Mike Walsh remembers one the first times he got an inkling that his son Reilly had tremendous natural skating and hockey ability.
"I think it showed pretty early," said the 57-year-old Walsh, whose own professional career wound down in 1992. "We had him out on an Olympic sheet and it was like a flock of seagulls with all the other kids trying to catch him."
That young boy is now 20 and a prized Devils prospect playing at Harvard University, where he's been since New Jersey selected him with the 81st pick in the 2017 NHL Draft.
Now a junior, Walsh is off to a torrid start at Harvard with seven points (2G, 5A) through six games. It follows a 20-point campaign his freshman year, immediately after being selected by the Devils in 2017-18, and 31 points (12G, 19A) as a sophomore last season.
The unbeaten Crimson are now nosing into the NCAA top 10 and are expected to be a factor when matters get down to the fine strokes in March. Speaking soon after a key road win at RPI, Walsh agreed that things are going well heading into a glut of games before the holiday break in two weeks. In the wider view, he's clearly comfortable with his place playing and studying at one of the most prestigious universities in the world.
"I think it checks all the boxes," he said, in what could be called an understatement.
Walsh has now attended three Devils development camps. His first came shortly after being drafted, a selection that had an element of surprise because typically players who spent most of their draft year playing prep hockey don't go that relatively high in the process.
"The first one was a real eye-opener," he remembers, "it was fascinating to have my own stall and NHL jersey. Some of the players that were there too. Nico Hischier, Steven Santini, Pavel Zacha, guys soon playing (full-time) in the NHL. I was quite an experience."
Walsh says he's grown comfortable attending the annual summer programs and is in tune with club's development staff and plan put in place.
"This summer was the most fun," he said, pointing out that he's now among the older players.
Mike Walsh is the hockey and golf coach at Proctor Academy in Andover, N.H., the respected prep school where Reilly was playing when the Devils selected his son. A graduate of Colgate University, Walsh had two stretches in Europe sandwiched around five years in the New York Islanders organization, where he was teammates/roommates with Devils Asst GM Tom Fitzgerald. They won the Calder Cup together in 1990.
A forward, Mike Walsh knows the grind that awaits in professional hockey and that climbing the ladder to the top isn't always a straight line. "I was a bit a tweener between the AHL and NHL," said Mike, who played 14 games for the Islanders across two stretches. "There were times when I was playing really well in the AHL and wondering what I had to do to get called up.
"My message (to Reilly) is to just concentrate on what you can control."
Walsh's positioning as one of the Devils brightest prospects also speaks to the fact that a teenage hockey player shouldn't rush, no matter the temptation to press the fast forward button. The opportunity to play college hockey at Harvard is a special one, of course. But the discipline and deliberate approach to Walsh's development was taken long before committing to that storied program. In part because Reilly was a multi-talented athlete, it wasn't hockey all the time neither with him, nor his younger brother, Ronan, who recently committed to the University of Vermont.
Though purely anecdotal, many scouts, coaches and general hockey observers wonder whether having young players become one-sport athletes so early is the correct approach. Reilly Walsh is one of the best examples among prospects who have yet to turn professional that it's perfectly fine to have a balance growing up.
"It was tough, you had to stick to the plan and to have the (discipline) to put their hockey bag away every spring," said Mike Walsh, when keeping a multi-faceted approach to his two sons' upbringing, especially come Labor Day when Reilly would turn up at hockey and take his place among a bunch of his peers who had played all summer.
"As a guy who has been around the block…there was still the (temptation) to 'keep up with the Joneses every season."
Reilly (and Ronan) have kept pace just fine.