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O'Reilly, Delvecchio play same game, Fischler says

Blues center much like longtime Red Wings Hall of Famer

by Stan Fischler / Special to NHL.com

Legendary hockey reporter and analyst Stan Fischler writes a weekly scrapbook for NHL.com. Fischler, known as "The Hockey Maven," shares his knowledge, humor and insight with readers each Wednesday.

Today, he compares two of the best two-way players in NHL history -- St. Louis Blues center Ryan O'Reilly, last season's Conn Smythe Trophy winner, and Hockey Hall of Famer Alex Delvecchio, a three-time Stanley Cup champion who spent all of his 24-season career with the Detroit Red Wings.

 

Unlike the spring of 2019, there was no Conn Smythe Trophy awarded in 1955 after the Detroit Red Wings defeated the Montreal Canadiens in a seven-game Final to win the Stanley Cup. But had there been a prize awarded to "the most valuable player for his team in the playoffs," chances are that Detroit's Alex Delvecchio would have taken home the hardware.

Like Ryan O'Reilly, who won the Conn Smythe last year by helping the St. Louis Blues win the Cup for the first time since entering the NHL in 1967, Alex Delvecchio played center with an admirable blend of skills. The native of Fort William, Ontario, ranked with the best centers in hockey during his prime, so it's not surprising that in 2017 he was named to the 100 Greatest NHL Players.

Video: Alex Delvecchio was third member of 1,000-point club

Delvecchio proved during the 1955 Cup Final that he ranked with the premier clutch scorers of all-time.

With the Red Wings and Canadiens tied at three wins apiece, Game 7 was set for Olympia Stadium in Detroit on April 14, 1955. Neither team scored until Delvecchio took a pass from Red Kelly and beat Canadiens goalie Jacques Plante at 7:12 of the second period to put Detroit ahead 1-0. The man they nicknamed "Fats" came through again at 2:59 of the third period, scoring an unassisted goal to give Detroit a 3-0 lead. The Red Wings won the game 3-1 for their second championship in as many years -- and their last one until 1997.

"The best way to describe the way opponents feel about Delvecchio," Canadian journalist Earl McRae once said, "can be summed up in one word: Respect.'"

The same can be said for O'Reilly, one of the heroes of the Blues' run to their first championship.

"Ryan was the best 200-foot player in the NHL last season," said Ken Campbell, a columnist for The Hockey News, "and the best player over the most important two months of the schedule."

O'Reilly's assets are both obvious and subtle. In addition to the Conn Smythe Trophy, he also won the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the NHL's top defensive forward last season while finishing with an NHL career-high 77 points (28 goals, 49 assists). Blues general manager Doug Armstrong, who acquired O'Reilly in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres on July 1, 2018, said he did so because, like Delvecchio, O'Reilly can play a two-way game with the best of them.

Video: Looking back at Blues' trade for O'Reilly in 2018

When the Blues struggled during the first half of last season and it appeared Armstrong might make some trades to shake up his team, O'Reilly remained a conspicuous untouchable.

"Ryan was the first guy I had with a (no-trade) check mark, and that lasted all year," Armstrong said. "It was nice to have his benchmark of quality play night in night out."

The Red Wings, beginning with then-GM Jack Adams, felt the same way about Delvecchio, who never wore any other NHL uniform. He wore it when he played his first NHL game with the Red Wings against the Canadiens on March 25, 1951, and in his 1,550th and final game, against the Atlanta Flames, on Nov. 4, 1973.

The qualities that make O'Reilly so dependable are the same ones that made Delvecchio a Hockey Hall of Famer. Bruce MacGregor, a forward who played with Delvecchio during the 1960s, lauded his old teammate's easy and graceful approach to the game.

"Alex was a natural athlete," MacGregor recalled. "His biggest assets were his skating and passing. I called him 'a fluid skater' with an effortless style."

Delvecchio was inducted into Hall of Fame in 1977, and one of many reasons he achieved that honor was that he's the only player who played 24 seasons with the same team. That included a run of 490 consecutive games.

Armstrong said O'Reilly, who turns 29 on Feb. 7, has the potential to join him.

"Ryan has had a storybook year, and the test now is to park that and do it again," he said. "If he puts together five or six years of top play, people talk about whether you're Hall of Fame-worthy."

In 1952, Delvecchio moved into the middle on Detroit's famed "Production Line," centering Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. He replaced Sid Abel, who moved on to be player-coach of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Replacing one Hall of Famer and stepping in between two others might have been daunting for some players, but Delvecchio made it look easy. "Delvecchio was someone who could read a game situation and recognize what to do quickly based on what he saw the other team doing," hockey historian Andrew Podnieks wrote in his 2003 book, "Players: The Ultimate A-Z Guide of Everyone Who Has Ever Played in the NHL."

Delvecchio finished with 1,281 points (468 goals, 825 assists), played on three Stanley Cup-winning teams and won the Lady Byng Trophy for skillful and gentlemanly play three times. He's one of three players in NHL history to play at least 1,500 games with the same team; the others are center Steve Yzerman and defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, who also did it with the Red Wings.

O'Reilly's trophy collection includes the Stanley Cup and Selke from last season, as well as the Lady Byng, which he won in 2013-14 while playing for the Colorado Avalanche. He also owns the Blues' record for points in one playoff year with 23.

He credits his dad for making him the hero he is today. "When I was young," O'Reilly said, "my father instilled in me to put my stamp on every little play."

His GM foresees another potential "stamp" on O'Reilly's resume. "What we have to do." Armstrong said, "is provide Ryan with a platform each year by putting good players around him so he can one day get into the Hall of Fame."

Delvecchio did that with the likes of Howe and Lindsay surrounding him. Who knows, O'Reilly might get there someday with the help of players such as Vladimir Tarasenko and Alex Pietrangelo.

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