In these slower news days of the Avalanche off-season, I thought a good way to pass the time for Avs content might be a few excerpts from my 2016 book, “100 Things Avalanche Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die.”
In this excerpt, Chapter 50, we revisit the tumultuous last year of Ryan O’Reilly’s time with the Avalanche.
The NHL lockout of 2012–13 was a drag for everyone who loves hockey. Seven years after the NHL had become the first pro sports league in history to cancel a full season because of labor issues, there we were again in 2012, with another season hanging in the balance.
By January 1 there was still no hockey, and the headlines weren’t optimistic. The owners and players were fighting over the slice of hockey-revenue pie again, and if they could cancel a season once, why not again? By January 6, though, it was over. That happened to be my birthday, and I got a nice present by breaking the news that the NHL lockout was over on Twitter. Quick story: I covered the Nuggets that night. Hey, they had to have me do something, right? When I got home from the game at about 11:30, I noticed the NHL movers and shakers were still meeting in New York.
Earlier that day, I actually thought I had a pretty good scoop already, posting a story that there was some real “traction” between the parties again. I was hearing they were getting closer to a deal, but nobody had any idea when it would end Instead of going to bed after the Nuggets game, I vowed to stay up the rest of the night and try to get the story. Even though dozens of hockey reporters were in New York, just outside the room where talks were ongoing, I felt I had enough good sources to work the
story on my cell phone.
So I started texting people. I knew a few players on the NHLPA bargaining committee, and I knew some people on the NHL side. At approximately 2:45 am, I got a text from a player telling me a deal was done. My first instinct was to post the news on Twitter right away. But what if he had gotten bad information? If I got the story wrong because of that, I would be the scourge of everyone in the hockey world, not to mention my bosses.
I needed another source. So I texted someone I knew at the NHL. My exact, verbatim text was: “[Person’s name], I have heard from the other side that a deal has been agreed to in principle. If so, would you give me the honor of a yes?” After 15 long minutes, when I was almost ready to give up, the text came back: “Yes.”
This was a golden source, so I was ready to go with it. As fast as my fingers would go, I typed the news on Twitter. The lockout was over, per the Denver Post. I must have gotten about 3,000 retweets and as many or more new followers. (Did I get any extra thanks, or anything else tangible from the Denver Post as a result of this? Ha ha, lol, no. I got zero commendations from anyone in management at the paper, not even from my own sports editor, Scott Monserud, which goes to show you just how much he cared about hockey and just how dissatisfied I had become working for him and at the paper as a whole by then. Here was a reporter going above the call of duty to land a national scoop on a major sport, and to this day I’m not sure anyone in management even noticed).
Still, It was a nice birthday present. Right after that, though, it was back to the reporting grindstone, with another unpleasant story: Ryan O’Reilly, the team’s leading scorer the year before, was still at loggerheads with Avs management over a new contract. O’Reilly had been playing in Russia to pass the time during the lockout, still without a new deal with Colorado. Most people assumed feelings might soften between the sides once the feel-good lockout-is-over story broke, but it wasn’t the case.
The sides remained far apart on a new deal. The Avs gave O’Reilly two options: take a five-year, $17 million contract or a two-year, $7 million deal. Either way, Avs management was resolved not to give O’Reilly any more money on average per year than the $3.5 million Matt Duchene was already making.
Most people were on the Avs’ side. O’Reilly had been making $900,000 a year on his previous deal. Wouldn’t the Avs’ lowest offer of a prorated $3.5 million be a nice raise? But no, O’Reilly and his agent, Pat Morris, held firm to an asking price of at least $4 million. Not only was O’Reilly the team’s leading scorer, Morris argued, but he led the NHL in steals and was considered a top faceoff guy. He did more of the little things at the defensive end than a guy like Duchene, he argued, and should be compensated in fair market terms.
There is no way O’Reilly would have played for the Avs in 2012–13 if not for one man: Jay Feaster. A former GM of the Avalanche’s former AHL farm team, the Hershey Bears—and now GM of the Calgary Flames—Feaster shocked the hockey world on February 27, 2013, with a two-year, $10 million offer sheet for O’Reilly. The deal was structured to have a base salary of $6.5 million in 2013–14, which meant that would have to be the Avs’ qualifying offer to retain him the following year.
The Avs were caught blindsided by the offer, but they were forced to accept Feaster’s fiendish terms in the end. The Avs could have accepted draft picks and let O’Reilly go, but management decided to swallow hard and match the offer. The O’Reilly saga essentially overshadowed everything about the 48-game lockout season, and despite denials to the contrary, it created a rift in the Avalanche dressing room.
Not surprisingly, Duchene’s relationship with O’Reilly was never the same. Duchene had taken a hometown discount on his previous deal, but here was O’Reilly holding up the team after one leading-scoring season on a bad team. Outwardly, the two tolerated each other, but behind the scenes there were bad words about each other from the allies in each camp. O’Reilly’s group thought Duchene naïve for taking a short-money deal, while the Duchene group thought O’Reilly selfish.
After the 2014–15 season, in which O’Reilly was mostly mediocre, his relationship with the Avs came to an end. He was traded to the Buffalo Sabres in a blockbuster deal. O’Reilly immediately signed a seven-year, $52.5 million contract, the richest in Buffalo history.
A lot of people in Denver grew to dislike O’Reilly over the money stuff, but let’s face it: wouldn’t we all want an agent like Pat Morris?
(Postscript: O’Reilly, as we would later come to know, was worth the money. He went on to win a Conn Smythe Trophy and a Stanley Cup with the St. Louis Blues. Duchene is still looking for his first trip past the second round of the playoffs, as a player).