Jay O'Brien had a BCHL mission in 2019-20.
He was out to regain the bravado that he lost as a freshman at Providence, the get-after-you mindset that made him so appealing to the Flyers in the first round of the 2018 draft.
From Chris Clark's standpoint, the mission was completed. The interim head coach and assistant GM of the Wenatchee Wild saw O'Brien's Penticton Vees plenty during the season.
O'Brien, a 5-foot-11, 184-pound forward rebuilding his brand and penchant for scoring, put up 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in seven games against Penticton's rival Wenatchee.
“Other than the offense, the biggest thing you notice about that kid is that he has a ton of swagger and a ton of confidence," Clark said last month in a phone interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia. "He plays on the edge, he likes to get into the verbal battles, he has a ton of swagger. You respect that. Obviously you don’t like to see him do well against you when they have that much swagger but you’ve got to respect a kid that knows what he wants."
The 20-year-old looked like himself again after a difficult transition to the Division I level in 2018-19. With the Friars, O'Brien suffered upper-body injuries and scored five points over 25 games. He had trouble with the strength, pace and lack of space in the college game.
"You never want a year like that," O'Brien said last June, "but in a way, it was helpful for me to light the fire even more."
O'Brien transferred and took his fuel to the BCHL, a junior A league and solid stepping-stone for college-bound players. Yes, it's a different level, but O'Brien went to the BCHL with expectations and met them, a major plus for his development as he heads to Boston University in 2020-21.
With the Vees, O'Brien scored 66 points (25 goals, 41 assists) in 46 games and 10 (five goals, five assists) through five playoff contests before the coronavirus outbreak cut the BCHL season short. O'Brien's nine game-winning goals led the league and his 1.43 points per game ranked third, behind only Kent Johnson (projected 2021 first-round pick) at 1.94 and Philippe Lapointe (Michigan commit) with 1.53.
O'Brien established himself among the BCHL's elite, confidence he'll take to the Terriers.
“Oh without a doubt, him and Kent Johnson, who will be a first-round pick next year," Clark said. "I’m not taking anything away from anybody else. I thought there was a ton of talent in the BCHL this year, but he was definitely one of the top three or four players in the entire league ... not even close.
"He carries a ton of confidence and tremendous amount of swagger — which is good, you need that, you’re an offensive player, you know that every night people know who you are, you’ve got to be able to have that swagger. He definitely did this year. Hopefully for his career moving forward, he continues to develop that and have that — because there’s no doubt when he has the puck on his stick, good things are going to happen nine times out of 10.”
Against Wenatchee, a playoff team itself, O'Brien recorded four multi-point games, including a four-point outburst and an overtime winner. The Wild also held O'Brien to only one assist on three different occasions.
"Extremely talented," Clark said. "He had a large number of points against us unfortunately, scored some big goals against us, just dating back to the last regular-season game, getting the OT winner. He’s just one of those players when he has the puck on his stick, you take notice — you know that he’s got a chance to make something special happen, whether it’s scoring or setting up a guy for an unbelievable look. He’s very gifted offensively, there’s no doubt about that.
"I don’t remember firsthand those games where he only had one assist, but I would be willing to bet he probably had some quality chances. ... I don’t know if we can say we shut him down necessarily, but our guys took a lot of a pride, you want to play against those guys. He comes with a lot of notoriety and well deserved — he’s an unbelievable hockey player."
O'Brien will head to B.U. much more prepared for the Division I competition at 20 years old compared to when he was 18 coming right out of high school.
Clark, who has been with Wenatchee since 2008 and was a graduate assistant for Minnesota State (where he also played), sees a player ready for his second D-I shot.
O'Brien made sure everyone saw that.
“In college hockey, you’re playing against men, you’re playing 24-year-old men," Clark said. "A lot of times in junior hockey, you’re playing against 18-, 19-year-olds, 20-year-olds — we have a limit on 20-year-olds in our league, you can have only six or less. A lot of those kids are still developing, they’re still growing into their bodies, they’re still putting on weight. But when you get to college and you’re playing against a 24-year-old senior, that’s a man, that’s a guy who’s probably ready, given the opportunity, to step in and play professional hockey at a high level.
"So I think that’s a big difference, but I just think with his ability to skate, his ability to think the game at a very quick pace, it’s going to translate. I don’t know the ins and outs of what happened his first year at college, but everybody has their ups and downs throughout life — if he considers that a down, I don’t know if he does or not.
"But I would say that he’s going to have no problem when next year he gets to college, he’s going to be a heck of a hockey player.”
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