Heading into his 17th season of professional hockey, Cal O’Reilly is going back to where it all started.
On July 1, O’Reilly and his family decided to rejoin the Nashville Predators organization, signing a one-year, one-way deal with the team’s AHL affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals. The 36-year-old forward spent his first season as a pro with the Admirals after being drafted 150th overall in the 2005 NHL Draft by Nashville.
“I don’t know how many years I have left until I can’t play or don’t enjoy it anymore,” he told Nashville Hockey Now. “But just to come back to where I started my career and how beneficial Milwaukee and Nashville were to develop me and become a player. It’s exciting to come back into that and as an older guy help in any way I can.”
O’Reilly’s wife Terra and their three kids — Camden, Calla and Findlay — are now along for the ride this time after 12 years away from the organization.
Cal’s younger brother Ryan also had interest from the Predators, and they both signed with Nashville at the start of free agency.
“I was obviously very excited and I was glad we could get something done and come back and join my brother in the organization,” Cal said. “I always tell people how much I love the city of Milwaukee and the fans and the organization and how they run things. I’m super excited to come back now with three kids and my wife to bring them there and let them see and experience Milwaukee.”
The O’Reilly siblings spoke the day free agency began, and it was Ryan who told his older brother that he planned on signing with the Predators. Patrick Morris, the agent for both brothers, set it all up and from there, Cal knew he couldn’t say no.
There will be some familiar faces for Cal as he returns to the organization like general manager Barry Trotz, who was Cal’s former coach, plus a few former teammates including Scott Nichol, who’s now the Predators assistant general manager, and Scott Ford, who’s now an Admirals assistant coach.
Nichol used to see Cal during the offseason in years past as a free agent, urging him at times to come back to the organization.
“He’s explained how they do things,” Cal said of Nichol. “But I didn’t have much conversation this offseason until I signed and we had a conversation with him.”
While Cal will be in Milwaukee, Ryan is expected to play a top-six role for the Predators next season — a role Cal knows he’s equipped for because of the surplus of tools on his belt.
“He’s just so mentally tough, he can block everything out and do it,” Cal said. “By doing that he can just perform and he’s very competitive and wants to win. I have many good stories about him when we were younger and he’d start chucking sticks at us and anything he could find if he ever lost. He just works so hard on and off the ice — they’ll see quickly how he takes care of himself and rub off on guys on their team and it will only help out.”
Cal believes that Ryan will fit right in with the new-look Predators and head coach Andrew Brunette. He says his brother plays the kind of 200-foot game that the team likes while making plays and being responsible with the puck.
“He can lead with just the way he plays,” Cal said. “He fits in so well and I know I played for Trotz and I was in the organization for a long time so I know what they’re about and I think he’ll fit just right in.”
What his former teammates are saying:
Rich Peverley (2006-2008)
Now the director of player personnel with the Dallas Stars, Peverley is still in the NHL handling professional and amateur scouting as well as player development.
Back during Peverley’s first season in Milwaukee, he met Cal during the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs.
“He came in and got to learn from all of us and you know he was a really good kid at the time. He worked hard and went about things the right way,” Peverley said.
In Peverley’s eyes, Cal has incredible vision and elite patience with the puck, stating he was always a player in the right spot at all time. Peverley believes Cal was always one step ahead of the competition when he’s on the ice.
“He’s not afraid to say things,” Peverley said. “He’s a good person and does the right things away from the rink and those are the characteristics you want in a player to be around your younger players and I think Cal is going to continue to do that.”
Peverley says that both O’Reilly brothers know when to speak up and they lead by how they play.
“Cal has had a fantastic career and has played all over the place,” Peverley said. “That can be a good learning tool for younger players. Two older players (Cal and Ryan) who are going to help bring a long the youth in the organization. They’re both fantastic fits.”
