ORONO – Sometimes when he takes the time to think about it, Will O’Neill looks back on how far he’s come and how much he’s grown in the past three years.

He joined the University of Maine hockey team in the fall of 2008 as a freshman who was a bit hot-headed, yet always passionate about his teammates, friends and the game. He transformed himself, shedding weight, and emphasizing training and eating properly.

Yet even in the grand scheme, he took a lesson he learned from his first year of college hockey into his senior season and applies it every day.

“Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today,” said O’Neill, a defenseman.

There were days he chose to forgo an extra slice of pizza and opted to take a bike ride instead. Or there were days he could only squeeze in a few minutes for a quick cardio session, which was more than not doing anything at all. Each little part of the equation, he knew, would add up.

It’s created a type of disciplined existence for O’Neill, who in three seasons has grown into a mainstay on Maine’s blue line, and arguably the emotional leader of a team pursuing its first NCAA tournament since 2007.

“He cares so much about the team,” sophomore forward Mark Anthoine said. “He loves this team. He’s a team guy. He wants the best for his team. He leads the right way.”

Maine Coach Tim Whitehead has seen growth and improvement in O’Neill in every aspect of his training, as well as his academics and his presence in the locker room and team dynamic.

“He’s one of the toughest competitors I’ve ever coached,” Whitehead said. “He’ll take a hit to make a play, and he can also make an offensive play when the game’s on the line that can change the course of the game.”

Brian Flynn, who joins O’Neill as one of Maine’s co-captains, grew up playing youth and high school hockey with and against O’Neill, Flynn in Lynn, Mass., and O’Neill in Salem, Mass. He remembers O’Neill as the type of player who wore his emotions on the sleeve of his jersey, a player who was reactive instead of proactive. 

“He had a pretty good temper and was a little bit of a hothead,” Flynn said. “If some guy was to slash him, he’d be the first to slash right back. Now he’s taken that out of his game and that’s what’s made him a better player. He’s controlled his emotions a lot more since he’s been here and now, as a senior, he’s calm back there (on defense). He’s a rock.”

O’Neill has found a way to channel his emotions into the game instead of having them affect the game. As a freshman, he led the Black Bears with 82 minutes in penalties, which decreased to 69 in 2009-2010 and to 44 last season. Over the past two years, O’Neill has led Maine’s defensemen in scoring, with eight goals and 23 assists two seasons ago, and four goals and 17 assists last season.

Every day, Flynn sees the example that O’Neill sets for his teammates, taking the few extra minutes of time to work on something, whether it’s shooting a bucket of pucks from the point or whether he’s the first one in the weight room and the last one out. It’s an example that Flynn believes trickles down to the younger players.

“He’s one of the most competitive guys I’ve ever seen, in my life,” Flynn said. “That’s the reason he’s been able to be so successful. He works hard at everything he does.”

For O’Neill, what he has become as part of the program is what he wants to give to this year’s team.

“I just want to bring who I am to this team,” O’Neill said.

“I don’t want to be any different than who I am. I’m happy, I’m friendly and I like to win hockey games. I love to play. I love to be out here. I love to be with the guys in the locker room and be around hockey. If I can do that, and if I can get to do that every day, I think it rubs off on people. I can be the one to encourage people and say, ‘hey, you’re here and you get to play hockey.’ ”

Staff Writer Rachel Lenzi can be reached at 791-6415 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: rlenzi