As a child, Ryan O'Reilly learned that hockey was an inclusive sport.
He had to.
Mom said he had to include everyone when they played. And she meant everyone.
While O'Reilly grew up in the small town of Brucefield, Ont., with his four siblings, his parents, Bonnie and Brian, welcomed foster children into their home. Regardless of their background, they were part of the family and as such were part of hockey around the O'Reilly household.
It's something he appreciates more now, at age 26 and a father himself. He understands the privilege he enjoyed, has grasped the lessons of the extended family his parents created, and embraced the way hockey not only brought all the kids together but helped create a sense of belonging for those who in so many other areas of their lives were on the outside looking in.
"It was difficult at times," O'Reilly said. "Kids had been kicked out of their own homes or kicked out of schools and there were a lot of difficult kids and my parents always worked with them. For us, it was just like a job. It wasn't until I got a bit older that I realized it was more than that. It was so much more than just a job. It was opening your home and learning to live with these kids that are struggling and no one else can get along with. Hockey was one of those things that brought us closer together. It's amazing how the older I get, the more I appreciate it and understand how important it was."
The experience helped shape O'Reilly and is one of the reasons he's excited and honored to be the Buffalo Sabres ambassador for "Hockey Is For Everyone" – a leaguewide initiative throughout February in which the NHL, players, and teams reach out and support diversity in the sport. The Sabres host their "Hockey Is For Everyone" game Tuesday when they play the Anaheim Ducks at 7 p.m. in KeyBank Center.
O'Reilly said that his foster siblings would range in age from grades 6-12 and the family fostered four or five children at a time.
"We were always taking in kids," O'Reilly said. "We always opened our home and always included everyone. Everyone's together. Everyone's a family. It's a special thing to have that. I never really knew how important it was until I got older to see how lucky I was to have the family I have and the health and the privileges that we had and to open our home and share that with people was so cool. I hope I can give my kids that one day, to be able to experience that and get along with everyone that comes from different backgrounds and struggling in certain areas of their life."
While O'Reilly has lived the experience of bringing outsiders into the fold, there are some lessons that can only be reinforced from within.
Just ask Jordan Nolan.
Along with former Sabre Cody McCormick, Nolan recently visited the Seneca Nation Cattaraugus Community Center to meet with some young players and visit their rink. Both Nolan and McCormick grew up in First Nations communities in Canada. Both have been active in First Nations and Native American communities, particularly working with children and young adults.
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) February 3, 2018
Sometimes the positive message of health, wellness, and all the intangibles that go along with hockey are easier to believe when they come from someone who looks like you and has a similar life experience.
"I think it's important for the kids to know that me and Cody made it to the NHL without having much," Nolan said. "We go in and talk about eating healthy and kind of living the right way. It's really just for them to see someone that looks like them that made it to the NHL and came from similar background. Kids can see someone they know, someone they're familiar with, someone to talk with. They can realize whatever they want to do is possible.
"On a lot of First Nations communities, our kids don't leave too often. They don't really see too many big cities, but to have someone come and visit the community that they might see on TV, that's also from a small community, is actually important to them. It probably hit home a little more seeing myself and Cody rather than some of these other guys. They may be bigger hockey stars, but just the fact that I'm from a small First Nations community, it hits home a little more for them."
The Sabres have several activities planned for Tuesday's game to celebrate "Hockey Is For Everyone." The team is partnering with the You Can Play Project which advocates for the inclusion, acceptance and respect of LGBTQ athletes in sports. Players will use pride tape on their sticks during warmups while the Sabres will sell pride T-shirts and hats.
O'Reilly and Zach Bogosian will host groups that align with the event's philosophy including Hasek's Heroes, Buffalo Sabres Thunder Special Hockey Team, SABAH, Seneca Nation Cattaraugus Community Center, Buffalo Beauts, Buffalo Niagara Deaf Events, Gay and Lesbian Youth Services, Pride Center of WNY, Buffalo Sabres Warriors Stand Up and Sled Hockey Teams and The Summit Center.
Amy Heider Julius will perform the national anthem in American Sign Language.
KeyBank Center will also be unveiling sensory kits at guest service stations that will be available the rest of the season. Life is Washable Inc. provided the Friendly Access Sensory Safety Kits to support individuals of all ages with sensory needs including autism, neurological impairment, PTSD and dementia.