Red Wings prospect Riley Sheahan has come to realize that he has been given the chance to do something that very few are able to achieve.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Life is what you make it.
Growing up, Riley Sheahan and his older sister Karli were encouraged to participate in sports by their parents, Mike and Peggy, who were both physical education teachers in St. Catharines, Ontario.
“We always had access to gyms when we were young,” Sheahan recalled. “At times, I was more into basketball than hockey because both my parents were basketball coaches. My mom even played basketball at a Canadian university.”
As the family was living north of the 49th parallel, however, it was almost inevitable that Sheahan would eventually gravitate toward hockey. “Most of my friends were playing hockey and I eventually realized that I was better at hockey than I was at basketball.”
While his sister turned her sights on rowing (she earned a scholarship to the University of Texas), Sheahan focused on hockey, eventually playing Junior B hockey in his hometown and earning the attention of the University of Notre Dame.
Although he visited Boston College, Sheahan admits there wasn’t much debate about where he was headed. Coming from an Irish family, Notre Dame seemed a natural fit.
In fact, he is the second cousin of defenseman Brock Sheahan, who had starred in South Bend two years before his arrival on campus.
“My official visit was unbelievable,” he recalled. “I got to see the Michigan-Notre Dame football game, which the Irish won, and it was crazy with the whole place going nuts.
“I liked the idea of coming to a prestigious school with a beautiful campus and buildings, and playing hockey for a good group of coaches. At Notre Dame, I felt I could be in an environment with other kids my own age and learn how to manage my time and how to live on my own.
“Sometimes the school part was demanding and got a little frustrating. There weren’t many classes you could blow off, but I was lucky to share my time there with a great group of guys.”
During his sophomore season, the Irish advanced to the Frozen Four – college hockey’s version of basketball’s Final Four – and although the team lost to eventual champion Minnesota-Duluth, Sheahan said it was something he’ll never forget.
“We had 12 freshmen in our lineup, so we weren’t even supposed to be that great, but we had a really close team, which made it even better. It was like we came out of nowhere.”
Sheahan brought size (6-foot-2, 212 pounds), speed and skill to the Irish lineup, appearing in 114 games over three seasons before he decided to forego his senior year to sign with the Red Wings.
Detroit had selected Sheahan in the first round (21st overall) of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft that was held in Los Angeles, where he had flown with his family.
“It was crazy because it was something I never expected to happen,” he said. “I remember sitting there with my agent and he looked at me right before the Wings’ pick and told me to fix my tie.
“I got a little nervous and as soon as they called my name, I almost blacked out. I got all dizzy and felt like I didn’t know what was going on. As I was walking up to the stage, so many things were going through my head.
“It was awesome that my family was there to share it with me because they deserved it just as much as I did because they were so supportive over the years.”
Sheahan played seven games in Grand Rapids last season after signing an amateur tryout contract with the Griffins. He signed with the Red Wings last April and saw his first NHL action in the Wings' regular-season finale on April 7 against Chicago.
“Everything happened so fast, I didn’t have much time to sit there and think about it,” he recalled. “But stepping onto the ice and seeing all the fans was just crazy. I was a little shell-shocked at first, but once you get into the game, you realize you’re there for a reason.”
His first shift in the NHL was a bit inglorious.
“I gave up the puck and I was backchecking, and when I went to lift his stick, I missed,” he recalled. “I got the guy right in the mouth and got a four-minute penalty for high-sticking. It wasn’t the start that I had pictured, but at least I got my name on the scoresheet.”
Sheahan arrived in Grand Rapids this fall with the intention of becoming more of an offensive force. He had earned his reputation in college as being a model two-way player.
“Coming out of college, I wanted to focus on being a little more dynamic, a little more offensive-minded,” he said. “In college, I was viewed more as a shutdown type of player, but I think I have the skills and awareness to be a scorer.”
He got off to a slow start this season, tallying one lone assist in his first six games. Nobody was talking about him; that is, until the night of Oct. 29, when he was arrested and charged with DUI.
“I realize that I was lucky because the consequences could have been a lot worse,” he said, acknowledging that he could have hurt not only himself but others. “It was a really bad decision.
“The toughest part was telling my parents and forcing the ones who are closest to me to go through all that,” he said. “Telling the team was tough, too.”
Sheahan was grateful for the support shown by the Red Wings and Griffins organizations after he felt he had tarnished their reputations.
“(Red Wings assistant general manager) Jim Nill said, ‘We don’t want to help you as a hockey player right now; we’re just concerned for you as a person.’ That meant so much coming from an organization that has had so many talented players over the years. It just shows their class, that they cared more about getting me back on track.”
His Griffins teammates rallied behind him as well. “Coming to the rink every day was easier because the guys wouldn’t ask about it. They knew I had screwed up and they knew I wanted to put it behind me and move forward.”
Sheahan started meeting with counselors and not only resolved to be a teetotaler but also to refocus himself on the ice in an effort to distance himself from the distractions.
He would never characterize his arrest as a blessing in disguise, but the incident helped make him aware of all that he could lose.
“It was a wakeup call. It made me realize that I have an opportunity that a lot of other people will never experience. A lot of people only can wish that they would get this chance.”
Sheahan re-dedicated himself to his play, and his efforts have been rewarded. He had 20 points (8 goals, 12 assists) in 22 games during the months of January and February.
“I think I’ve started to show that I can be a scorer, but I think there’s still another level that I can get to,” he said.
He feels fortunate that he is surrounded by a cast of character players who will help show him the way going forward. “It’s easy to come to the rink when you know you have that kind of support.”
Someday, Sheahan hopes he can return the favor, not only with his teammates on the ice but also with the general public away from the rink as well. He took the first step by approaching the Griffins’ community relations department to express his genuine desire to become a more active participant in the team’s outreach efforts.
Over the last few months, in addition to numerous full-team functions, Sheahan has visited patients at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital and Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, while also attending a youth hockey practice and a pair of kids parties hosted by the team. Sheahan was also among the top fundraisers for January’s Great Skate, raising $465 in pledges for the Griffins Youth Foundation to rank sixth among his teammates.
And while he’s taking everything day by day, he’s looking forward to the opportunity to assist others in choosing a different path. “Maybe someday I can help educate other kids so they don’t make the same mistake I did,” he said. “It’s not worth it.”