Morgan Rielly was born in Vancouver and is entering his seventh season in the NHL, all of which has been spent with the Toronto Maple Leafs. As defenceman and alternate captain on a team stacked with talent, he is a veteran presence that brings a laid back west coast demeanour to the squad. The 2018-19 season was his most impressive across every stat line, which he’s looking to build on as the Leafs work towards the 2020 NHL Playoffs.
Here, he talks hockey, championships, and his favourite things to do when he’s back home in Vancouver.
— Hockey is a sport with so much ritual and community around it, from early morning practices to pick-up and shinny. What parts of the game keep you connected to the love of hockey while playing at the highest professional level?
When you’re a young kid growing up, you do a lot of those things, like go to the rink early. With me, it was my dad that was coaching me so it was pretty easy to get motivated. I’m pretty lucky to have the job that I do, so I try to make the most of it. I don’t think I’ve lost any of that kind of passion towards practicing and playing, that’s still something that I really enjoy. I’m looking forward to getting back to Toronto and my teammates, who have all become close friends.
— Having been on the Leafs since you started your career and being an alternative captain means players are looking to you as a leader. How would you describe your leadership style?
For me, it comes naturally. I don’t try to do anything that is too unique or out of character. I do genuinely enjoy going to the rink everyday, being around my teammates, and practicing. That helps. When you go in and try to be the best person you can be, try to be a good teammate and enjoy what you’re doing, that can be contagious. I’ve also had the opportunity of playing with some players over the years that are great leaders, and I’ve learned a lot from them in terms of how they talk and handle themselves.
— The excitement in Toronto over the Raptors championship last season has energized the city – including players from the Blue Jays, Argos, TFC and the Leafs. How do you see that excitement translating to Leafs fans and the hopes within the team this year?
It was great for the fans to watch what happened and to see how great the turnout was during the parade and all of those playoff games – it was just a crazy environment. As a player, it’s great and you’re happy for Toronto and Raptors fans, but you become a little bit envious because you want to be able to bring that to Toronto. You want to be able to bring that championship back. It adds some motivation and it makes you train a little harder during the off-season. I think thatLeafs fans are the best in the league and they really deserve a championship, and that’s what we are going to try and bring them in the future. To watch the Toronto Raptors do it makes you realize that it’s possible in the city of Toronto, and like I said, it makes you envious, driven, and motivated.
— Statistically, you had a huge jump across the board last year. One of the most notable stats was your plus/minus, which tells us the most about your impact on the ice, going from -4 to +24 . What is behind that improvement?
I think it’s just a matter of confidence. In sports, it really comes down to believing in yourself and in confidence. Having good teammates and a coaching staff in place helped me go out and do my thing, enjoy playing hockey, and have fun. My plus/minus was the result of being in the league a little longer and understanding what works and what helps me the most. I really don’t think I changed too much, I’ve always trained hard. It’s a product of being in the league longer and really understanding how the game works at a higher level and having confidence. The combination of being in the league for six years, having confidence, and playing for a good team made it all come together. You gotta do it year after year though, you can’t just do it once – that’s the goal.
— You dreamed about being in the NHL for most of your life and must have had ideas about what it would be like if you made it. What is the one thing that surprised you the most about what playing in the NHL is actually like?
The one thing that really surprised me is that the team – whether we are in the locker room or on a plane travelling – is like being around a normal group of guys. We talk about the same things, we play cards. It’s really like playing hockey with a bunch of your best buddies. I think that really surprised me because when you’re younger you have an image in your head of people having egos and being ultra-serious, but it’s really not like that. We have a young team and we’re all very close. We have a lot of great players that are really down to earth, so when we’re around one another we have a great time and try to make the most of what we’re doing. Obviously, you’re motivated and have bigger goals in mind once you’re at the rink, but when you go for dinner, it’s great and just a lot of fun. I think that’s the best part.
— The goal for any professional team is to win and to go as far as you can with that, but what is your personal goal this season to contribute to that broader aim?
I’m looking forward to getting going again, but you can’t get too carried away. You need to keep your goals in mind. I just want to get back there and have a really good training camp and opening month. It’s easy to talk about having a good playoff run, but that’s a bit far down the road. So right now, I’m just really focused on my summer training. Personally, I just want to build off of what I was able to do last year. I want to contribute, be a good teammate, be a leader, and be part of a good team.