Reilly brothers continuing Gophers tradition

MINNEAPOLIS — Hockey is in the blood of Connor, Ryan and Mike Reilly. So is being a Gopher.

The three brothers grew up hearing stories about playing at Minnesota from their dad, Mike, Sr., who skated for the Gophers from 1979-80 after transferring from Colorado College. He was also drafted by the Montreal Canadiens but never played in the NHL. Mike Reilly took his boys to Mariucci Arena to watch the Gophers while they were growing up. They also watched as their sister, Shannon, played hockey at Ohio State from 2006-10.

From a young age, the Reilly brothers dreamed of playing college hockey together. Ryan and Connor, fraternal twins who are a year older than Mike, initially looked at some colleges out east. But when it came down to it, there was no other place the Reillys could see themselves.

“Eventually, when Minnesota came knocking, it really wasn’t tough to consider, (having) growing up and seeing them play,” said Connor, a 5-foot-11 forward . “Obviously with the atmosphere, how much people care about hockey and the style of play, it was a pretty easy decision.”

After graduating from the Academy of Holy Angels in 2010, Ryan and Connor opted for the junior hockey route before attending Minnesota. The twins played one year for the Sioux Falls Stampede of the United States Hockey League during the 2010-11 season.

While Ryan and Connor were playing in Sioux Falls, Mike spent his senior year of high school at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, the boarding school in Faribault, Minn., known for churning out top hockey talent. He led all SSM defensemen with 43 points and helped the Sabres win the Under-18 Tier I National Championship.

“That was a great experience there,” said Mike, a fourth-round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2011 NHL Draft. “Living away from home for me, I wasn’t too far away but I was on my own basically every day. It was a good experience for me. Obviously I’m away from home here too, but not too far, just like Shattuck. I have to be more responsible.”

After Mike was done at SSM, all three brothers were reunited on the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League. They played one season in Canada before eventually setting foot as freshmen on the University of Minnesota campus.

“It kind of helped to take the next step and get more prepared for bigger, faster hockey here in the WCHA,” said Ryan Reilly of playing junior hockey.

At just 5-foot-7, Ryan is the smallest of the brothers — and the shortest member of the Gophers. Mike is the tallest at 6 feet, but none of the three possess great size. When they were younger, their size was always held against them, regardless of their skill levels.

“We were always a little bit overlooked early on in our careers, just because everyone said we were too small, we’re not big enough,” said Connor. “We kind of came into our own and started maturing a bit physically.”

When it was the three of them skating around the pond as kids, size was never an issue with the Reillys. The brothers would constantly push each other to get better. They’d spend countless hours in their basement playing a 1-on-1-on-1 game of rollerblade hockey, complete with a goalie shooting target covering most of the net. Hitting the top corner was the only way to score.

It was in their basement that Connor, Ryan and Mike Reilly really developed that competitive edge by facing off against each other.

“It was pretty much just a battle,” said Connor. “We’d play it all the time. We’d get (mad) at each other, but we made each other better.”

Bump in the road

The Reillys are the sixth family to have three or more brothers on the Gophers. The only other instance in which Minnesota had three brothers on the roster at the same time was back in 1958-59, when Gary, Larry and Richard Alm all skated for the Gophers, according to gopherhockeyhistory.com.

Just when it looked like all three Reilly brothers were set to hit the ice as Gophers teammates, disappointment struck. Connor tore his ACL in his right knee when he slipped and fell awkwardly in late September. The injury means he’ll miss the entire 2012-13 season and will have to wait until next year to join his brothers.

The initial diagnosis was a tough pill for Connor to swallow.

“Obviously, the hardest thing was just knowing I wasn’t going to play,” he said. “You grow up dreaming of playing here, wanting to play here, all the preparation, junior hockey, going through high school, all the training. But my chance will come. When it does, I’ll be ready for it.”

Unfortunately, ACL injuries are seemingly more common in sports these days. Minnesota sports fans know this all too well, as local stars such as Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio and Gophers basketball forward Trevor Mbakwe have all torn their ACLs within the last year or so.

Add Connor Reilly to the list.

“He’s been working very hard to get back on the ice this year from his previous surgery, and this is an unfortunate setback for him,” said Gophers coach Don Lucia at the time of Connor’s injury. “I’m confident that he’ll continue to work hard through this process and support the team in any way he can this season.”

Connor won’t be able to skate until early March. By that time, Minnesota will be in the postseason portion of its schedule, but Connor won’t be able to join the team. In the meantime, he’s still hanging around the team at Mariucci Arena and doing what workouts he can in order to prepare for next season.

And even if he’s not playing, Connor still has his brothers close by.

“It was obviously tough,” Mike said of Connor’s injury. “It’s going to be a tough battle for him, but I know if he stays positive, we help him out and support him.”

An eventual reunion

Through 17 games, Mike is the team’s top scoring freshman with 10 points (two goals, eight assists). The defenseman was recently named to the USA preliminary roster for the world junior championships later this year. Ryan, a forward, has played in just five games and has one assist.

Even though Mike and Ryan were a year apart in school, they played together on the same youth hockey teams every other year. Having the chemistry that only brothers possess is something that can’t be taught.

“We’ve been on teams together before. It’s definitely a lot of fun,” said Mike. “We’ve got a pretty good chemistry on the ice. I know Connor’s not playing, but it’s always fun being around them in the locker room and off the ice, too. I’m glad I’m back playing with them.”

Connor, of course, has had to watch his brothers from the stands, as his surgically repaired knee still prevents him from putting on skates. When he does finally put on that maroon and gold Gophers sweater for the first time next season and joins Mike and Ryan, the Reilly brothers will be living out a dream that’s been many years in the making.

“We enjoyed playing together. We always had a great time all the way from squirts to eventually high school,” said Ryan. “Being on the high school team and juniors and now this, it’s just a dream come true. … That’s something not many people get to do, play with your brothers — or brother right now. It’s special.”

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