Rare is it for a 17-year-old to stand out in a leadership role.
But that’s where the Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds’ blueliner Ryan O’Rourke has found himself this year — and it’s a position that he doesn’t allow to overwhelm him, even during his draft year.
“It’s definitely a lot more responsibility, but I kind of just put both of them in the back of my mind,” O’Rourke said. “It’s kind of like last year — I just have to prove myself every game, like it was my rookie year. I just keep plugging away. [Being a captain is] definitely a first for me. Even just seeing that across all three leagues. I don’t think it changed all that much.
“There definitely is a lot more responsibility, but I think I have a good relationship with [Greyhounds coach] John [Dean], and with the whole leadership group.”
For Dean, the combination of O’Rourke’s play and temperament made the decision obvious — despite his young age.
But age was a consideration.
“I think you always think about it,” Dean said. “You don’t take any of these decisions lightly, but I do think he’s made it pretty easy on us. We went through a real rough patch — we weren’t sure if Barret [Hayton] was going to come back from Arizona, we went through a tough month. And over the course of that month, time and time again, he was that consistent player, a consistent personality, and a real example of what we want to be as a group.
“With his character on and off the ice, how he responds to adversity, how he responds to difficult situations under stress — I think that’s big for a captain because you want to follow your leader when those things happen. We’ve had a difficult year, a rocky year, and he’s been one of those guys who has been a strong beacon all year. He’s been pretty consistent and I like the way he’s handled it.”
Dean added that the coaching staff considered the impact that adding the pressure of being a team captain to a highly regarded prospect in his draft-eligible year would bring, but quickly dismissed the concerns.
“He’s a special kid. I wasn’t concerned at all about it,” he said. “I think we’re naive not to think that he doesn’t have some pressures on him and he does think about it. But we’re a pretty open staff — we talk about it. [Associate coach] Jordan Smith, daily is talking to Ryan, as well as other members of our staff. So those conversations go a long way, I believe, to try to take the pressure off him.
“He’s just a special kid. We talk about all these players and there’s a reason he is where he is.”
O’Rourke has been a rock on the Greyhounds’ blueline.
In 53 games played this year, he’s accounted for seven goals and 29 assists for 36 points after finishing his rookie season last year with eight goals and 14 assists in 62 games.
Team success has been a bit more challenging, as the Greyhounds currently find themselves on the outside of the playoffs — three points behind the eighth-place Erie Otters.
“We’ve definitely had ups and downs,” O’Rourke said. “We had a pretty big slump at the start of the year. I think we got out of that, but we’ve had small ones here and there. So I think just dealing with that — I wouldn’t say it’s been challenging, but it definitely has.”
O’Rourke said it’s easy to keep the upcoming draft in perspective, even as the team is fighting for its playoff life.
“I know what I have to do; I know what the team has to do,” O’Rourke added. “So it’s just following those goals and keeping on the right path is the key.”
O’Rourke grew up in Pickering, which is in the heart of Toronto Maple Leafs’ country.
Perhaps surprisingly, though, he wasn’t a die-hard fan of the blue-and-white.
His allegiances, at least for a short while, lied in who he watches.
“I kind of liked the Kings for a while — I like Drew Doughty,” he said, adding that if there’s a player he models his game after, it’s Duncan Keith. “I’m just focusing on myself. I’ll definitely watch a lot of NHL games and follow along, but I have my style and I’ll stick to it.”
His coach added that he loves what he sees out of O’Rourke’s game.
Dean actually suggests his value to the team has hampered his ability to truly show what he can do.
“He’s one of those guys that every time a scout talks to me about him they tell me he just doesn’t make any mistakes, and I think that’s true. I think he can push the envelope just a little bit more,” he said. “I think we’re putting a lot of burden on him by playing him the amount of minutes that we do. So my guess is that has an impact on how much he exerts himself in different offensive situations.
“I think there’s an opportunity for him to grow offensively. I think he’s shown signs of it. I think he’s shown it when he runs our power play. But I think the minutes we give him might withhold him as a 17-year-old.
“I’m looking forward to seeing him grow even more as a defenseman than he already is.”