MANCHESTER, N.H. – The Reilly family isn’t sure how it happens, all they know is the dinners taste delicious. The cook, “Mikey” to his family and friends, gets intense when it’s time to serve up meat and sides. He takes it as seriously as his first love: playing hockey.
Around the grill, he’s famous for perfecting the spread, and for flipping the food into the air for show. The secret to his success, according to the family, is Mikey’s “special ingredients.” Older brother Connor Reilly knows it’s some odd combination of spices. Mikey has just the right touch, and he takes just enough risks to execute his plan — the same tools the Gophers junior defenseman shows off on the ice.
“He gets intense and all wired up about [grilling],” said Connor, a sophomore forward. “It’s all pretty good and one of his hidden talents.
“He doesn’t have many,” Connor added teasingly, before gushing about his brother’s development into one of the best players in college hockey during his three seasons. “He’s got some special abilities not a lot of guys have. … I think that’s what sets him apart.”
Reilly is arguably among the best players to come through the storied program in the Don Lucia era. The defenseman’s special ingredients as a player include great hands and vision, and a fearless approach. Reilly earned the program’s first All-America first-team honor in five years last season, and he has won back-to-back Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors. He’s also the first defenseman to lead the team in points since 1996-1997. His 42 points (six goals, 36 assists) lead all college hockey defenseman, his 36 assists are third-best among all skaters, his plus-25 rating is eighth-best in the country, and he’s the lone Gopher on the Hobey Baker Award finalist list.
Reilly emerged as an elite defenseman his sophomore season, a significant factor in the Gophers’ national runner-up finish. He’ll be expected to shine in the postseason again as the Gophers begin their quest for a third Frozen Four appearance in the past four years with Friday’s NCAA tournament opener against longtime rival Minnesota Duluth in Manchester, N.H.
“It’s definitely a pretty big [responsibility],” Mike Reilly said. “Coming in as a freshman it was different, following the older guys, and now I’m in a different situation being one of the older guys. It was definitely frustrating underachieving, for sure, in the first half [this season], but it just matters that you’re playing your best at the end of the year. … We gotta set the tone for everyone else to follow.”
The Gophers coaching staff has had its eye on Reilly since he was 8 years old, playing up with his older twin brothers Connor and Ryan (although older, the twins joined the Gophers program the same time as Mike, and Connor lost one year to injury and was redshirted). Lucia saw a player with no fear.
“He had such a low panic point with the puck,” the coach said. “He’s always going to try and make plays. He’s a throwback. He’s got the mentality, score one on me, I’m going to get two on you. Almost like playing on a backyard rink, which they have at their house.”
Associate head coach Mike Guentzel, who oversees the Gophers’ defensemen and was a program standout on the back end himself in the early 1980s, saw intelligence: “You could see his dynamic ability when he was 9 or 10.’’
Despite glimpses of stardom at a young age, the journey to All-America status wasn’t as easy as the now mature 21-year-old makes his signature “spin-o-rama” move and one-timer look on a daily basis.
As a skinny teenager, he was cut from several select teams and overlooked by some scouts. He entered college barely pushing 5-10 and a slim 150 pounds. The former forward also was still trying to learn how to balance his strong offensive presence with a good defensive approach.
He played 36 games as a freshman, but was in and out of the lineup with limited ice time. He returned as a sophomore having packed on muscle, and his fellow defensemen quickly took notice.
“Mike’s a special player, no doubt about it,” junior defenseman Brady Skjei said. “I haven’t seen a player like that for a while. He takes the puck up and makes plays and sometimes you just gotta watch and say, ‘Wow, this guy is a player.’ ”
The past month, the Columbus Blue Jackets have been lobbying for Reilly to sign after the completion of the season, hinting that he would advance directly to the NHL for the remainder of the season. If Reilly doesn’t sign with the Blue Jackets, the organization that drafted him in the fourth round in 2011, he has the right to become a free agent.
“Things pop up. I try to ignore it and worry about the team, and I’ve had that approach all year,” Reilly said. “There’s probably no real chance that [leaving school immediately to play in the NHL] will happen. I’m worried about finishing my degree. That’s more important to my family.”
Reilly turned down an offer to sign a pro contract with the Blue Jackets after his All-America sophomore season, eyeing redemption in the national championship game and the chance to play another season with his twin brothers.
Reilly cooked up a special second half of the season that included two goals and 16 assists over the past eight weeks, a huge part of the team’s rally that has put redemption four victories away.
“We weren’t living up to our expectations in a few games early on,” Reilly said, “I thought, ‘I gotta be a little more aggressive and do the little things more and not cheat the game as much.’ I want to be known as a two-way defenseman, and I do believe I am.”