Within the span of five days last week, men’s hockey captain Brian O’Neill ’12 shut the door on a storied Yale career and took a big first step in moving onto a new hockey challenge.
O’Neill’s collegiate career ended with the Bulldogs’ loss to Harvard in the quarterfinals of the ECAC tournament on Sunday. But he moved toward his dream of playing in the National Hockey League when he signed a contract Thursday with the Los Angeles Kings. Already, he has made an impact with a game-winning goal in his debut for the Manchester, N.H., Monarchs, the Kings’ AHL affiliate, on Saturday.
“Before I got to college I didn’t realize [professional hockey] was a possibility,” he said. “I had four years ahead of me, so I tried not to look that far ahead. After my junior year it became a goal of mine, and I’ve finally realized that goal.”
O’Neill said he did not always consider himself an NHL prospect, but playing at Yale has improved his game and helped him prepare for the professional stage.
The Kings first expressed interest in O’Neill after his junior season, but he returned to Yale for his final year. After the Elis bowed out of the ECAC tournament this season, the Kings got in touch again, and the two sides negotiated a contract for one year.
O’Neill was shipped out to play last Thursday when he was assigned to the Monarchs. He played in two games over the weekend, the first of which resulted in a 3–1 win over the St. John’s Icecaps in Newfoundland, Canada.
The away game was important for the Monarchs, who are in second place behind the Icecaps in the AHL’s Atlantic Division. O’Neill’s game-winning goal came 43 seconds into the third period of a 1–1 tie, and he said that scoring the game-winning goal was a “big relief.”
“You want to help your team as quickly as possible, and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to make an impact right away,” he said.
O’Neill is coming off a superb senior season with the Bulldogs. He notched a team-high 21 goals and 46 points and was named to the ECAC first team for the second consecutive season. O’Neill finished the season on a hot streak, receiving ECAC Player of the Month honors for both January and February and recording a combined 14 goals and 29 points during that span.
O’Neill’s contributions, both on and off the ice, led to his appointment as team captain this season. Forward Antoine Laganiere ’13 added that O’Neill was an exemplary leader.
“He was great, not only within the room but also with everything outside the team,” Laganiere said. “He was outgoing with all the parents and the fans and he never really got stressed out. It was a pleasure playing under him because you work hard, but you also have a good time doing it.”
The season capped off an impressive statistical career that was a major factor in the resounding success of Yale hockey during O’Neill’s four years. During his time at Yale, O’Neill tallied 69 goals, and his 163 total points are second only to Jeff Hamilton ’01.
He was an offensive force, who led the Bulldogs in goals scored the past two seasons and total points the last three seasons, on Yale teams that won two ECAC championships and received a bid to the NCAA tournament three times.
O’Neill said he has been welcomed with open arms by the Monarchs’ organization and added that he was grateful for the opportunity to play right away with the team. While it’s difficult to project his prospects at this point, Yale teammate Kenny Agostino ’14 said he thinks O’Neill has a good shot at playing on an NHL team.
“He’s a pure goal scorer in every sense of the word,” Agostino said. “He can score from anywhere on the ice. Everyone has hockey sense as you move up in professional hockey, but I think his work ethic and determination are really going to set him apart as he moves up.”
Although O’Neill has moved on to professional hockey, he still may be spotted around campus for the duration of the semester. The reigning Ivy League Player of the Year said he will be making the three-hour commute to New Haven once or twice a week to meet with his professors and ensure that he can graduate in May.
O’Neill said he wants to work on the mental aspects of his game while in Manchester.
“I was fortunate to be in a good program at Yale that prepared me for professional hockey,” O’Neill said. “[In the AHL] everyone is so good physically that the way you can improve your game most is being mentally prepared, thinking through the game as fast as possible, which will help you have as much success as possible.”