Nolan Yonkman (2006-2010)
Most recently, the former defenseman was an assistant coach with the Iowa Wild in the AHL, but he and the organization decided to part ways. Yonkman was the captain of the Admirals when Cal joined in 2006.
“You could see the potential in his game,” he said. “His vision on the ice for such a young player was impressive. That only allowed him to extend his career in the AHL all the way up until now. I’m happy for him but it was a pleasure to be part of his first season and still stay in touch with him.”
The duo also had battles when Yonkman was a member of the Adirondack Flames and Cal was on the Utica Comets during the 2014-15 season. To Yonkman, Cal’s leadership qualities emerged early on in Milwaukee.
“He has the ability to change the game,” Yonkman said. “I think he’s a guy that leads by example because he has the ability to shift the game. He can show the young guys good habits on and off the ice and what it takes to take and turn a team — that’s what makes a captain.
“A true test to a captain is when you have adversity and I think Cal can have that dynamic of showing the younger players how to get out of a funk or get back to basics or get back to the identity of the team.”
Kelsey Wilson (2006-2010)
Signed to the Predators as an undrafted free-agent Wilson was Cal’s first roommate playing with the Admirals. The pair lived in the same apartment for one season in Milwaukee.
Wilson shared more in-depth what the forward was like back in their early 20s.
“The guy is always in the gym,” Wilson said. “He’s not a big guy but he’s always in the gym on bike or doing something extra. Whatever his body needs and he always led by example.”
Cal was said to be a dynamic player and perhaps a jokester at time too.
After a road trip during the regular season in 2006, Wilson wanted to call Cal to make plans once he was back in town, however, it wasn’t his teammate he called.
“Somebody went into my phone and changed his name to call our coach Claude Noel,” Wilson said. “I don’t know if you remember Talladega Nights but I’m on the phone saying ‘Cal we gotta shake and bake buddy we gotta go now the bars are closing soon.’”
Noel knew it was a joke once he heard that on the opposite end of the line and just told Wilson to have a good night and be safe.
To this day Wilson isn’t sure if it was Cal who changed the number or not to call his coach.
Hugh Jessiman (2008 -2010)
One of three linemates with the other two being Cal & now retired forward Patric Hornqvist.
“Cal was the centerpiece of our team and I learned that pretty quickly when I was traded to Milwaukee,” Jessiman said.
Jessiman recalled that former head coach Lane Lambert told him to keep his stick on the ice and get open.
“That was pretty good advice because Cal could put the puck on your stick when you didn’t think it was coming that way,” Jessiman said. “That was something I hadn’t experienced yet in my pro career.
“I played with a lot of good guys but he was just the best passer by far and the best playmaker. A total team guy but was quiet in the locker room but was fiercely competitive. He played hard every game and was fun to learn from.”
When Jessiman saw that Cal had re-signed in Milwaukee he was proud to see his former teammate was still playing but more importantly, was going back to where it started for him.
“He’s had a heck of a career and also to be in the same organization in training camp with his brother, I’m sure that’s going to be special for him. I’ll be watching and I’m pumped for him.”
Jason Guerriero (2006-2008)
Currently, an assistant coach at Northeastern University Guerriero recalled seeing Cal as a young player trying to make his mark in professional hockey.
“We got on the ice and I was just like ‘Oh my god this kid is so talented’ he had unreal hockey sense and I was amazed,” Guerriero said. “I knew at some point this kid was going to play in the NHL. He has so much talent and he saw the game completely different.”
Even though Cal was one of the younger skaters at the time his personality and tendencies rubbed off on his teammates.
“Even though he was younger than me I looked up to him,” Guerriero said. “I knew he would would make it. I looked at what he was doing and was wondering what I needed to do.”
Guerriero was complementary of Cal’s playmaking ability on the ice too.
“He was so good at setting up the next play,” Guerriero said. “In my mind, he’s one of those guys that saw the game at a high level. I was just amazed how at times when he had the puck and you thought he may not make a play but he ends up making it every time.”