O’Neill believes in USA Olympic team’s chances

Brian O'Neill enjoyed personal success at 2018 Winter Olympics. (IIHF photo)
      “Do you believe in miracles? YES!’’
      Those were the immortal words uttered by broadcaster Al Michaels on that famous February Friday in 1980 when a bunch of American kids pulled off the stunning alltime upset.
      Defeating Russia and going on to win the Olympic gold medal at Lake Placid that year was voted the No. 1 event of 20th century red, white and blue sports.
      Now, as improbable as it might sound, a similar group of youngsters, including 15 college players, are dreaming of making their own 21st century one-for-the-ages fantasy come true when the Beijing, China Games get underway next month.
      Oh, and there’s at least one participant who no longer can be classified a “newbie’’ anymore but still carries the hopes of a teenager.
      That would be 33-year-old Yardley native Brian O’Neill, who on Thursday was the only remaining USA player from the 2018 Pyeongchang, Korea Games named to the 2022 roster.
      To be selected a second time is quite an honor and one O’Neill, a former New Jersey Devil now playing for Jokerit, Finland (KHL), doesn’t take lightly.
      With so many fresh faces on the roster, O’Neill figures to embrace the role of veteran mentor and says he looks forward to the challenge.
      In a telephone conversation from Finland, O’Neill said he kind of guessed he might be in the running for another Olympic berth back in December when the NHL decided to pull out a second straight time due to COVID issues.
      “Then around the first week of January, they (USA Hockey) started reaching out to some guys,’’ O’Neill said. “After 2018, you never know what’s going to happen with the NHL. Starting back in July, I never thought it was a realistic scenario again but it was in the back of my mind.’’
      O’Neill chuckled when it was mentioned he might be looked upon almost as an unofficial coach for a roster close in age to the one in 1980.
      “I don’t know if they’re trying to recreate that,’’ he said. “I’m excited, I really am. I think the talent pool is really deep in USA Hockey right now. I believe some of these guys are future NHL superstars. And we have a really good coach (David Quinn, former New York Ranger and Boston College bench boss).’’
      No doubt this is another career highlight for O’Neill, who played four years for Yale University, won a Les Cunningham Award for American Hockey League MVP while playing for the Manchester Monarchs and had a brief stint with the Devils. In 2018, he registered a goal and three assists at the Olympics in Korea.
      Maybe the USA team is young but O’Neill doesn’t sound too concerned about an inexperience factor.
      “I don’t think that’s really an issue,’’ he said. “I actually think it might be an advantage to be innocent and naïve in a moment like this in such a short tournament.’’
      That’s kind of the way it went in 1980. No one gave the Americans a chance at even a medal, especially after they were destroyed by the Russians in a pre-Olympic exhibition game.
      “I don’t think there’s much pressure, to be honest,’’ O’Neill said. “All these guys are very familiar with each other, especially in Europe (five KHL players are on the roster, along with two from the American Hockey League). Looking back at 1980, I think a key for them was they had played together for so long. They played together in tournaments throughout the year and the World Championships. We have a lot of guys who played in the World Junior Championships together. So I think our team will be a little closer than it was in 2018 (a seventh-place finish) because our players are familiar with each other.’’
      What wisdom can an “old-timer’’ like O’Neill impart on these first-time Olympians?
      “With the Olympics there are so many unknowns,’’ he said. “Your mind can be all over the place, so to speak. Hopefully I can give them a little bit of a heads-up on what to expect. I’m pretty familiar with all the other European teams (such as Russia, Finland, Sweden, Czech Republic, etc.). I hope I’m in that role and I’m excited to see these (American) kids when they get there, learn and see what we can do.’’
      Assuming everyone gets through COVID screening and a one-day quarantine, O’Neill and his teammates are hoping to get in at least three or four good practices before game action begins.
      There are six other players with NHL experience on the roster, including Nick Shore, one of O’Neill’s teammates from their Manchester Monarchs days. Shore has played in 299 NHL games, so he’s going to be in the leadership group as well.
      O’Neill also will be playing with former Yale teammate Kenny Agostino from Morristown, N.J. and Andy Miele, who was O’Neill’s teammate back in their USHL/Chicago Steel days.
      Over the ensuing years, O’Neill has stayed in touch with all three so this will be, in a sense, like a reunion.
      The initial announcement of O’Neill’s selection brought cheers back here in Bucks County, including from his parents, who live in Langhorne. The enthusiasm was just as high as 2018.
      “The Olympics are never old hat,’’ O’Neill said. “Back in 2018, I thought that was the pinnacle of my hockey career but you dream of another time on that world stage. It’s special, so much fun. To get that opportunity again I think they (the O’Neill family) are excited for me. There are so many unknowns with COVID right now and so much uncertainty – we’ll probably save a lot of the celebrations for when the Olympics are over.’’
      O’Neill has two more years left on his Jokerit contract and then most likely will return to the States. His tentative post-career plans include a possible venture into business but some sort of affiliation with hockey hasn’t been ruled out.
      An Olympic medal would certainly put a cherry on the top of an illustrious career, one that is finally getting the respect it deserves.
      “My game has grown a lot,’’ he acknowledged. “I wish I was the player I am now back in 2015 (with the Devils). Everything happens for a reason. The NHL helped my game a lot in terms of skating, puck handling. It’s just an honor to be on the (USA) team again. Being the only returning player is something I take pride in.’’
      And remember, miracles do happen. It just comes down to believing they will.
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About Wayne Fish 2452 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.