After he was ejected midway through his team’s season-ending loss to Minnesota-Duluth in the NCAA tournament, men’s hockey captain-elect Brian O’Neill ’12 could not bring himself to watch the remaining playoff games on television.
O’Neill, who has led the team in scoring for the past two seasons, had to watch his team implode from the locker room. One month later, however, he is focusing on the future. His teammates have elected him as the 117th Yale captain of Yale hockey, and the right winger from Pennsylvania already has his sites fixed on a familiar goal: a national championship.
O’Neill’s teammates say he has led by example in his three years on the team, but has also gradually taken on a more vocal role in the locker room. He has blossomed on the ice during that time from a member of the College Hockey News’ All-Rookie Team after his freshman year to the scorer of almost half Yale’s NCAA tournament goals last season.
“He is really the heart and soul of this team,” head coach Keith Allain ’80 said.
O’Neill had two assists in his first ever game in a Yale uniform. He has not let up the scoring pace since. He was instrumental in his team’s ECAC playoff victory last season, and his scoring touch helped Yale land the No. 1 overall seed in the national tournament.
He kept putting pucks in the net as the stakes increased, and scored the Elis’ only regulation goal in their NCAA tournament-opening victory over Air Force. He scored again the next night, against Minnesota-Duluth. But, following his ejection, he could not contribute as that game slipped away.
Without its leading scorer playing, Yale limped to a season-ending 5–3 loss. Allain defended O’Neill after the game, and replays seemed to show that the hit had been clean. But the loss stood, and the season ended prematurely for a team that had its sights set from the outset on a national title.
Now O’Neill says that he and his fellow rising seniors want to lead the team to build on this past season’s success. But the team they will lead is losing nine seniors, all of who played crucial roles last year. Half the defensive corps is graduating, as are three of the team’s top five scorers. Departing goaltender Ryan Rondeau ’11 shared team most valuable player honors with O’Neill at the end of the season.
Next year’s Yale squad will lean heavily on untested underclassmen to replace those seniors, but O’Neill says he does not plan on captaining a rebuilding team.
“It’s up to the seniors to help the freshmen adjust,” he said. “After three, six games, most guys acclimate to the college style, and we’re hoping to pick up where we left off.”
O’Neill had little trouble adjusting to the college game himself. He led Yale freshmen in scoring in his first campaign with the Elis. His scoring production has increased steadily since then, and his 117 career points put him 12th on the University’s career list.
“He’s relentless,” former captain Jimmy Martin ’11 said. “He’s one of those guys who just have a knack for putting the puck in the net.”
Martin and O’Neill have more than the captainship in common — Yale lists both as 5 feet 9 inches. But that number was a point of contention at the team’s annual awards banquet on Monday, when each took the podium and said that the other stood only 5 feet 7 inches.
Whatever the new captain’s true height, he stands shorter than most defensemen he faces. But that size disadvantage does not stop him from crashing the opposing net.
“[O’Neill] is the type of player that won’t shy away from any situation in the game,” said goalie Jeff Malcolm ’12, who has seen plenty of his teammates’ shots up close in practice. “That grittiness helps him to get into the right positions and become an offensive threat.”
Indeed, both of the political science major’s goals during the NCAA tournament began with perfect positioning. Against Air Force, he parked himself at the corner of the net and buried a perfect pass from defenseman Nick Jaskowiak ’12 with ease. His goal the next night came when he converted another one-timer, this one after he had created some open space for himself in the high slot.
Those two goals left O’Neill with eight points in his five career NCAA tournament games.
“He’s a big-game player and one of the most competitive people that I know,” linemate Andrew Miller ’13 said. “He always shows up in big games. And that tells a lot about his character.”
Miller, Martin and other teammates point to that production as a sign of O’Neill’s leadership by example. Media and opposing coaches recognized his skill when they named him to the first team All-ECAC and one of three finalists for the conference’s player of the year.
As captain, O’Neill will be expected not only to keep producing, but also to be a vocal presence. But, Martin said, his successor will not have to change much to fill that role.
“A leader is a leader,” he said. “And O’Neill is one on and off the ice.”
Although O’Neill said that he already tended to be a voice in the locker room, he said that he would have to work especially hard next year to help create unity between the team’s veterans and its large incoming class of freshmen.
The incoming captain will not be alone in that work. He said that he expects the rest of his class to step up and do as much work as he will to lead the team.
“We’ll be seniors, and it will be our team,” he said. “We’ve been through a lot together and we’re excited to go into next season as a class.”
O’Neill’s position on the team and success on the ice are a surprise for a student from Yardley, Penn., far south of traditional hockey hotbeds. O’Neill said his path to hockey began with his father’s encouragement to try skating and an immediate passion for the game.
“The rest is history,” he said.
The right wing’s individual production has already guaranteed him a place in the Yale record books. His success as captain could help make his class the first in school history every to qualify for the NCAA tournament four times. Not to mention the first to win the national title.