There aren't too many kids in Texas who dream of playing in the NHL.
But Southlake's Ryan O'Reilly did and there's a very real possibility that his dream could come true this week at the NHL Draft, which is being held at the American Airlines Center in Dallas on Friday and Saturday.
The 18-year-old is projected to be selected in the third or fourth round, which will take place on Saturday.
He’s expected to become the first player born and raised in Texas to get drafted in his hometown.
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"He loved the fighting"
So, how does a kid who grew up during the Southlake football dynasty end up on the ice?
It started with the elder of his eldest brothers, Michael, who was "a bit wild and liked the fighting."
Michael, played for several elite triple-A youth programs and eventually played at Texas A&M. His second oldest brother, Brenden, recently concluded a five-year major junior career.
Ryan said their experiences not only shaped how he played the game, but they also influenced what path he would map out in his burgeoning career.
His parents also played a major role in his athletic career.
His father, Jim, played on the water polo team at Loyola University in Chicago and had aspirations of making the U.S. men's team and playing in the Olympics. His mother, Wendy, was a scholarship volleyball player at Missouri State University.
It also helped that the high school sweethearts were from Lindbergh, Missouri and raised their first two kids in St. Louis.
His parents remain Blues fans, which has created some playful rooting tension at home. Dallas and St. Louis have faced off more times in the playoffs (13) than against any other team (the Blues have won 7 of those games).
Coincidentally enough, his parents moved the family to Dallas in 1999, the same year the Stars won the Stanley Cup.
Career at a crossroads
As high as O'Reilly's draft stock is right now, there was a time where his amateur and professional future in the sport was in a bit of a rut.
That all changed with some matter-of-fact advice from Eric Silverman, a former college and minor league player who has made a career out of being a coach and national amateur hockey evaluator. He started living in DFW because of the city's central flying location, and, eventually, became the director of operations and a coach for the Dallas Stars Elite Hockey Club.
Silverman coached him for first time in 2015 on the Stars' Elite U-15 team. That season, O'Reilly scored 14 goals in 30 games. He had a decision to make after being passed over for the U.S. national team, which prompted a meeting between the coach, the player and his dad.
It changed everything.
"I told him 'you have a chance to do something special with your career, but you need to change X, Y and Z," Silverman said. "If you do those things you'll play this game for a long time."
Off the ice, O'Reilly began putting in more effort into his training regimen. On the ice, he answered his coach's challenge to assert his presence in the bottom half of the slot. He even improved his consistency in the defensive zone, becoming a reliable penalty killer in the process.
“For me, personally, if I played in a place like Detroit, they would have focused on other players because there are so many skilled guys up there,” he said. “Down here there are a few high performance guys and I was a guy that got put under a microscope, which helped me become the player I am today.”
After his pedestrian scoring total the previous season, he buried 23 goals in 26 games as a member of Stars Elite U-16 team.
Throughout that second season, coaches and scouts around the country told Silverman that O'Reilly looked like a totally different player.
"They say everything is bigger in Texas"
Initially, O'Reilly committed to the University of Nebraska-Omaha, but decommited when the entire coaching staff that recruited him left the school.
A short while later, he and his adviser at Southlake Carroll began looking for a new school. It didn't take long for O'Reilly to fall in love with the University of Denver, then-led by Jim Montgomery, who has since been named the Stars' new head coach.
“I think Jim Montgomery realized what I had in my game," he said. "Their coaching staff fell in love with me as a player and I fell in love with the school. I can’t wait to get there.”
Both O'Reilly and Montgomery said the winning pedigree and track record of sending players onto the NHL, not to mention Montgomery's open and direct coaching style, are what drew the player to Denver.
"There's been a lot of growth in the cities where the NHL has gone to, but especially in Dallas," Montgomery said. "Since I've been at Denver, Dallas is a place we've always recruited because of its geographical proximity to us. I think it's similar to Colorado in that its got a lot of talented hockey players."
Montgomery said that O'Reilly's powerful shot, hockey awareness and ability to find the back of the net all made him an attractive prospect. But there was one thing that stood out just a little bit more than anything else.
"They say everything is bigger in Texas, and, well, the size of their hockey teams are the biggest I've seen," Montgomery said. "They just have great, big athletes. I think as the hockey acumen evolves in the state, they are going to produce more NHL players."
Unlike with his first college commitment, O'Reilly completely understood why Montgomery took the head coaching job with the Stars. In fact, he actually reached out to Montgomery shortly after he was hired to wish him the best and tell him how cool it was that he was hired by his favorite NHL team.
Montgomery admitted that O'Reilly's journey forward will bring challenges, but the prospect he started recruiting three years ago has only gotten better as he's gotten older.
"The great thing about Ryan is that he's not even close to his ceiling," Montgomery said. "And knowing the young man, how high is his ceiling going to end up is the question. And it's the toughest question for all the NHL teams right now."
You need to be mature at a young age
After spending three years at Southlake Carroll and two years playing for the Stars Elite, O'Reilly knew he needed to take the next step.
After the success of his final season in Dallas, the forward was drafted fourth overall in the 2016 United States Hockey League Draft and played his first full season with Madison Capitols in Wisconsin this past season.
O’Reilly ended the season with 34 points in 45 games, which was good for eighth amongst USHL rookies. Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider he missed 17 games after contracting mononucleosis and a foot infection.
By the season's end he finished tied for second in scoring amongst USHL rookies and was selected as a member of the USHL All-Rookie Second Team.
He also completed his high school degree this spring by taking online classes.
"We've got all that in our own backyard"
Over the course of the past year, he's talked with scouts and general managers who have probed his mental approach to the game.
And the precocious forward always relishes learning about how those individuals have been involved with the sport.
He's also receptive to hearing what areas of his game need some fine tuning. You'd think a player on his way to one of the nation's best college hockey programs and a potential NHL career would have mastered the art of skating. But O'Reilly is rated as C- skater on NHL Central Scouting Players to Watch List.
To remedy that issue, he actually hired a skating coach, which is something that has become more common for players of all ages throughout amateur and pro leagues.
In terms of where he stands in the hierarchy of all-time Texas prospects, Columbus Blue Jackets All-Star defenseman Seth Jones resides in the top spot. But in terms of ranking the forwards, according to Silverman, "Ryan's package of talent is right there with anyone. It's just going to be a matter of how his development goes over the next couple of years. But I think he has a realistic chance to play in the NHL."
This weekend 40 friends and family members will be in town to watch him get drafted. His parents bought a whole section worth of tickets for a moment that he recognizes is larger than himself.
"I'm another guy in a line who put Dallas hockey on the map and shows how good it can be," he said. "Hopefully, some players growing up here can realize that you don't have to move away from home to get the exposure and move on to the high levels. We've got all that right here in our own backyard."