CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- Ryan O'Reilly wasn't sure what kind of reception he would get from his Colorado Avalanche teammates Saturday after missing training camp and the first 19 games of the season while holding out for a new contract.
But the 22-year-old center said any fears he might have had quickly passed.
"I didn't really know what to expect when I got here this morning," O'Reilly said following practice, two days after the Avalanche matched the two-year, $10 million offer sheet tendered by the Calgary Flames. "Every guy's been happy to see me. I can't believe how nice everyone's been about it, how great they've been. They accepted me back. It's like I haven't left. It just shows the character of this team. There's so many great guys and I'm thankful that they welcomed me back."
O'Reilly, who led the Avalanche in scoring last season with 55 points (18 goals, 37 assists) in 81 games, will play Sunday when the team opens a three-game trip at the Columbus Blue Jackets. He'll center the third line with left wing John Mitchell and right wing Milan Hejduk, play the point on the power play and eventually kill penalties.
"I'll monitor his ice as we go along here, but once the puck drops you never know," Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said. "If it's a close game and he's playing well, he'll play more. As a coach and as a coaching staff we're excited to have Ryan back."
O'Reilly played in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia during the lockout and practiced with the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights after returning to his home in Canada.
"I was doing my best to stay in shape," he said. "The altitude was definitely different today. I could feel it. It's a whole different level, but I feel good and I can't wait to play hockey again. I've played with Hejduk before and he's a great player. Just to be in the lineup is very exciting. Mitchell's been playing great this year. It's going to be good.
"I hope I can contribute as best I can. It will probably take a little while to get back into the swing of things, to find the chemistry and catch up to the speed of the game. I can't wait to be a part of what's happening here."
O'Reilly said it was difficult to sit out as a restricted free agent while the NHL season was in full swing, but he said his decision was based strictly on business.
"I had to turn off my phone and stay away from the TV," he said. "It was like the whole world was going without you. I trust my agents and they did an excellent job and I had to stay strong. I can't play hockey forever. It's a business and you have to get as much as you can when you can."
O'Reilly will be paid a prorated $1 million this season, along with a $2.5 million signing bonus, and a $6.5 million salary in 2013-14. The Avalanche had offered much less -- a two-year, $7 million contract and a five-year, $17 million deal.
The Flames tendered their offer sheet Thursday, before the Avalanche played them that night at Pepsi Center. The Avalanche announced during the first period they had matched the offer, and the team rallied from 3-0 and 4-2 deficits to pull out a 5-4 win.
"It did seem a little odd that you were playing a team that made that offer to him and we could lose him in the next seven days," Sacco said. "Lucky for us, he's here with us."
O'Reilly was home when the Flames made their offer, as well as a few hours later when the Avalanche matched it.
"I was just sitting at home and I got a call from my agent that an offer sheet was available," he said. "I want to play hockey, so I signed it. I didn't know what was going to happen. I thought it might take a week or so, but luckily for me it was over quickly. I'm so excited now to be playing hockey and to be back with these guys."
O'Reilly left his house at 4:30 a.m. Eastern Time on Friday and flew to Detroit to catch a connecting flight to Denver. He arrived around noon Mountain Time, signed the contract, took his physical and was cleared to play by the Avalanche medical staff.
"Yesterday was a long day for him, and he looked very comfortable [Saturday]," Sacco said. "He looked like he hadn't missed a beat. I'm sure there's going to be a growth period where he's going to have to catch up a little bit and get up to speed as far as the pace of the play. If we're doing a good job managing his shifts and he's doing a good job not getting caught out there too long, he should be fine."
Saying he's ready for a "fresh start," O'Reilly has changed his jersey digits from 37 to 90.
"I've always wanted to wear 9 and [Matt Duchene] has that," he said. "The last couple years I wanted to change it. Once we got to this situation, it's good to putting a fresh start to it. It's a new thing and a whole new direction."
Hejduk said O'Reilly's presence will give the Avalanche a boost on and off the ice. Colorado has gone 4-2-3 in the past nine games to get back to .500 for the season at 8-8-3.
"He makes us a better team, that's the bottom line," Hejduk said. "He was our leading scorer last year and he played great on both sides of the ice, offensively and defensively. He's a really smart player. We've had quite a few injuries and guys are coming back, and now we signed Ryan, so it's a pretty good feeling and now we can make a push and hopefully put some wins together and get into the playoffs."
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