Ryan O’Reilly and The Hillside Song


Recently Denver Post writer Mike Chambers wrote an article about his summer vacations and musical interests. He tied it into sports with the observation that he and former Colorado Avalanche center Ryan O’Reilly share a favorite band, My Morning Jacket. O’Reilly tweeted about a song a few weeks ago called “The Hillside Song” by My Morning Jacket. According to Chambers, O’Reilly tweeted “like it was his anthem, his heart.”

Unfortunately, Ryan O’Reilly appears to have taken down his Twitter after his recent legal troubles, so I can’t confirm anything about his tweet. However, Chambers does pose an interesting question — was Ryan O’Reilly self-identifying with this song vis-à-vis his relationship with the Colorado Avalanche? (Actually, Chambers’ question is “Was Ryan O’Reilly telling the Avalanche goodbye through an alternative rock song?” but the sentiment is the same.)

Unfortunately, Chambers didn’t pursue the matter any farther than publishing the lyrics and advising, “Reading the lyrics might not be enough. Listen to the song.”

It’s intriguing to think O’Reilly is just like the rest of us, self-identifying with a song as he’s struggling with a difficult decision. So, let’s look at how the song actually could apply to Ryan O’Reilly’s situation. (Special thanks to Mike Chambers for coming up with the idea — I’ve never even heard of the band, much less the song.)

Ryan O’Reilly and the Beginning

Center Ryan O’Reilly was drafted by the Colorado Avalanche 33rd overall in 2009. He and fellow center Matt Duchene made the team that first year as 18-year-olds. That is awful young to be playing in an adult’s league. But it was seen that at least the two had each other.

Looking at the lyrics to “The Hillside Song,” there’s a stanza that jumps out at me concerning youth:

"Rollin’ down the hillside just playin’ like two kidsIn this grown up world, you’re all I understoodAt the top of the hillside we were standin’ on"

At first blush, the connection to O’Reilly is obvious — he was still a kid of sorts when he became a Colorado Avalanche. He was, indeed, a youngster in a “grown up world.”

Dec 5, 2013; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Colorado Avalanche forward Ryan O’Reilly (90) skates against the Edmonton Oilers at Rexall Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Naturally, this song seems to be directed at a lover, possibly a childhood sweetheart. That connection isn’t going to work here. However, “playin’ like two kids” is exactly what O’Reilly and Duchene did when they came into the NHL together. Not all 18-year-old rookies have that kind of connection — Nathan MacKinnon came to the Avalanche as the lone teenager on a team where the next youngest player was the captain, Gabriel Landeskog (then 20 years old). Landeskog actually was equally alone his rookie year as an 18-year-old. That seeming bond between O’Reilly and Duchene has always seemed special.

The third line in this stanza can also be seen to refer to the duo. The song may pose “the hillside” as an actual concrete landscape. However, O’Reilly and Duchene were two kids who made it to the top of their world together — inclusion in the top league of their lifelong sport.

The second line, “In this grown up world, you’re all I understood” seems to be all about the team, though. Prior to this summer, the Colorado Avalanche are the only NHL team Ryan O’Reilly knew. Frankly, they’re still the only NHL team the 24-year-old knows considering he hasn’t actually suited up with the Buffalo Sabres even for practice. While O’Reilly has played hockey his entire life for many different teams, including Team Canada at IIHF Worlds, the Avs are the team that taught him how to be a professional.

Colorado Avalanche and Ryan O’Reilly

Ryan O’Reilly didn’t just make the Colorado Avalanche team. He became an integral aspect of the core. Both Avalanche GM Joe Sakic and head coach Patrick Roy called O’Reilly part of the central core of young players. They intended to build the team in part around him.

The middle stanza of the song definitely relates to O’Reilly career with the team:

"You in the moonlight and me in the darkNight after night, we did always have that sparkWhat about the music we made so strong?"

Again, the connection seems obvious. O’Reilly and the Avalanche worked together to create a “spark” — Ryan O’Reilly was in the top six of forwards. The “music” the two made was, indeed, strong.

The first line of that stanza is interesting in that it’s dark — literally. “You in the moonlight, and me in the dark.” This could relate back to Duchene again — Matt Duchene has ever been in the spotlight. He even served as the “structure” that dictated the Avalanche wouldn’t pay O’Reilly what another team was willing to pay because Duchene wasn’t commanding that much.

In that case, the other two lines could be addressed to Duchene as well. In the 2013-14 “Why Not Us?” season, the pairing of O’Reilly and Duchene proved to be the strongest on the team.

Ryan O’Reilly Contract

Ryan O’Reilly’s contractual difficulties with the Colorado Avalanche are well-documented. The team allowed him to get to restricted free agent status at the conclusion of his entry level contract. This is common, but it left the team open to the Calgary Flames’ machinations — they made him an offer-sheet that Colorado ended up having to match. O’Reilly sat out part a season until Colorado matched it. The team then took him to salary arbitration for the next contract, signing him at the 11th hour.

The lyric that relates to this situation is pretty clear:

"When times were difficult, what was I runnin’ from?"

Every person has their own set of values. Yes, it appears Ryan O’Reilly chose to chase the money. However, after signing with the Buffalo Sabres, he made comments about the “leadership role” he’d be able to take with the team. Few people in Avs Nation considered O’Reilly for much of a leadership role with the Colorado Avalanche. Part of the problem stemmed from his contractual disputes. But he also just got overshadowed by brighter stars such as Landeskog and Duchene — and even MacKinnon and defenseman Erik Johnson.

In that regard, it’s pretty obvious what O’Reilly “was runnin’ from” — the box into which he’d been put as a Colorado Avalanche.

Ryan O’Reilly’s Goodbye

In the end, let’s return to Mike Chambers’ question — could Ryan O’Reilly have been using the song as a good-bye to the Colorado Avalanche?

I doubt he was deliberately doing so. And I certainly doubt that he gave it the deep analysis that I did in relation to his former team and fellow draftee.

However, the first three lines of the song could very well have been resonating with him in that time when he probably knew he wasn’t going to start the 2015-16 season as a Colorado Avalanche:

"I wanna tell you I need you but that sounds so clichéThe grass is always greener on the other side anywayWhy do I value our time now that it’s done"

Those three lines have “coming of age” written all over them. The events of this summer showed that O’Reilly did not, in fact, need the Colorado Avalanche. He got traded to a team that’s closer to his hometown. Said team offered him the type of contract he wanted. He’s also been tapped for a leadership role. It turned out that the grass was, in fact, greener on the other side. Ryan O’Reilly is all grown up.

He might feel just a touch of melancholy for his onetime team, though. He had a lot of good times here. He was always well-liked by the fan base and seemingly by the media as well. He made a nice seasonal home for himself here in Colorado. I’m sure the friendships he made with Avalanche players will endure long past his time of becoming a Buffalo Sabre. So maybe, just maybe, he looks back on his time with this team with fondness “now that it’s done.”

I like to think so anyway.

“The Hillside Song” by My Morning Jacket:

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