To the Bobby Orrs and Guy Lafleurs, demigods of the glacial world, skating and puck handling seem to be second nature. It is assumed by hockey fans that their names will be inscribed on scoring trophies and Stanley Cups year after year. For players such as Terry O'Reilly, however, life is totally different. They lead a work-a-day existence where success is the by-product of hard work rather than sheer skill.
As perhaps hockey's best advertisement for the work ethic, O'Reilly has gained a measure of recognition few thought possible when he arrived with the Boston Bruins in 1972. Most recently, however, he was in the headlines for a reason unbecoming his new status as a polished pro. As a principal in a post-game altercation with fans at New York's Madison Square Garden, he was handed an eight- game suspension and named a party in a lawsuit brought against the Bruins and National Hockey League. Well, no one ever said you could take the fight out of O'Reilly.
Through his career, it's been more a matter of redirecting and refining his white-hot energy than dousing it.
When O'Reilly first joined the Bruins in 1972 he obviously had size and strength at 6 ft., 1 in. and 210 pounds, but his skating was awkward and his stickhandling ability virtually nonexistent. Often, in his frantic pursuit of the puck, he would end up on his back swatting wildly at the small black disc as though it were an elusive fly.
As a rookie he was used primarily as a checker. His function was to play the body and intimidate the opposition. He played his role well, quickly earning himself a reputation as a rugged player who wouldn't back down from the opposition. It seemed that every team had it's policeman and in Boston "Officer O'Reilly" was soon considered the main man on the beat.
Psychologically, he was a great advantage to the Bruins who, in Orr, Phil Esposito and Gerry Cheevers, had a lot of valuable merchandise to protect. O'Reilly's mere presence on the ice was enough to give opponents second thoughts about violating the rules against Boston skaters.
Unfortunately, Terry at first had little value in other aspects of the game. He amassed quite a few penaty minutes but very few goals. In his rookie season of 1972-73, for instance, he scored only five goals and 22 assists, a meager total compared to the 55 goals and 75 assists racked up by teammate and the league-leading scorer Esposito.
A big man is definitely an asset to any team but only if he pulls his own weight. Dave Schultz, Philadelphia Flyers emeritus, is an example of a big player who remained in the National Hockey League primarily on the basis of his strength and aggressiveness. But after several years with the Flyers and other NHL clubs, Schultz eventually found himself in the minor leagues once again this season.
O'Reilly at one stage a few years ago seemed heading in the same direction, but his combination of hard work and perseverance eventually began paying remarkable dividends. After three so-so seasons in which he averaged only a little more than 30 points per year he began to look more comfortable at his wing position and his skating improved considerably. The positive results were evidenced in the dramatic increase in his point production during his fourth season, and since then both his scoring and his overall value to the team have continued to grow.
Formerly O'Reilly pursued the puck enthusiastically but a bit too haphazardly. As he hurtled into the corners his linemates would have no idea where he or the puck would end up. But now there is logic to his pellmell style. When he gains control of the puck he thinks and looks before he passes. His increasing confidence is reflected in his improved playmaking. O'Reilly has synthesized with his linemates, sometimes passing the puck with a deftness that would cause the fan to go scurrying for his player program, asking himself incredulously, "Number 24!!! Was that O'Reilly who made that play?!?"
During last year's Stanley Cup semifinals between the Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens, a lot of Montrealers were asking that same question. Was this the same Terry O'Reilly of four or five years ago, or was it Bobby Orr rising out retirement like a phoenix rising from the ashes?
It wasn't Bobby Orr, nor were the Bruins the same star-studded team which had flourished in the early 70s. This Bruins club, comprised of no-frills, no-name players, pounded out victories as methodically as a carpenter pounds out a row of nails. Coach Don Cherry proudly and affectionately referred to this team as the "Lunchpail Athletic Club." As the foreman, Terry O'Reilly, best characterized the team's aggressive, functional image.
O'Reilly hustle caught on as the Bruins, a team by and large comprised of ordinary players, climbed to extraordinary heights against the mighty Canadiens. In spite of their heroics, the Bruins lost in the seventh and final game. Even in defeat, however, O'Reilly had distinguished himself as a player who not only held his own but one who also provided leadership and inspiration for an entire team.