If your last name is O’Neill, isn’t it only appropriate that you make your professional debut on St. Patrick’s Day?
After signing a one-year contract with the LA Kings a few days prior, that’s exactly what Brian O’Neill did this past Saturday for the Manchester Monarchs. Adding an exclamation point to the evening, he also scored the game winning goal in a 3-1 victory.
Jumping right into the mix and finding some early success is perhaps an extension of what the 5-foot-8 forward did throughout his college hockey career. Over the last three seasons he’s been remarkably consistent, scoring 45, 46 and 46 points.
“One of the things about maturing is giving a consistent effort night in and night out,” O’Neill said during a recent interview for MayorsManor. “I know that’s going to be tougher at the pro level. But, at Yale, we stuck to a routine and that was ingrained into our system. So, that helped a lot of our players.”
Even though he’s turned pro, he’s still finishing up his studies at Yale and will be taking finals in May. Then, he’s expected to graduate with a degree in political science. On the ice though, he credits some of his opponents for helping make him a better player.
“Whenever you play another Ivy League team there’s a little extra pressure, so you’re motivated to do well in those games,” explained O’Neill. “I was fortunate my first three years to come out on top of most of those rivalries. This year, we weren’t as fortunate, including losing to Harvard (in the ECAC Tournament). Even though the Ivy League gets overshadowed a bit by the other leagues, it’s a great place to play and develop as a player – and you can’t pass up the education, as well.”
Cornell, one of those Ivy League opponents, put a damper on the start of O’Neill’s senior season when they defeated his team 6-2 in their home opener. It was considered a bit of a surprise after they never lost on home ice once the year before. That game also featured Kings 2011 draft pick Joel Lowry scoring the first two goals of his college career.
“He’s a big kid who used his size very well,” O’Neill said of Lowry. “I was very impressed with him. I think you’re going to see good things to come from him and that entire program over the next few years.”
Surprisingly, it was a pair of non-Ivy League schools though that were mentioned when O’Neill spoke about his favorite college memories.
“Beating North Dakota my sophomore year,” he said, without hesitating. “We were pretty heavy underdogs going into that game and it was our first NCAA Tournament win in over 50 years. That was a big deal, not just winning, but beating an opponent like UND.”
The Kings, of course, have their own ties to that program, with 2010 draft pick Derek Forbort (a highly regarded defenseman) wrapping up his sophomore year there right now and Matt Greene played there from 2002-05. Coincidentally, it’s one of Greene’s former Fighting Sioux teammates who O’Neill says is his favorite player in the NHL at the moment – Zach Parise.
That makes sense too.
Even though Parise is listed at 5-foot-11, he’s constantly going up against bigger players in the NHL. That’s something O’Neill battled during his time at Yale.
“Guys in college are big. We were an undersized team as a group and with me being undersized, it’s something I had to deal with all the time. That’s helped me get ready for what’s ahead though,” he stated. “The lower you are to the ice, the lower your center of gravity is. So, you have to look at it that way also. Obviously, it’s not the best thing in the world being small. But, there are certain advantages you must exploit. You’re going to have to bring some intangibles to the table if you want to be effective as a pro.”
One of the many things he’ll add to the Monarchs going forward won’t ever translate to the stat sheet though. He was voted ‘Most Humorous’ by his Bulldog teammates, something he also talked a little bit about during our conversation.
“I like to think that I keep things loose in the locker room when needed. I wouldn’t say I have the most dynamic personality. But, I’d like to think I’m fun to be around. I like to relax and have fun with the guys. But, when it’s time to be serious, it’s time to be serious.”
He went on to say he’s not much of a prankster or a jokester, describing himself as more witty than anything else. “I’m not a stand-up comedian or anything.”
It was reported earlier that he turned down the Kings when they first offered him a contract last year, preferring instead to return to Yale for his senior season and get his degree. By no means, was that meant as a sign of disrespect to the Kings or a lack of interest on his part. In fact, you could say the Kings had the inside track all along.
“You want to go to a spot where you’re going to get a lot of opportunities and you want to go to the best organization you can. Manchester and their development staff, along with the entire Kings organization, I think it’s second to none. So, that factored heavily into the decision.”
Another key factor was Kings scout Mike Donnelly. The fact he was an undersized player who made it to the NHL, wasn’t a point lost on O’Neill.
“He’s the perfect example of what you want to look up to and aspire to be. He had an outstanding career and he’s around the same height and size I am. So, for a player like me, I’m lucky to have a guy like that in a system that can help develop me. That obviously played a big role in me signing with LA.”
For the foreseeable future, O’Neill will be playing with the Monarchs and if Saturday night was any indication, things on the ice will come easy. It’s the other things that he’s still trying to get his head around.
“I’m learning day by day about the city and all the players. My first impressions are it’s pretty awesome – it reminds me of a college town. There are a lot of great spots right around the rink, restaurants everywhere and the people are nice.”
He’s also on twitter, something a few of the Monarchs players use quite frequently.
“I guess I might too now that I’ll have a little more free time on my hands, since I don’t have to go to classes every day,” O”Neill said. “That might change my twitter volume. We’ll see over the next month or so.”
We’ll also have to see how his Yale-influenced humor plays with the Super Yooper and resident Monarchs twitter champion, Ray Kaunisto.