Yardley’s O’Neill heading home after his Finnish team pulls out of Russia’s KHL playoffs

Brian O'Neill plays for Jokerit of the KHL.
      You see it all over the sports world, people joining together to do what they can to show their feelings of support for Ukraine in its struggle against Russia.
      Movements have sprung up around the globe and one of them has directly affected a Bucks County native son.
      The pro hockey career of Yardley’s Brian O’Neill was thrown into uncertain status recently when Finland elite team Jokerit announced it was pulling out of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League playoffs.
      The bombshell revelation came after the Helsinki-based squad made it clear the withdrawal was executed as a form of protest due to Russia’s actions.
      Jokerit was the first team to quit the KHL and at least one other team has followed suit.
      The 33-year-old O’Neill, a former player for Yale University and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, was getting ready for this season’s KHL playoffs when the announcement came down.
      It was both frustrating and disappointing news to say the least.
      Obviously, O’Neill was reluctant to offer any personal opinions on Jokerit’s move because the situation is so political.
      But this much is known: O’Neill has two years remaining on his Jokerit contract but there’s no way of predicting the team’s future, be it in the KHL or someplace else in Europe.
      O’Neill makes it clear he wants to continue his career it’s just that he’s not sure where.
      In a telephone conversation from his Helsinki residence, O’Neill said the whole matter still hasn’t really sunken in yet.
      “We’ve been trying (for playoff success) with Jokerit for years,’’ he said. “Three years ago when the pandemic started, we won the first round of the playoffs, then the second round was canceled (in late March, 2020). Last year we had to play all the games in Russia – away from our home rink, which was quite a challenge. Then this year happens. It really hasn’t sunk in quite yet. We’re all real disappointed. We had a chance to do something special with this group of guys. It would have been fun to see how good we were.’’
      Perhaps adding to O’Neill’s frustration was his recent experience with Team USA at the Beijing Olympics.
      The Americans made it through preliminary round action undefeated and finished atop the Group A standings.
      But in the quarterfinals against Slovakia, O’Neill suffered a foot injury in the second period, had to leave the game and the Americans went on to a depressing 3-2 shootout loss.
      “I think the most frustrating part was it was an elimination game,’’ he said. “And it was a chance to win a gold medal. It’s really going to sting for a long time. Those opportunities don’t come around all too often.’’
      O’Neill said a nerve on his foot was struck and he couldn’t put any weight on it. He added he probably could have played in the next game but there was no next game.
      Ironically, Finland, the country he plays professional hockey in, went on to beat the Russian Olympic Committee for the gold medal.
      However, overall it was a positive experience. In 2018, he got to experience Korea and now he made his third trip to China.
      “The Olympic Village I thought was world class,’’ he said. “They did a really good job with the apartments. Both rinks were quite nice. In that respect it was a pretty good experience.’’
      There was one episode which will go down in the “mixed feelings’’ memory book.
      On the charter flight over from Helsinki to Beijing, the passenger sitting in front of O’Neill tested positive for COVID-19. That raised some immediate red flags.
      “The flight was quite crowded,’’ O’Neill recalled. “I got put in close contact protocol for seven days. That was a bit annoying. The whole seven days you’re tested twice a day. You are on guard the whole time. The phone rings and you think it’s going to be the COVID office. If I had tested positive, I would have been out for the Games. And you can’t leave (China) for a couple weeks. But it was a tough first week for sure.’’
      O’Neill did score a goal in the American’s 8-0 rout of China in the opening game so he does have some positive memories to look back on.
      In a normal year, O’Neill usually returns after KHL play to the United States in mid-April. That timeline might be moved up this year.
      As for his future in hockey, it’s anybody’s guess.
      “We’ll see what happens,’’ he said. “Over the next month hopefully there should be some more clarity with what’s going to happen with Jokerit. There are so many unknowns.’’
      He’s enjoyed a remarkable career, including an American Hockey League MVP award and two Olympics, so he hasn’t been shortchanged.
      “A lot of it (Jokerit’s future) is out of our control,’’ he said. “It’s a challenging situation but I’m sure it will work itself out. I’ll be 34 in June. I feel pretty good.’’
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About Wayne Fish 2446 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.