ORONO – Will O’Neill never captained a team before this season. Never was a Boy Scout leader. Never was a head altar boy, and he’s not a first-born son.
So how does he explain why people point to him as one of the catalysts in the mid-winter turnaround by the University of Maine hockey team? Going into Saturday night’s game with Massachusetts, the Black Bears have won eight of their last nine games. Skeptics have become believers again.
“I love to talk,” said O’Neill, grinning broadly. “I’ve never been shy about speaking my mind. But there’s a lot of senior leadership on this team.”
True enough, but O’Neill is the lead voice, backed by the chorus of co-captain Brian Flynn and his linemate Shane Abbott, and fellow defenseman Ryan Hegarty. It is O’Neill, with his way of strongly encouraging teammates rather than calling them out who has become a rallying figure.
“I think it’s better to get your point across as a friend,” said O’Neill. “I know how I would want to be treated.”
His father is Bill O’Neill, the head hockey coach at Salem State for 31 years who played on Boston University’s national championship team in 1978. His older brother, Andrew, played hockey. Give some credit to them for the player Will O’Neill has become.
Give some credit to Mike Hastings, the longtime coach of the Omaha Lancers, a dominant junior team in the USHL. Consider this: O’Neill, Chris Connolly at Boston University and Barry Almeida at Boston College were teammates in Omaha four years ago. Connolly is BU’s lone captain. Almeida is an assistant captain. Coincidence?
Keith Sullivan, an amateur scout for the Winnipeg Jets who was at the Maine-BU series last month, volunteered that factoid to me and doesn’t think it’s a coincidence.
Hastings can bring out the leadership tendencies of his players, Sullivan said.
“(Hastings) got every ounce of energy and more from us,” said O’Neill. “Playing for him was like an experience I never had before. I learned a lot, matured a lot and realized I needed to work my butt off. I knew I wanted to stick. It was a real testing experience. I was so ready when I left there.”
O’Neill was in Omaha for two seasons. The 2007-08 team won a couple of invitational tournaments, its conference regular-season title and the conference tournament. O’Neill didn’t forget the feeling of skating onto the ice that season and believing his team could beat anyone.
That Maine couldn’t finish off victories in third periods last season was the worst feeling. Maine skated its way out of the NCAA playoff picture. O’Neill can’t explain how or why that happened. Much like he did in Omaha, he learned more about himself and those around him.
“I think everybody on this team now is stepping up. It’s contagious. You get a sense of accomplishment. We’re pretty close on this team. In the past, when we dropped two games we’d come back with our heads down.”
He has tapped into the emotions of home crowds who have rediscovered the joy of winning. “When that place gets as jacked as it has been, it gives me goose bumps. I love it.”
He’s a defenseman who isn’t waiting for his Bobby Orr moment to bring the Alfond Arena crowd to its feet. His passion for the game and his ability to motivate teammates should turn cynics around, and he’ll take that. He’s a Massachusetts kid who understand what Maine hockey used to mean and could again.
“He gets through to the guys by playing with grit, emotion, taking hits to make plays and blocking shots with his body,” said Coach Tim Whitehead, who has had solid citizens taking on the captain’s role but not always strong leaders.
“Will leads with his heart and backs it up on the ice.”
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: