Brian O’Neill is going back to the Olympics and this time, the former LA Kings prospect is ready to help Team USA to gold.
To suggest that the upcoming Olympics have been unpredictable would be somewhat of an understatement. While the NHL was originally set to take part in Beijing next month, the league backed out in December amid the growing concerns surrounding COVID-19. However, what may be bad news for the NHL means good news for others as a different wave of talent will be representing their respective countries in the Chinese capital. One of those players is former LA Kings prospect Brian O’Neill, who is preparing for his second Olympiad.
While he had never played for the Kings, fans of the silver-and-black are nonetheless thankful for O’Neill’s services to the franchise – most notably helping the club’s then-AHL affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs, to their first Calder Cup championship. En route, the native of Yardley, PA, won the AHL’s John B. Sollenberger Trophy and Les Cunningham Award as the league’s regular-season leader in points and Most Valuable Player, respectively.
I recently had the privilege of speaking with O’Neill, who told me about his expectations for Beijing and even touched on his past experiences with the Monarchs.
We began, though, with the 33-year-old’s role as one of Team USA’s veterans.
“I’m definitely much more comfortable entering these games compared to 2018,” O’Neill said. “Obviously, there are a lot more obstacles to face this time around due to COVID, but having some prior experience will be a big help, mentally. From a hockey standpoint, my game is in a better place than it was in 2018. So, I’m really looking forward to helping the team in any way possible.”
While making his Olympic debut in Pyeongchang was a significant honour in itself, O’Neill’s experience in 2018, unfortunately, included Team USA bowing out in the preliminary round with one win and two losses. Despite the end result, though, O’Neill doesn’t see 2018 as a failure for his native country.
“I mean, we had one regulation loss and were a bounce away from the semi-finals, so the record can be a bit deceiving,” noted the former Monarch. “Reflecting back on the tournament, I’m super proud of the way we competed and performed on the big stage.”
With that in mind, the Yale alum is fully prepared – and excited – to compete for the gold medal that has alluded Team USA since 1980.
“The one thing that really set in after the 2018 Olympics is that people only remember which team won gold,” O’Neill explained. “There are only 12 teams in the tournament and in my opinion, it’s wide open. I fully expect our team to compete for a gold medal. Personally, I feel good about where my game is at, especially compared to 2018.”
And, while no disrespect is intended for the 2018 squad, Team USA’s 2022 roster has the promise of a bona fide gold-medal contender. After all, the American squad will consist of a plethora of raw, up-and-coming talent, including Michigan standout Matty Beniers, goaltender Drew Commesso, and current Kings prospect Brock Faber. However, veterans like O’Neill will be just as invaluable to the club. In fact, the current forward of KHL’s Jokerit couldn’t help but reflect fondly on his time in Manchester, owing to a great deal of gratitude to said tenure in helping him in his career.
“Having good coaching early in one’s pro career is such a huge benefit,” O’Neill noted. “My time in Manchester gave my game structure, which allowed my instincts to take over eventually. When I say structure, I am referring to on-ice habits and discipline. I think anytime a player can add solid structure to their game at an early age, their game will translate well when moving from team to team.”
These lessons have been paramount to O’Neill’s growth, especially at the Olympic level.
“When you play in such a short tournament, you really have to trust the structure in your game,” he observed. “Without structure, it’s pretty hard to play instinctually, which is when you’re at your best.”
While fans may be disappointed not to see the NHL’s best competing in Beijing next month, it promises to be a fantastic tournament regardless. For fans of the LA Kings, in particular, they can certainly take a great deal of solace in cheering on some of the former and current silver-and-black brethren, if you will, including Brian O’Neill.
Team USA will kick off their schedule on Feb. 10 when they open against host China in Group A action at 8:10 am ET (5:10 am PT).