Even before putting one on Wednesday morning at the Xcel Energy Center, Mike Reilly knew well the feeling of a Wild sweater adorning his 6-foot-1, 182-pound frame; a younger, smaller Reilly liked to wear Minnesota threads around his Chanhassen, Minn., home. Frequently, he’d sit in this same arena’s stands, accompanied by a father who played hockey at Colorado College and Minnesota and any number of his four siblings, all of whom went on to collegiate pucks themselves. Manning the University of Minnesota’s blue line the past three years kept Riley close to the Wild, too.
But the 21-year-old never thought he’d be here. Not like this, at least.
“Definitely couldn’t predict it,” Reilly said. “Now that it’s here, it’s kind of surreal.”
“Here” is back in the Wild’s home digs, with a two-year, entry-level contract and No. 4 jersey in hand. Minnesota officially signed Reilly, a college free agent, as soon as the NHL’s free-agent period began Wednesday.
After months of deliberation, Reilly picked his hometown team over other suitors, including Chicago, where he was born.
Reilly spent the bulk of his childhood in Chanhassen, Minn., though, learning the game from his father Mike — a 1977 Canadiens draft selection — alongside twin brothers Connor and Ryan (both fellow Golden Gophers) and sisters Shannon (played hockey at Ohio State) and Caitlin (currently plays for Penn State). The younger Mike Reilly laced up his skates at Holy Angels for two years, then Shattuck-St. Mary’s before committing to the Gophers.
All the while, he dreamt of one day playing for the NHL club he watched on television or in person at least 60 times every winter, he said.
“Growing up, going to games, kind of the back of your mind, you sit there and kind of dream about a little bit of potentially playing here,” Reilly said. “But I definitely did not predict it to actually happen.”
Instead, Columbus drafted the highly-skilled, puck-moving defenseman 98th overall (fourth round) in 2011. The following season, Reilly helped the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League win a North American junior hockey record 42 games in a row on the way to RBC Cup and Doyle Cup crowns.
His successes multiplied in Dinkytown.
In three years under Gophers coach Don Lucia, Reilly was named a First Team All-American and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year twice. This past campaign, the junior garnered Hobey Baker Memorial Award finalist distinction, led NCAA defensemen in scoring (42 points) and assists (36), tied for third nationally with 21 power-play points, and tied for eighth with a plus-25 rating.
Reilly helped the U.S. Men’s National Team to a bronze-medal finish at this year’s World Championship in the Czech Republic, then opted for free agency. A handful of top teams pursued him, but in the end, Reilly said his comfort level with Minnesota and its upward trajectory -- the Wild has made the playoffs three straight seasons and reached the Western Conference semifinals each of the past two -- rendered it the best fit.
“It seems like they’re ready to win,” Reilly said.
A call from Wild star Zach Parise didn’t hurt, either.
“It really meant a lot,” said Reilly, who referred to Parise as a role model for Twin Cities youth and “great” team leader. “He had some good words and just kind of his experience with Minnesota throughout the years. He loves it here. He has nothing bad to say and loves the fans. One thing he emphasized is he wants to win, and he wants to bring in guys that want to win and are here for the right reasons.”
Reilly plans to attend the Wild’s development camp next week, a span of training he feels ready for having taken part in the Blue Jackets’ offseason prospect workouts the last few years. He comes in with a chance to earn an NHL roster spot in this year’s training camp as Minnesota looks to add depth behind top defensemen Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Matt Dumba and others.
Having been so close to this franchise his entire life, Reilly has something of a head start.
“I probably know Minnesota the best of any team in the league, for sure, just being able to watch them and kind of know what they have,” Reilly said. “Obviously, the opportunity can be really good. I’ve got to earn my spot, and that’s kind of one thing they said to me in the past few weeks leading up to this day. If I come in and play well -- obviously, there’s going to be a learning curve and mistakes throughout the process -- but come in in great shape, keep working hard the next two months, hopefully it all works out.”