KHL star Brian O’Neill can feel Flyers’ pain over season stoppage

Yardley native Brian O'Neill

Stopping a hockey regular season before it ends can be frustrating.

Ending a campaign in the middle of a successful playoff run can be downright disappointing.

The Flyers know all about the former. They were riding the crest of a 9-1 wave when the COVID-19 crisis hit, leaving 13 games left unplayed on the schedule.

Brian O’Neill, the Yardley native who became the first Bucks County-born skater to play in the NHL when he competed for the N.J. Devils back in 2015-16, can do that one “better.’’

He and his Jokerit Helsinki teammates had just knocked off Lokomotiv in the first round of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League playoffs when officials decided to pull the plug.

And unlike the NHL, the KHL has no plans to complete this ill-fated slate.

So the 31-year-old O’Neill, now back at his offseason home near Naples, Fla., is left to wonder what might have been.

In many respects, O’Neill enjoyed the best season of his four-year career in Finland. He set new highs for goals (19) and plus-minus (plus-17). In the series against Lokomotiv, he registered six assists in six games.

O’Neill, a Yale University graduate, appears to be taking a philosophical attitude to the shortened season. No one saw this health emergency coming and the timing of it was just unfortunate.

“At the beginning of the playoffs, it really wasn’t on anyone’s mind, that this was going to be an issue,’’ O’Neill said during a Friday phone call. “But midway through that first-round series, it started to get more serious.

“Then, right before our last game (Game 6), there were rumors they might have to take precautions or play without fans (sound familiar?). The situation kept getting worse, like the NHL. Just unprecedented times.’’

O’Neill enjoyed a great minor league career with the Manchester Monarchs (former Los Angeles Kings affiliate) and in 2014-15 was named American Hockey League MVP after leading the circuit in scoring. His 20 playoff points helped the Monarchs win the Calder Cup that year.

A trade brought him to the Devils, for whom he played 22 games before making the decision to play in Europe. He’s said on numerous occasions it was the right call.

As a former NHLer, he says he believes the players are sincere when they insist they want to get back to action for more than just a paycheck, but rather for the love of the game and the spirit of competition, even if it means playing at a neutral site or in an empty building.

“I would continue to trust the experts in those sports leagues, particularly the NHL,’’ O’Neill said. “If the experts thought it would be a reasonable opportunity for them to get back to play and there wasn’t too much risk, I think it would be a good thing and something I would look forward to.

“Because at the end of the day, you want to go back to work, you want to do your job. If the experts say it’s OK, I would be on board with that.’’

O’Neill empathizes when he hears that Flyers such as Scott Laughton and Kevin Hayes want to get back and have a chance to see how the season would have played out. The Philadelphia team was in such a good place that a long playoff run seemed quite possible.

“Going back to the situation we had in the KHL this year, we had a really good team and a chance to win the Gagarin Cup,’’ O’Neill said. “Everyone wanted to play, even at a time when it was risky.

“You still want to play because you have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You take the situation the Flyers are in, it’s a way different situation when you’re in the playoff hunt. . .you have a much more realistic chance of winning. I’m sure that comes into play.’’

The NHL hasn’t made a conclusive decision on whether it will resume mainly because, like just about everything else in the world right now, there’s too much uncertainty.

“At the end of the day, all those guys are hockey players,’’ O’Neill said. “They want to do what they do best. You can’t blame them for that. You just have to be responsible, because your actions affect a lot of other people.’’

Two years ago, O’Neill signed a three-year contract extension with Jokerit, so he has one year left on this deal. He said he enjoys what Europe and Russia have to offer in terms of culture and hopes to play two, possibly three more seasons over there.

“I love playing in the KHL, it’s a lot of fun,’’ said O’Neill, whose parents still reside in Langhorne. “It’s been a really good experience, both on and off the ice. I’ve gotten to travel the world. As long as I stay healthy and continue to enjoy the game, I would like to play another two or three years.’’

As for the fate of the NHL season, O’Neill says some of the aforementioned options should remain open, at least until time possibly runs out.

“With the Olympics being canceled (opening up a large gap for TV coverage by NBC), I’m sure it provides an opportunity for the NHL to come back,’’ he said. “But at the same time, you’re getting to the point where, as a former player, my biggest issue would be you’re not going to have a training camp.

“If you take that much time off, even if you’re working out at home, it’s nothing like training camp, where someone is hitting you. That (resuming play quickly) is a huge risk of injury if you don’t have two or three weeks to train.’’

 

Wayne Fish
About Wayne Fish 917 Articles
Wayne Fish has been covering the Flyers since 1976, a stint which includes 18 Stanley Cup Finals, four Winter Olympics and numerous other international events.

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