Reilly Walsh’s journey from Concord Youth Hockey to the 81st pick in the NHL draft

  • Reilly Walsh competed with other New Jersey Devils prospects at the team’s development camp in July. Courtesy

  • Reilly Walsh, a native of Andover, was selected by the New Jersey Devils in the third round with the 81st pick of the NHL Entry Draft in June. He’ll be a freshman at Harvard this fall. Courtesy

  • Before Reilly Walsh played at Proctor Academy, he cut his teeth at Everett Arena with the Concord Youth Hockey program. Courtesy

  • Before Reilly Walsh played at Proctor Academy, he cut his teeth at Everett Arena with the Concord Youth Hockey program. Courtesy

  • Reilly Walsh carries the puck up the ice in a game with the Chicago Steel of the USHL. Walsh was a defenseman for the Steel for 24 games while finishing his senior year at Proctor Academy. Chicago Steel / Courtesy

  • Reilly Walsh was a defenseman for the USHL’s Chicago Steel for 24 games while finishing his senior year at Proctor Academy. Chicago Steel / Courtesy

  • Reilly Walsh was a defenseman for the USHL’s Chicago Steel for 24 games while finishing his senior year at Proctor Academy. Chicago Steel / Courtesy

  • TOP: Reilly Walsh attended Proctor Academy in Andover while playing under his father, Head Coach Mike Walsh. He was drafted by the New Jersey Devils in June and will be a freshman at Harvard this fall. Courtesy photos

Monitor staff
Published: 8/20/2017 12:48:02 AM

Most on the Proctor Academy campus were still asleep as Reilly Walsh made his way to the rink.

Those mornings were early. Walsh, just a kid in those days, rose about 5:30 a.m. – enough time to get his legs loose and carve through the rink before heading to Andover Elementary for school.

He returned in the afternoons when his school day was over and before the Proctor boys’ varsity hockey team took the ice for practice. Even if it was just 30 minutes of ice time, he never turned it down.

“The Ted,” named after Proctor alumnus Teddy Malone who died at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, sits on the northwest side of the school’s 2,500 acres in Andover. It’s where Walsh, under the tutelage of his father, former New York Islander and Proctor varsity Coach Mike Walsh, tuned his skating and stick skills year after year.

When he outgrew the Kearsarge youth hockey program, Mike took Reilly down to Concord. Reilly continued to develop his hockey acumen and physical skill set at Everett Arena before moving on to other programs until he reached high school age and returned to The Ted, his home rink.

Four years playing for his father at Proctor ended with a Lakes Region Championship – the Hornet’s first title since 2008. Reilly’s high school career was dotted with stints in the USHL, the nation’s top junior league, and with USA Hockey.

He was recruited by several Division I college programs and will begin his freshman year at Harvard this fall. In June, Reilly was chosen by the New Jersey Devils in the third round of the NHL Entry Draft. He was the 81st overall pick and the fifth defenseman from the U.S. to be selected.

Reilly, listed by Elite Prospects as 6-foot-nothing and 185 pounds, is used to being told that he’s “undersized,” but it isn’t by very much. The average NHL defenseman is 6-foot-1 and about 200 pounds. Reilly will continue to fill out his frame in college, but he tries to model his game after Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators and Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson, who Reilly considers to be the top defenseman in the league.

Like any hockey nut, Reilly dreamed of playing in the NHL. The Devils are invested in him. Harvard is invested in helping him get there. Years of hard work and early mornings have led Reilly to this point, but greater challenges await him in the ECAC and possibly beyond.

‘It wasn’t even close’

The phone rang and Dave Tillotson answered. It was 2005 and Mike Walsh was calling about his son, Reilly.

Dave knew Mike like most parents and coaches in the local hockey community know each other. Their sons were close in age and shared a passion for the game. Reilly was tearing through the Kearsarge Youth Hockey program as mite – the league for players 8 years old and younger. Mike wanted to know if 6-year-old Reilly could try out for Concord’s squirt program for players age 9 to 10.

Reilly could play with the older kids only if he proved to be one of the top five skaters in the program, per Concord’s rules. It didn’t take long at the tryout for Reilly to make it clear to Tillotson and the other coaches that he was ready for the next level.

“It wasn’t even close. He was by far one of the best skaters on the ice among all the squirts,” Tillotson told the Monitor last week. “His skating and skills were far superior to a lot of the squirt kids. It’s hard for me to say that but it’s true. … You could just tell he loved the game.”

His love for the game and winning was almost too much at that age. Youth hockey coaches have two goals in mind when working with young kids, especially those whose age hasn’t reached double digits: teach the game and have fun.

But when Reilly’s team lost a game or a scrimmage, he took it hard. If he was on the ice for a goal against his team, he’d skate back to the bench with tears of anger and frustration. He was 6 years old and winning already meant everything.

