GLENDALE, Ariz. — If anyone knows the importance of having a home, it's Ryan O'Reilly.
As a kid growing up in the prairie town of Brucefield, Ontario, with parents who both served as social workers for the province, O'Reilly shared his house with 49 foster kids over the years. Making them feel welcome was naturally instilled in him by Brian and Bonnie O'Reilly.
O'Reilly lived in Denver for the first six years of his NHL career. But it always felt too much like a residence, not a home. While he loved the city and its people and still has nice things to say about the Colorado Avalanche, the fact is that things never worked out for the long term. Home to him now is Buffalo, where the seventh-year All-Star center has the kind of long-term contractual security (seven years, $52.5 million) he could never find with the Avs.
Almost as important, O'Reilly says, he feels he plays a bigger role in the Sabres dressing room than he ever did in Colorado, freer to be the kind of locker-room and on-ice leader he felt he never quite could with the Avs.
On Wednesday night, O'Reilly will play his first game at the Pepsi Center in Colorado since being traded by the Avs in a summer blockbuster, ending a successful playing career there but one marked by business turbulence off the ice.
"Since Day 1, we just always had our [business] issues," O'Reilly said. "But I think the thing is, I did want a bigger role there, and in Buffalo, that's what I got. I have a bigger role here, a bigger voice, which is nice to have. I'm happy with the change. The fans and people in Colorado were phenomenal, and I have a lot of good relationships with a lot of their players still, but now that I have longer-term security and stuff, I can just focus on hockey, and it's easier to lead, to not get asked questions about contract stuff all the time."
It all started going bad off the ice for O'Reilly and the Avs right after the last NHL lockout was settled in 2013. While everyone else was excited to get back to their NHL teams, O'Reilly still didn't have a contract. Despite being one of the team's most important players, including leading the team in scoring the season before, O'Reilly and Avs management bickered over the value of a new deal. Things were going nowhere when the Calgary Flames suddenly gave him a two-year, $10 million offer sheet, which included a back-loaded final year that carried a $6.5 million cap hit.
The Avs had to grit their teeth and match the offer, and while O'Reilly would play another two-plus seasons in Denver, it always felt too much like a shotgun marriage. The big contract he got from Calgary created tension in the Avs dressing room that O'Reilly and others tried to deny publicly. However, before the Sabres' game against the Arizona Coyotes on Monday, O'Reilly told Bleacher Report the offer sheet created tension after he had already missed several games in that 48-game, shortened season.
That tension was especially pronounced, O'Reilly said, with teammate Matt Duchene. The two were drafted in the same year (2009) and made the team as 18-year-olds. They were supposed to be the twin faces of the franchise for a long time to come, but the business side of the game took a toll on their relationship. Duchene signed a team cap-friendly two-year, $7 million deal previous to the lockout, and the Avs expected him to follow suit and for probably a little less. When he returned with a much bigger deal after essentially holding out, it created friction with Duchene.
"After the whole contract situation at first, the relationship with [Duchene] was a little bit rocky for a while," O'Reilly said. "But I do think it started to grow back. He's a great guy, and he's a great player, too. I enjoyed being a teammate of his, and at least we got to win [the 2015 World Championships for Canada] together."
While O'Reilly wanted a bigger role, which presumably meant getting the captaincy after Milan Hejduk relinquished it retired in 2012, or at least an alternate captaincy. The Avs instead gave the "C" to 18-year-old rookie Gabriel Landeskog, who remains the youngest player in league history to get one.
But O'Reilly, who will represent the Sabres at the NHL All-Star Game in Nashville later this month, said it wasn't so much about getting a letter on his jersey as much as, again, feeling like Colorado was his home. By playing on short-term contracts his last few years, he felt too much like a rental player to be able to step up and really lead in the locker room.
Surprisingly, O'Reilly said being "passed over" for the captaincy in favor of a rookie was never the big deal some thought.
"I don't think I was ready for that role at the time. Landy excelled right away at the role, and I think he deserved it, for sure," O'Reilly said. "He's a leader and does everything right. I wasn't very vocal at that time, a little unsure of what to say. But now, I feel I've gotten more to that level in this room."
O'Reilly has been, by all accounts, the Sabres' best player so far. He entered Monday's game with 17 goals and 38 points in 45 games, and he's been phenomenal on faceoffs. His 660 faceoff wins lead the league, and he's near the top with a 57.8 percent success rate. He has a high Corsi For Percentage at 52.6, according to Hockey-Reference.com.
"I didn't know a lot about him as a full player. I'd only seen the highlights and a little as an opposing coach," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "But his compete level is great on both sides of the puck. He has such a high work rate. I've had the pleasure of coaching a few good players, and Ryan is right up there with how hard he works. He drives our team in so many areas with his work level and talent level. That's something I didn't know about him."
Does O'Reilly think he'll get the kinds of boos in Denver that Evander Kane got in his first game back in Winnipeg recently?
"Well, I'm sure it's not going to be a big welcome," O'Reilly said. "It'll be different playing against those guys. But it'll still be nice to get back there for a couple days."
After that, the Sabres will fly back to Buffalo. Where home is.
Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @Adater.
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