For the majority of professional hockey players at the highest level, that first NHL game is the rest stop off the interstate. Sure, they’re looking forward to it, but it’s just the first stop to a final destination.
Thursday night in St. Louis — as Will O'Neill made his NHL debut in the Flyers' 2-0 win — at the corner of Clark and 14th Streets may as well have been the parking lot at Disney World for the 29-year-old, who leading up to the game, had heard and experienced just about every other player’s first NHL experience, except his own.
“I always believed in myself that I was a good player, that I could play at this level,” O’Neill said. “There were certainly times where it seemed I couldn’t really catch a break, but things happen for a reason. You keep on getting better as a player, an organization recognizes that and gives you a chance. That’s all you want.”
If O’Neill wasn’t Mr. Irrelevant of the 2006 NHL draft, he was pretty darn close. He was the fourth-to-last player taken in the seventh round, 210th overall or 188 picks after the Flyers had chosen Claude Giroux in the first round. Giroux walked on stage wearing the Flyers' sweater. O’Neill received a phone call back home in Massachusetts from the Atlanta Thrashers.
When you’re Will O’Neill, it’s never about Will O’Neill.
He has made it his responsibility to look out for his younger teammates, whether that meant giving guys who didn’t own a car a ride to the arena, or just covering the tab on an afternoon lunch.
One of those guys was Wilkes-Barre/Scranton forward Jake Guentzel, who came to the AHL on an amateur tryout. Penguins coach Clark Donatelli thought it might help Guentzel to be situated next to O’Neill in the team dressing room. Perhaps, O'Neill could impart some of his wisdom, knowledge and experience on Guentzel.
This past June, Guentzel blew the doors off his entry into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, when he scored 13 goals. And if he hadn’t shared the ice with arguably one of the greatest players on the planet, Guentzel may have walked away with the Conn Smythe Trophy as Most Valuable Player of the postseason. Whatever Guentzel learned along the way, O’Neill was part of the process.
However, O'Neill's caring, unselfish demeanor to give back doesn’t stop when he’s away from the rink. In the community, he frequents local schools and hospitals, dropping off toys, books and whatever else he can contribute, no matter where he’s gone. All of which explains why he’s been recognized and honored as the AHL’s Specialty Man of the Year for his outstanding contributions to the community for not one, but two different organizations.
When general manager Ron Hextall brought O’Neill into the Flyers organization on Day 1 of the free-agent frenzy in 2016, it certainly wasn’t intended to be a depth signing at the NHL level, but rather Hextall’s recognition of a player with strong character who could impart wisdom and guidance to one of the most talented group of prospects in the league.
O’Neill was just happy he had a place and a role within the organization. Pursuing a different career even as he entered his late-20s never entered O'Neill’s mind. After all, his father, William, has been the head hockey coach at Salem State University for the past 36 years, so the idea of transitioning to a new job just doesn’t seem to resonate.
“I’ve always loved to play the game,” O’Neill said. “It’s great. I always thought you just keep on playing, keep on playing no matter where it takes me year to year. That’s what I want to do. That’s what I love to do. I love to watch it, I love to play it. It’s pretty much everything I know. You just want to keep on playing at the highest level as long as you possibly can.”
As you might expect, O'Neill wanted to share the greatest experience of his life with those who have been there every step of the way. His mom, Liz, along with sister, Rachel, arrived from Boston, and so did O'Neill's best friend, Peter O’Toole, who he grew up with in Salem and now works for an investment firm in Chicago. The only person missing was dad, who had a game of his own.
“It’s a great moment for Will. His belief is beyond reproach,” William O’Neill said from his office at Salem State. “I admire his dedication, his passion, and his perseverance is incredible. If you ever waver from that, you have no chance.”
But until Thursday night, O’Neill wasn’t exactly sure his game could hold up at the highest level, despite 346 games in the minors.
“I’ve played in a lot of AHL games, and preseason games, it’s certainly different," O'Neill said. "You get there and you just need to get into the game, get your feet wet. You’ve played a lot, and just do what I always did.”
Of the six defensemen the Flyers dressed against the Blues, Brandon Manning, with his 150 games played, was the most experienced of the six and yet even he realized how quickly O’Neill blended in despite not having a single practice or morning skate to get acclimated.
“Yeah, it’s pretty impressive,” Manning said. “He’s obviously been around, he’s obviously had some experiences, but you don’t know what to expect for your first game, and he came in and did a great job. When he was out there, he looked like he had been there before.”
Three shots on net, 9:25 of ice time, and just like the past 11 years from the day he was drafted, O’Neill was barely noticed. For an NHL defenseman in his debut, anonymity is the best way to go about it.
“Everyone was great,” O’Neill said. “They were trying to get me going, trying to pump me up and knowing they’ve all been through that at different parts of your life. I just took all of that in.”