January 05, 2015

Jeff O'Neill: Heavy Shot, Heavy Heart

Jeff O'Neill was a popular first round pick with the Hartford Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes franchise. He was a shoot first, shoot second type of player, blessed with a heavy shot which he liked to use often. He had a 41 goal season in 2000-01, followed by a couple of 30 goal seasons.

At his best he was a powerful skater who finished his checks and shot often. Too often, however, he would go for pro-longed stretches where he stopped moving his feet and would not follow his shot to the net, thus eliminating any chance of a rebound play. Some questioned his fitness commitment. Teammate Gary Roberts - a real NHL fitness guru - dubbed O'Neill the "McDonalds king."

Some thought he was lazy or disinterested, but that is unfair. As his career advanced he really struggled with a banged up shoulder that made it very difficult to do what was expected of him night in and night out.

Also really affecting him later in his career was the tragic death of his brother Don, a former Peterborough Petes captain who died in a busy Toronto highway car crashed.  Jeff tried to play on despite the heavy heart, but it was obvious hockey was not important at that stage. He nearly walked away from the game altogether. Instead he left the Carolina Hurricanes to play with the Toronto Maple Leafs, primarily so he could be close this ailing family.

"I wouldn't have played anywhere else this year," he revealed. "I wouldn't -- and I couldn't -- be away from my family."

Not even in Carolina which served as his hockey home for years?

"I don't know," he said. "It would be hard to be there right now."

The Hurricanes responded with great respect.

"When they had the loss in the family, Paul called me and said Jeff would really love to play in Toronto and they would appreciate anything I could do to make it happen," said general manager Jim Rutherford said at the time.

"It's great to be (in Toronto)," O'Neill said. "But not five seconds goes by without me thinking about my brother."

O'Neill played two seasons in Toronto before retiring. His stint with the Leafs was not overly notable, but for O'Neill he found some inner-peace thanks to being around his family.

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