A couple of years ago a writer who specializes in trade rumors had Terry O'Reilly leaving the Boston Bruins for Washington. Terry O'Reilly. They could trade Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, but if they traded Terry O'Reilly they'd have to relocate North Station, because the fans would have blown up the section that's attached to Boston Garden.
They love O'Reilly in Boston. They have O'Reilly in Philadelphia and Montreal. That's a lot of emotion to surround a hockey player who scored 14 goals this season, but statistics do not tell the whole particularly when they concern O'Reilly.
O'Reilly scored 23 goals his final junior season at Oshawa. Ontario, playing for a ninth-place club in a 10-team league. Yet the Bruins drafted him in the first round - the one Milt Schmidt assessed correctly - and nobody was surprised.
The Bruins are a disciplined team maintaining position on the ice like few other teams. Yet O'Reilly, when the puck is outside the Boston blue line, is free to a roam.
O'Reilly is considered one of the best corner men outside the sport of boxing, a fearless guy who is ready to bump or flight anyone, but whose only knocknouts have resulted from collisions with the boards.
He's a friendly guy, the kind who would find the obscenities of "Slap Shot" an embarrassment. Yet he's so intense that in Philadelphia he turned and drenched a female heckler with Gatorade.
Despite his reputation as a checker, he scored a goal in his first NHL game. And last week, in the 30th minute of overtime, while taking an extra shift for a third teammate, he scored the goal that ended the NHL's longest game in six years.
What kind of a guy is Terry O'Reilly? Few could say better than Jack Lynch, the Washington Capitals' defenseman who was a teammate of O'Reilly at Oshawa, who exchanges winter and summer visits with the Bruin right wing when their paths cross.
It was O'Reilly who introduced Lynch to the girl who is now Mrs. Lynch. O'Reilly, a bachelor, was an usher at the weeding.
"He always played the same way," Lynch recalled. "He didn't get a hell of a lot of goals, but he was a team man. He set an example. He never stopped trying, no matter what the score was. He gave 100 per cent all the time.
"He did a lot of things head first. He was always diving into corners. He wasn't that good a skater - he's improved a lot now - and he spent a lot of time on his hands and knees. He didn't have much natural ability or talent, but he did things with sheer guts.
"He was always going around with cuts, or a swollen lip. He was forever hurt, if it wasn't his head it would be an albow. He was tough, always duking it up with (Steve) Durbano and those guys.
"We were a little surprise, talent-wise, when he was drafted in the first round, but it kind of figured because of his heart. The scouts go for anybody that sacrificed what he sacrified. They figure a guy will improve his skating and his shooting as long as he's got guts."
O'Reilly has improved in those aspects of the game that are subject to self-help. And if he won't back off from a collision he doesn't like that "goon" label folks are likely to pin indiscriminately on physical hockey players these days.
"I'm a hockey player." O'Reilly said. "I'm not a fighter. I'm a hockey player. I come to practice to work on my skating and shooting. you never see me practicing with the punching bag."
Don Cherry, the Bruins' coach, has a lot to say on the subject. It was Cherry who persuaded O'Reilly to get started punching a bit quicker, if he were so inclined, because he was being victimized by sucker punches.
"For a while," Cherry said, "he was such a fair fighter it was sickening. I saw him get elbowed or something by Gerry Hart of the Islanders and Terry dropped his groves and wanted to fight, but Hart was turned the other way. So Terry taps Haart on the shoulder, waits for him to drop his gloves and then the fight beginss."
Of the special permission for O'Reilly to roam, Cherry says, "There are no rules for him. Trying to control Terry O'Reilly would be like trying to control some high-strung race horse.I just let him run."
He ran so well against the Flyers that Philadelphia coach Fred Shero told a CBC audience that "O'Reilly has turned from a goon into a hockey man's hockey player."
Lynch will buy the second half of that statement, but he said. "I never really placed Terry in the goon bracket. He's always played tough and the hammers guys, But he's just intense and that's his style. He can't play the game finesse-wise."
That is not, however to say that the 6-foot-1, 200-pound O'Reilly cannot play it with brains, as well as brawn. He is an excellent chess player and he carries his analytical approach to the hockey rink.
"Hockey is a game where you get into certain situations and make mistakes," O'Reilly said. "But once you realize you've made a mistake, you work to correct it. That's the only you'll keep on improving.
"It's like putting a rat in a maze. He runs around, bumping into walls, until he learns the right way to go. That's the way it is with me. I made my mistakes, but I keep on changing."
An example of O'Reilly's fore-thought is his unique method of post-practice shooting. Most players line pucks alongside them and flail away, but O'Reilly scattes pucks all over the ice.
"I take a bunch of pucks and scatter them," he said. "Then I start shooting them, one after another, in the direction of the net. I'll work on snap shots, slap shots, wrist shots, backhanders. Most guys set the oucks perfectly, but I don't, because that rarely the way you get the puck in a game. I just want to shoot them all as fast as I can from all different directions.
"If people want to call me the most improved player on this club, it doesn't bother me at all. I'm the first to admit that I had farther to go than most players when I came into the league."
His teammates appreciate O'Reilly's value. Stan Jonathan, the little guy who sometimes plays like a miniature O'Reilly, said, "Terry hits somebody and right away it gets all the guys into the game. He and Greg (Sheppard) are two of the best checkers in the league, and they work so hard to get the puck to you."
In Boston, though, it's the fans who have the last word on a player's performance.
"You can't fool the fans," said general manager Harry Sinden. "That's whu they think so much of this kid. They know the gives everything he has every second on the ice. They know he came up here with zero potential and he has become a helluva hockey player."
When O'Reilly first turned pro in 1971 with the unlamented Boston Braves of the American League, his skeptical teammates dubbed him "Mack Truck" and slipped a pair of double runners into his equipment bag. The Braves are gone and so are most of the teammates, but O'Reilly is practically a Boston institution. if Boston beats Montreal, he might even win the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded to the most valuable player in the playoffs. What a difference hard work makes.