STORY WRITTEN BY OLIVIA REINER '14, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER - Feb. 3, 2022
While seated in the fifth row of the second level of the Spectrum for his first Flyers game in November 1970, 12-year-old Brian O’Neill Sr. fell in love with hockey.
O’Neill Sr. hovered on top of the action as Bobby Clarke and Bob Kelly skated what felt like a few feet beneath his nose. He was “hooked” and only grew more invested after the team’s Stanley Cup victories in 1974 and 1975.
Inspired by the Flyers, O’Neill Sr. dabbled in street hockey but never learned how to skate.
“I was hoping that if I had kids, that they would maybe want to get into the sport, not ever having any dreams that it would evolve into something like this,” O’Neill Sr. said.
More than 50 years later, his son, Brian, is set to play in his second Olympics as a member of theU.S. men’s hockey team. But long before he became an Olympian or played professional hockey, four-year-old Brian and his twin brother, Brennan, took skating lessons at Ice Land Skating Center in Hamilton Township near their home in Yardley.
From the moment Brian took the ice for the first time, his father noticed “that look in his eyes” — a sense of intensity, him absorbing every piece of instruction shared during those lessons. While Brian Sr. had Clarke and the Broad Street Bullies, Brian had the Flyers of the mid-to-late ‘90s and theLegion of Doom to emulate.
“I think having Eric Lindros there, he kind of made hockey cool in the area of Philadelphia,” O’Neill, 33, said. “So that was a huge inspiration for me.”
Despite being undersized at 5-foot-9, O’Neill excelled as he worked his way up the hockey ranks, whether he was playing for the AAA Philadelphia Jr. Flyersor his Germantown Academy high school team. As one of the best forwards on those teams, he drew extra attention from the opposition.
“The biggest thing when I reflected back on my time at GA is hockey was really fun, which definitely helped me,” O’Neill said. “At the same time, when you don’t have as many players available to you, certain players are gonna have to play more and they’re gonna have bigger roles. I definitely think that helped my development.”
Leading up to his senior year, O’Neill never seriously considered playing collegiately because it wasn’t a popular route for other players in the area. He applied to a few Division III schools, including Skidmore, Bowdoin, and Middlebury, but received rejection letters from each.
Ultimately, O’Neill decided to take a gap year after getting drafted by the Chicago Steel in the 13th round of the USHL draft — “We always kid Brian, we tell him it was in the 113th round,” O’Neill Sr. said — and try out for the team. Then-Yale assistant coach C.J. Marottolo saw O’Neill at the tryout, and shortly after offered him a spot.
“I guess it was a blessing,” O’Neill said of his D-III rejections.
After spending one season with the Steel, which gave him his first taste of playing against high-end players from across the world, O’Neill joined Yale. In his sophomore season, he led the team in points with 45 and ranked seventh among Division I players in averaging 1.32 points per game.
The following year, the Los Angeles Kings offered him an NHL contract.
“When you get offered, especially someone like myself who hasn’t had a whole lot of opportunity, whether it be playing in Philadelphia or playing in Chicago or my first couple years at Yale, when you do get that recognition or opportunity to turn pro, it’s hard not to let that go to your ego,” O’Neill said. “So immediately when you do get that opportunity, you think, well, I have to take this opportunity.”
However, after mulling the decision over, O’Neill turned down the Kings and returned for his senior season. He made it a priority to finish his degree and develop his game — “I wasn’t ready to play in the NHL at that time,” O’Neill said. “I wasn’t ready to play in the NHL three years later. So turning pro early would’ve been a huge mistake.”
After O’Neill led the team in points for the third straight season, the Kings offered him another contract. This time, he signed and spent his first full pro season in 2012-13 with their AHL affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs.
That year, O’Neill struggled for ice time while members of the Kings played for the Monarchs during the NHL lockout. His second season, he battled thoughts of “am I good enough to do this?” Finally, in 2014-15, O’Neill found his stride — in 69 games, he registered 78 points (including a league-high 56 assists), as he won the 2015 AHL MVP award and led the Monarchs to a Calder Cup.
At the conclusion of the following training camp, O’Neill was the last forward cut. Then-Kings general manager Dean Lombardi subsequently traded O’Neillto the New Jersey Devils, where he would make his NHL debut for a team based just 60 miles from his hometown.
“I definitely wasn’t ready for that level of pressure,” O’Neill said. “You have to have such a self-belief, especially being, I think I was 27 at the time, to play your first NHL game and really believe you belong. That’s really, really tough. And I wasn’t ready for that. I wish I was.”
Sent down to the AHL in December after 22 NHL games, O’Neill arrived at a crossroads in his career when Jokerit general manager and Hockey Hall of Famer Jarri Kurri reached out and asked if he’d be interested in making the move to the KHL and playing in Helsinki, Finland.
Intrigued by the prospect of playing in Europe, O’Neill signed with Jokerit ahead of the 2016-17 season and hasn’t looked back since.
“My first 15 games, I didn’t score one goal,” O’Neill said. “It was a bit of a nightmare. I thought I was gonna get bought out, maybe traded. Who knows. Fortunately, after the 15th game, I started scoring a little bit and had some success.”
In 99 games between his first two seasons with Jokerit, O’Neill registered 66 points. His strong pro resume put him on USA Hockey’s radar for the 2018 Winter Olympics, which would not feature NHL players.
“That was kind of like a second chance for all the European pros where all of us have either been written off or were at the later stages of our career where we think we’ve already reached the pinnacle of our hockey success,” O’Neill said. “So getting a second chance like that, I mean, call it what you want, but I guess you could say everything happens for a reason. But that was 100 percent the highlight up until this point in my hockey career.”
In 2018, O’Neill and the U.S. finished seventh in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Four years later, he will take a second crack at an Olympic medal, this time as part of a more “high-end” U.S. roster.
While his family won’t be able to make the trip to Beijing due to COVID-19 restrictions, they’ll follow the tournament from the East Coast, 13 hours behind the action.
“I was just looking forward to seeing him wear the jersey again and playing at that level, and really excelling at that level,” O’Neill Sr. said. “I really want the world to see the player. He’s never really had the spotlight. He’s always sort of been under the radar.”
From Ice Land to the Olympic stage, O’Neill used every closed door along the way as motivation to pursue a career in hockey. At age 33, he’s still finding ways to open new ones and reach new heights.
“It’s such a wonderful gift and something you feel like at some point you don’t deserve because the NHL players aren’t going,” O’Neill said. “But at the same time, [I’m] just overjoyed.”