Leading up to the 2018 Winter Olympics, Germantown Academy alum Brian O’Neill ’07 knew that there was a pretty good chance that players from the National Hockey League would not be going to the games.
At the time, the NHL did not want players participating in the Olympics, citing the owners’ overwhelming opposition to disrupting the regular season. As a result, the team turned to colleges, European leagues, and the American Hockey League to fill out its 23-man roster. While players like Patrick Kane, Ryan Suter and Jonathan Quick missed the chance to represent their country, it presented an opportunity to O’Neill.
“It was probably the highlight of my hockey career, up to this point,” O’Neill said over email. “Playing on that stage is surreal and almost impossible to describe.”
O’Neill, a forward in his sixth season for Finland’s Jokerit, finished the Olympics with four points in five games, but the team finished in seventh place. Now four years removed from the experience, the NHL is once again keeping its players from playing in the Olympics -- this time in hopes of completing the 2021-22 season as scheduled, giving O’Neill another shot at Olympic gold.
While the possibility of being picked for the team crossed his mind frequently once he found out that the NHL would not be participating, O’Neill said expecting the invitation would have been naïve.
“The management of Team USA had plenty of capable players to choose from throughout the world, so you never really knew what was going to happen during the selection process,” O’Neill said. “Obviously, it's something I thought about quite frequently, but you can't let your mind get too carried away.”
O’Neill said it all started when he received a phone call from John Vanbiesbrouck, the general manager of the U.S. Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Team in the beginning of January. He called the decision a “no-brainer,” saying he had the full support of the people closest to him, which made his decision easy. O’Neill added that he understands the games will be logistically challenging and different from 2018. While his mindset will not be different than before, he said that with all the new rules because of Covid-19, he is going to try to stay present as much as possible.
“For sure, there are going to be setbacks and adversity this time around, but I'm going to control what I can control,” O’Neill said. “If I do that, I'll be fine.”
The 2022 edition of the team consists of 25 players. Of that, 15 currently play college hockey, two are from the AHL and eight are European professionals. With an average age of 25 years old, it is the youngest group Team USA has had since 1994.
O’Neill is the only returning player from 2018. However, he does not see himself in a mentor role. He said that while he does have a unique perspective compared to the other players on the roster, he believes that experience can get overrated.
“Everyone selected for the team has played in big moments before, so I'm sure they will be fine on the ice,” O’Neill said. “If I can assist at all, it will be helping guys get comfortable. That's the biggest challenge in such a short tournament. I think the older guys on the team have to make it a priority to make the locker room as homely as possible.”
Of course, O’Neill can also help by continuing to play like he has at Jokerit since he signed with the team in 2016. O’Neill has played in 311 games and has racked up 83 goals and 185 assists. This season he has 42 points, tied for eighth-most in the KHL. O’Neill has nine goals and 33 assists, with the latter ranking third in the KHL despite competing in less games than every other player in the top five.
Although he is far from his hometown of Yardley, life in the KHL has been kind to O’Neill.
“Playing in the KHL has given me an opportunity to travel the world and that's been amazing,” O’Neill said. “I've traveled all over Russia and most of Europe the past six years, which has been wonderful life education. The challenge of professional hockey and the culture of Jokerit keep me going. I love the challenge of constantly having to adapt to new situations and being expected to perform. Also, the city of Helsinki and Jokerit have really embraced me as a player and person. I feel like I owe it to them to keep improving and performing.”
As for his Olympic aspirations, O’Neill keeps it simple: win.
“I'd desperately love another shot at a gold medal,” O’Neill said. “Nobody remembers what you did personally or what happened before the medal round. It's all about competing for gold. We were a bounce away from the medal round in 2018, so I am really looking forward to a chance at redemption.”
The first of three preliminaries for Team USA begin on Feb. 10 at 8:10am ET. Qualification Playoffs start on Feb. 15, with Quarterfinals starting the next day.