Over the last 30-plus years I’ve had the pleasure and the privilege to write about some of the greatest athletes in St. Louis team sports.
I’ve never put together a ranking of my personal favorites but Blues captain Ryan O’Reilly would be high on the list. If I had to line up the best of the best for a group photo, O’Reilly would be in the shot. The O’Reilly beard would be hanging out with Albert Pujols, Ozzie Smith, Kurt Warner, Isaac Bruce, Marshall Faulk, Brett Hull, Chris Pronger, Chris Carpenter, Al MacInnis, Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, David Backes, Scott Rolen, Orlando Pace, Jim Edmonds and many more. (This would be a very large photo.)
Why? There are many reasons. O’Reilly is dedicated. He’s talented. He’s unselfish. He has a team-first conscience. He competes as hard as anyone I’ve seen in this town. He’s confident on the job, but humble in demeanor. When the Blues lose, he takes the blame no matter how absurd it is to do so. When the team wins, he praises others.
O’Reilly is the epitome of a two-way center. Winning the faceoffs, making plays, scoring goals, checking the other team’s top line, manning the power play, buzzing to kill penalties. Always thinking and moving and energizing his team.
O’Reilly is a champion. He’s a Conn Smythe winner. And as the postseason MVP for the first and only Blues team to win the Stanley Cup, O’Reilly will always occupy a special place in St. Louis sports history.
O My! O’Reilly had 8 goals and 15 assists in the Blues’ 26 postseason dramas during the wondrous campaign of 2019, averaging 20 intense minutes per game. In the seven-game Stanley Cup Final against Boston, O’Reilly had 5 goals, 4 assists and was plus 5. In the most glorious victory in franchise history, O’Reilly zinged the Bruins for a goal and assist in the Game 7 triumph at Boston.
When the Blues are playing well, he works and leads and sets the tone. When the Blues are clumsy and confused, he works and leads and pushes and sets a righteous example in the effort to lead his boys out of the ennui.
Ryan O’Reilly has never been a no-show. He’s all in for 60 minutes and overtime and shootouts. First guy on the ice at practice. Last guy to leave the ice at practice. He leads the Blues in happiness and hurt. Every game is a test of character and a test of one man’s capacity to labor and endure.
In his three regular seasons with St. Louis O’Reilly has played in 201 games and logged more than 4,000 minutes on the ice. He has 62 goals, 123 assists, and won 57 percent of his faceoffs. He leads the Blues in goals this season (22) and his 47 points is second to linemate David Perron (48.)
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa often used a phrase on the inevitable days when his players made honest mistakes during the heat and haze of competition: men, not machines.
Well, O’Reilly is a man and a machine.
He competes at the place where soul meets body.
It should surprise no one to see O’Reilly at the center of his team’s late-season charge. The Blues have won four in a row and seven of their last 10.
When the Blues were teetering, he restored their pulse and scored three goals to upend Colorado in a proud St. Louis stand on a meaningful Saturday afternoon at Enterprise Center. When the Blues relinquished a healthy lead Thursday at Minnesota, O’Reilly raced to the scene to score his second goal of the game, lifting a classic backhander into the goal-net canopy for an electric 5-4 win in overtime.
During the Blues’ 7-3 run and reversal of form and fortune, O’Reilly has 9 goals, 4 assists and is a resounding plus 9.
Please understand that this is no front-runner.
O’Reilly was still scoring goals and setting up teammates for scoring chances, during the depressing days of the season, when the Blues were losing games and their minds and veering into trouble … their season slip-sliding away, almost plummeting into the canyon. And he’s there now, trying to ensure that his mates will sustain momentum and make the best of their passage to redemption.
“There’s not a guy in the lineup that’s not making an impact.” O’Reilly said after Thursday’s two-point pickup at Minnesota. “Every guy is working hard and using the structure and playing for each other, and it’s nice. We get rewarded. We find ways to win games. This is the time. We’re trying to get into the playoffs and we need everyone. If we keep beating teams like this, it gives us confidence, and we’re going to be a dangerous team down the stretch here.”
The ‘C’ on the sweater matters to captain O’Reilly. It matters a great deal. Because it is the mark that represents his team — and proudly symbolizes his duty to his team.
“I matched up against Ryan in the finals a few years ago and I saw it first hand on the biggest stage and now I get to see it every single night,” said Blues defenseman Torey Krug, the former Boston Bruin. “He’s a very special hockey player. More than anything, he drags his team into the fire, into the battle, and I think in moments like this, it’s important, especially in these games down the stretch to get into the playoffs. It’s important to have your leader do that, so he’s obviously a tremendous player and his work speaks for itself.”
Yes, the ‘C’ fits. That ‘C’ stands for many things — not just captain. It stands for competitor, curator, caretaker, commander, champion. It is a letter that defines Ryan O’Reilly.
Thanks for reading.
And I hope you have a beautiful weekend.
Please check out Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.