the NHL season Saturday in Montreal. Jake Gardiner, a promising offensive-defenceman for the Leafs, is recovering from post-concussion symptoms which seemingly gave Rielly a bit of an opening to fill a similar role — on a temporary basis at least.
Rielly could have played five games with the Leafs before his NHL contract had kicked in.
“I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew they had to cut two players (Friday). Obviously when you’re 18 there is a chance of that happening. I tried to go in with an open mind,” Rielly said. “This is how it turned out. I’m 18 and I appreciate the opportunity that I had at camp. I’m going to use it in the future.”
Leafs general manager Dave Nonis told reporters Friday that while Rielly played well in camp, there were no exhibition games so they were unable to gauge how he would play against NHL-calibre talent.
“It was pretty compact,” Rielly said of the five days he spent in camp. “Obviously not having the chance to play in any games, it’s hard to make an impression on the coaches. Each day you have to work hard.
“It was a pretty cool experience. There were some pretty good players there and I think having the experience of playing with them is only going to help me when I go back.”
Rielly said the coaches were pretty happy with how he fared in camp and didn’t offer much in the way of constructive criticism.
Despite the obvious disappointment of not cracking the Leafs’ lineup Rielly said he’s looking forward to getting back to playing regular hockey. He hasn’t played in nearly two weeks after Canada lost the bronze medal game to Russia at the world juniors.
“I’m happy to get the chance to come home and to keep playing with the Warriors,” Rielly said. “I’m going to keep concentrating on playing hard and trying to make a playoff push.”
Rielly has seven goals and 29 points in 34 games with the Warriors.
- with files from The Canadian Press