(This article was originally published on February 7, 2021)
A star-studded team always requires a last line of defense. Enter Will Reilly.
Reilly’s journey to Vancouver Island started in his home province of Ontario.
After playing for the Toronto U16 AAA Red Wings and Upper Canada College, Reilly cut his teeth in junior hockey with the North York Rangers of the Ontario Junior Hockey League.
Reilly showcased his offensive flair, notching 17 goals and 18 assists in 47 games. He also showed his gritty side by accumulating 97 penalty minutes.
Reilly acknowledged the adjustment was seamless.
“That year was especially easy for me. I didn’t have to leave home or change schools and it made the transition to junior hockey a bit easier for me.”
“Playing with good players helped me a lot. I remember our power play was really good and that is where I got a bunch of my goals. I think the year in high school built up my confidence.”
Towards the end of the season with the Rangers, Reilly was asked to shoulder the load due to a swath of injuries on the blueline.
“We were playing really (well) and then a bunch of defencemen got injured. We were playing in the playoffs with three regulars and one call up from midget, which was crazy but playing a lot in the playoffs helped me on my path to Nanaimo for sure.”
Reilly’s first brush with the BCHL occurred during the 2015 Canadian Junior Hockey League Top Prospects game in Oakville, Ontario.
“It was a really good event as it brought in players from Alberta and British Columbia. Playing in the OJHL is pretty good hockey, but I remember they kind of split it into the east and west. Those players from out west were really big and strong. I was a young kid at the time, so it was kind of a wake-up call that I needed to get bigger and stronger.”
“I was thrilled to be selected, to be honest. I really didn’t expect anything but it was exciting to be picked for it.”
From the GTA to Nanaimo
During the summer, Reilly was weighing his options on where to play next. The BCHL was on his radar but wasn’t his first choice. He admits a failed experiment down south led him to the west coast.
“I was going to go play in the USHL with the Chicago Steel, and things didn’t work out there and I knew that I wanted to come back home to Canada. I needed to play in the BCHL and Mike Vandekamp, who was the Nanaimo coach at the time, showed some interest and was able to work out a trade.”
After spending all of his youth to that point in the hustle and bustle of downtown Toronto, coming to Nanaimo and experiencing the lifestyle on the coast took a little getting used to.
“I flew to Vancouver before taking the ferry over to Nanaimo and I had never been on one of those before so I was kind of lost. It was so different compared to what I am used to, but I honestly loved it. My teammates were really good and the coaching staff really welcomed me from the beginning.”
“It was like night and day. I remember when my parents came over, they were kind of shocked. One of the billet’s houses was up on the mountains and my billet’s house (was) by the rink, so the weather on an average day was pretty good where we could wear shorts and a t-shirt. I remember going to this other billet’s house and it was like -15 (degrees) up there and I was wearing shorts in the morning.”
On ice success
During the 2015-16 BCHL Season, the Clippers were among the league’s elite, going 38-18-1-1, led by the scoring trio of Rempal, Hoover, and Brosseau.
Being surrounded by so much high-end talent made it fun for Reilly.
“Those guys were some of the best players that I ever played with in my life and we had such a good winning culture. I remember we had a 10-game winning streak where it felt like we were unstoppable at one point.”
“Playing with those players, for me, made it really easy and I didn’t have to do too much and our power-play was ridiculous. Rempal was the best player in the league at that time scoring close to 60 goals. Playing with those guys was really special.”
“In the playoffs, we lost our first game to Alberni and were the top seed, and then after that, we ended up going on an eleven game win streak right into the semi-finals with the round-robin that included Chilliwack and West Kelowna. We didn’t make it past that, but it was so great for our development. We owe a lot of credit to coach Vandekamp and I really think he pushed us in a good way.”
Reilly believes the Clippers had a psychological advantage over their opponents due to their top line.
“It was pretty special. All those guys, Rempal, Brosseau, and Hoover had around 100 points each and I think we had so much confidence because of those guys. We figured they were good for about two goals per game and if we figured out a way to keep the other team to one goal or less, we had a pretty good chance of winning. It made my job as a defenseman that much easier and if I got the puck to them, they were probably going to score.”
From RPI to marching with the Penguins
Following a solid run with the Clippers, Reilly embarked on a four-year NCAA career with the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Engineers.
He made an instant impact with the Engineers, recording 15 points in 35 games, but was a chilly minus-17 after RPI finished 6-16-0-0 in the ECAC. The record led to the dismissal of head coach Seth Appert.
In addition, adjusting to campus proved challenging. “Especially with not going to school the year before, getting back into the swing of things was a little difficult in the beginning and it was pretty busy.”
“The first year we struggled a lot as a team as we were expected to do better than we did and then the year after we saw a lot of turnover so we struggled again. In the third year, we were competitive in every game but still not the record we were looking for.”
It wasn’t until Reilly’s senior season where RPI climbed up the standings to finish 13-8-1 in the ECAC, but the year was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It really all came together and we were such a good team in every way and our goaltending was probably the best in the country. It was really unfortunate the way it had to end but I am really proud to say I went to RPI.”
After his freshman season in the NCAA, Reilly experienced the thrill of a lifetime as he was selected in the 7th round, 217th overall, by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2017 NHL Draft.
“It was special. I really didn’t have any idea that I was going to get picked as I really only talked to them one time. I was watching the draft because my neighbor back home was playing for the London Knights and he got picked in the third round by Minnesota.”
“I actually stopped watching and was playing golf where I then got the call from the Pittsburgh organization. I was kind of shocked, but very humbled and honoured to get drafted by them.”
Reilly has since inked his first professional contract with the Penguins and is suiting up for their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre Scranton.