“It was to a point where I was a sore loser,” Reilly said. “I really hated losing at anything. I think I was just born with it. Any sport, not just hockey, I always had to win. I always tried my hardest to win, and when I didn’t win it showed that I didn’t like that.”

Reilly was not the first and surely will not be the last young player to take winning and losing to heart. That’s where coaching comes in. Tillotson tried to teach Reilly to put the anger aside and focus on enjoying the game.

“He was a tough little kid to coach because he was so competitive,” Tillotson said. Being scored against, “it aggravated him. It got to him that much. But he was a fun kid to coach, too, because 97 percent of the time he was happy-go-lucky, wanted to be out there the next shift. Reilly was a different breed from the get-go.

“At that age, you certainly want to coach the kids and help them improve but most importantly you want to make it fun so they continue. Reilly always had fun, maybe a little too much fun sometimes. He’d jab the other kids, I mean he was a foot smaller than most of them. But he loved the game and you could tell early on.”

The ‘wow’ factor

Reilly played in Concord for four seasons and bounced to a couple of other youth programs through middle school. He spent his eighth-grade year at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan and enrolled at Proctor as a freshman.

When he was a little kid, Reilly saw his father’s players on the varsity team as giants. He looked up to them, especially the individual players who would give him their attention and talk shop.

“I grew up on campus so I saw some of the teams that were successful and other teams that weren’t so successful,” Reilly said. “I wanted to be part of a successful team. From then on I had goals and I knew my time would come eventually to play for Proctor.”

That time came in 2013. Reilly recorded 27 points with 20 assists and seven goals as a freshman on the blue line. He came back as a sophomore and posted 45 points while nearly doubling his goal output to 13 over 35 games.

Reilly missed a handful of games his junior year at Proctor as he ventured into junior hockey with the USHL’s Tri-City Storm for a pair of games. He scored a goal and had one assist. In the same year, Reilly tried out for the U.S. National U17 team and had six points in nine games.

Despite the taxing schedule, Reilly still managed to contribute 40 points (14 goals, 26 assists) in 26 games for Proctor.

“He was always fun to watch even at the prep school level,” Tillotson said. “He was significantly more skilled than some of the kids. He stood out at certain times during the game where you would just say ‘Wow.’ ”

His numbers through three years at Proctor were among the best for a defenseman in New Hampshire prep hockey.

But Reilly saved the best for last.

Reilly was the centerpiece of the Proctor’s Lakes Region Championship team during his senior year. He averaged a goal per game and finished with 69 points over 30 games.

Among those in the crowd for at least a few of Reilly’s high school games was Devils General Manager Ray Shero, whose son Kyle is a year older than Reilly and played at Kimball Union Academy.

Reilly caught plenty of attention heading into the draft. Scouts noted his size, but his skating ability seemed to make up for it.

“Possibly the best Eastern Prep school prospect in the class,” Bill Placzek wrote on DraftSite.com. “He is a bit undersized, but no one can deny his superb skating and offensive talent ... Has great pace to his game, and can get up ice in transition and put the puck right in front of his teammates, ripe for picking. At this juncture, he doesn’t have the size to handle his own end with dominance, but makes up for that with a strong work ethic, and on-ice smarts.

Next stop: Cambridge

Two stretches back in the USHL with the Chicago Steel were bookends to Reilly’s senior season at Proctor. In all, he played 24 games with the Steel and posted 10 points.

Many players will commit at least one whole season to playing juniors to give them the most visibility to college coaches and pro scouts. Reilly got the best of both, and returning to Andover for his senior year was important.

“I was pretty fixed on playing for Proctor my senior year,” he said. “Once I started the first couple of years, I knew I wanted to finish.”

Playing away from home and away from his father was different but necessary as Reilly prepared to play in college.

“The most important thing I learned (in the USHL) was just being a mature person,” he said. “That comes with playing like a pro – going to practice every day and not just treating it like it’s another practice. Because if you don’t play well, you’re not going to play in the game. At school, I knew I was going to play a lot in every game no matter what.”

Reilly will join a Harvard team that enjoyed a spike in program success in the last three years. The Crimson were Beanpot champions last season, their first since 1993. They went on to make their third straight appearance in the NCAA tournament and qualified for their first Frozen Four since 1994.

Reilly hopes to contribute right away as the team chases an NCAA championship. Their last and only national title came in 1989.

When Reilly was a little kid, he was one of a few rising early in the morning to get on the ice before school. At this level, everyone is up early and everyone is trying to be the best.

It’s a higher level and a new challenge. Reilly says he’s ready for it.

“I have a lot of work to do not just in making the jump to college but hopefully make the jump to be a professional, too,” he said. “Right now my goal is to go into Harvard and contribute and help them win each night.”

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3339, nstoico@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickStoico.)




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