Ryan O’Connell’s phone erupted with calls on June 24.
The Penticton Vees rookie defenceman had just been selected by his favourite team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, in the seventh round, 203rd overall in Chicago.
“I was at my buddy’s house, and a few minutes before I was selected, my agent called me. He said, you are going to be a Leaf,” recalled O’Connell. “It was a pretty exciting experience.”
Remembering it like it happened yesterday, O’Connell then got a call from his parents and a ton of other people.
“I couldn’t wait to get home and celebrate the day with my family,” said O’Connell, who played soccer as well as hockey at St. Andrew’s College in Toronto. “It was one of the best feelings in the world. Just the feeling, I can’t even explain it.”
Born and raised in Ottawa, O’Connell, also an Ottawa Senators fan, is humbled to be selected by the Maple Leafs. When asked about cheering for both Ontario teams, O’Connell said he likes them equally and laughed at the suggestion he can’t lose when they play each other.
The draft experience motivated him to work harder and more over the summer. After his selection, O’Connell headed for the Maple Leafs development camp in July, which presented the chance to meet the coaches but also be exposed to the best hockey “I probably played in my life.” Listed at six-foot-two, 170 pounds, the speed of players stood out to him.
“They definitely have qualities I have never seen before,” said O’Connell following Vees practice this week. “They were such good hockey players. I kind of have to adjust and do some things differently.”
O’Connell likens his style to Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly, but he also enjoys how Drew Doughty of the L.A. Kings and Senators captain Erik Karlsson play. O’Connell likes to jump into the play, but also lock down defensively. In 13 B.C. Hockey League games for the Vees, he has seven assists. Committed to Boston University next season, O’Connell said he has had to adjust to the size and physicality of BCHL opponents.
“Last year in high school, hockey was good hockey, but it wasn’t as big and as strong as it is now,” he said.
He likes how competitive the BCHL is and is glad he decided to join the Vees.
“You want it to be more competitive.”
Vees coach-general manager Fred Harbinson said that O’Connell has had some great moments and others where he tries to do too much, but Harbinson added it is not uncommon with young defenceman.
“He’s a defenceman that sees the ice extremely well when the puck is on his stick, can create plays,” said Harbinson. “He does a great job breaking pucks out of our own end. I think he is one of those guys, he is only going to get better and better as the year goes on.”
Harbinson said when looking at some of the young defencemen they have had in the past, that came and by the end of the year were great, he sees that for O’Connell. To Harbinson, O’Connell is ahead of a lot of those guys.
“I’m really excited to see where he is going to be by the end of the year,” said Harbinson.