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Salem’s O’Neill has found a home on blue line at Maine

Will O’Neill, a 6-foot-1 senior defenseman, is playing his last of four years for Maine’s Black Bears. He also played two years for the Omaha Lancers of the US Hockey League. Will O’Neill, a 6-foot-1 senior defenseman, is playing his last of four years for Maine’s Black Bears. He also played two years for the Omaha Lancers of the US Hockey League.
By Lenny Megliola
Globe Correspondent / March 22, 2012
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Will O’Neill once felt Orono, Maine was a long way from home. Until he arrived in Omaha.

“Nothing could be farther than Omaha,’’ the Salem homeboy thought.

He was a high school kid with big hockey dreams. Both stopovers would play an integral part in his hockey career.

“I always thought Maine would be a great spot for me, but it was too far away,’’ said O’Neill, a 6-foot-1, 200-pound senior defenseman and captain for the Black Bears.

He played two years at St. John’s Prep before repeating his sophomore year at Tabor Academy.

After his junior year, a scout from the Omaha Lancers of the United State Hockey League called: They wanted to sign O’Neill. He was flattered, but really, hockey in Omaha?

“It was kind of a shock,’’ said O’Neill. “I only knew about Omaha because it’s where they play the college baseball World Series,’’ said O’Neill.

The family made a scouting trip to Omaha. O’Neill would stay with a host family.

“My wife, Liz, was dead-set against it,’’ said O’Neill’s father, Bill, the men’s coach at Salem State University since 1981. “I had an open mind about it.’’

Their son decided to become a Lancer. “It’s one of the best things I did for my career,’’ said O’Neill.

“We played a pro schedule: 60 games and playoffs. Every team was stacked with great players.’’ He played two years for the Lancers. The first season, he had to squeeze in his senior year of high school, graduating from Millard North High in Omaha.

O’Neill bought into the whole USHL package.

“I was 18, and playing in front of crowds of 4,000 or 5,000 every night. Fans would ask for your jersey or autograph. I was 20 when I left [he’ll turn 24 next month]. I felt I was ahead of the curve. I’d played 150 Junior games. My skating had improved a lot. My strength and conditioning had improved dramatically. I was confident, and ready to go.’’

Next stop, Orono.

Scouting a four-day tryout camp in Omaha, Maine coach Tim Whitehead took one look at O’Neill and asked, “‘Who is that guy?’ He’s such a fierce competitor,’’ he said.

“I wanted to play in Hockey East,’’ said O’Neill. “It was a perfect fit.’’

A year ago, O’Neill topped all Maine blueliners with 21 points. This season he has 28 points, netting three goals - two coming Friday night in a 5-3 win over Boston University in the Hockey East semifinals. The Black Bears fell in the final, 4-1, to Boston College, but O’Neill was an all-tournament selection.

“He has natural instincts for the game,’’ said Whitehead.

The Black Bears (23-13-3) will meet Minnesota-Duluth in the NCAA Division 1 Northeast semifinals Saturday night at the DCU Center in Worcester. It will be the first NCAA tournament appearance for the team’s six seniors.

“Making the tournament used to be a staple for Maine,’’ said O’Neill. “We’re so excited.’’

They were excited last year too, but fell short. “We had a great team,’’ said O’Neill. Then things went south. O’Neill missed eight games with a sprained knee. “Down the stretch it got away from us a little bit,’’ he added. “We didn’t pull together at the right time.’’

The Orono experience resonated with O’Neill from the start. “The first game of my freshman year, I was walking to the rink [Alfond Arena] and there was a line outside at 5 o’clock, hundreds of people waiting to buy tickets for a 7 o’clock game. It takes your breath away.’’

He is overwhelmed by Whitehead’s passion for the sport.

“He’s head-over-heels committed to Maine hockey,’’ said O’Neill. “He’s positive, even when you make a bad play. He wants to nurture you.’’

After his second season at Tabor (2006), O’Neill was a seventh-round pick of the Atlanta Thrashers (now the Winnipeg Jets) in the NHL Entry Draft. “They’ve contacted me,’’ said O’Neill. “I would love to sign with the Jets. I’ve worked hard to get a shot.’’

Whitehead said Winnipeg is thrilled with O’Neill’s play. “He is a steal for a seventh-round pick,’’ said the coach. “He takes a hit to make a play.’’

There was no chance of O’Neill dancing around hockey. His father played on BU’s 1978 national championship team. The Salem State coach won his 500th game this season, beating Framingham State.

“I can’t remember not being around a rink, or not skating,’’ said Will. His brother Andrew, five years older, played at Pingree, a private school in Hamilton. “I went to all his games,’’ said O’Neill.

Their father was always there for them. Bill still critiques Will’s play.

“He’s open to that,’’ said the elder O’Neill. “As a father, I try to help as much as I can.’’ When he was 11 or 12, Will played forward before switching to defense. “He’s a puck-moving type,’’ said Bill.

Bill and Liz O’Neill went to as many as their sons’ games as the Salem State schedule allowed. The car trips would include the boys’ sister, Rachel, now 25. “I think maybe my sister got stuck in cars she didn’t want to be in,’’ said O’Neill.

Rachel, though, worked for a year in the hockey office of coach Don “Toot’’ Cahoon at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Best advice Will O’Neill got from his dad? “He always says ‘enjoy the process and keep getting better.’ ’’ The boy listened.

Lenny Megliola can be reached at lennymegs@aol.com.

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