By Adam Kaufman
Will O’Neill remembers it like it was yesterday. It was the reason the Salem, Mass., native and Winnipeg Jets prospect is still playing hockey today.
It was late in the 2006-07 season, O’Neill’s first year with the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League. At 19 years old and a seventh-round draft pick — 210th overall in 2006 — of the now-defunct Atlanta Thrashers, he was frustrated. He’d had good success at Tabor Academy and St. John’s Prep, but the jump to the junior level and the move from home to Nebraska wasn’t an easy one. On paper, the USHL rookie didn’t have a bad year, compiling 13 points over 62 games, but he had trouble keeping his focus. There were plenty of lows that had him thinking, “Hey, forget this. I’m going home.”
That’s when Will’s dad, Bill, stepped in.
Bill’s in his 32nd year as head coach at Salem State University. The Boston University alum and member of the 1978 NCAA championship squad is one of only 22 men in college hockey history to reach 500 wins, sitting at 502-311-54 with the Division 3 Vikings entering the 2012-13 campaign. After so many victories and 20 Massachusetts State College Athletic Conference championships, he knows a thing or two about mentoring young athletes.
“He made me stay in it, even if it was hard, just to get over the hump and be better for it,” Will said. “The only thing I can control is my work ethic, and he knew that if I could just pick away at it, keep getting better and stronger, that things would work out.”
Will finished the season building in the right direction, working at his game and on his body. Once the tryout camp in Omaha rolled around that summer, he was ready to impress. Will was quickly targeted by University of Maine head coach Tim Whitehead, leading to a commitment to enter Hockey East in the fall of 2008. Before college, he enjoyed a tremendous second year with the Lancers, posting 24 points and a plus-18 rating in 58 regular-season games while guiding the team to the league’s Clark Cup championship.
Thing is, while Will couldn’t have been more excited about the opportunity to play Division 1 hockey in Orono, the adolescent version of himself — the one whose dad was a standout at BU and had been on the bench at Salem State since before he was even a thought in his parents’ minds — would have been throwing a temper tantrum.
“My whole life, I always knew I either wanted to play for BU or for Salem State,” remembered Will. “That was it. There was no in between, no gray area.”
|Bill O’Neill is now in his 32nd year at Salem State. (Photo: Spartan SportShots)|
Will spent his childhood doing two things aside from playing hockey. He’d beg his dad to tell stories from the glory days at BU, rarely settling for hearing any given story just once if it featured famed 1980 Olympians Dave Silk (Scituate, Mass.), Jack O’Callahan (Charlestown, Mass.), Jim Craig (North Easton, Mass.) or Mike Eruzione (Winthrop, Mass.). The rest of the time, he was at Salem State, enjoying games with his family, sitting alone in the stands watching practices, or hanging out with his favorite players in the locker room. He felt like the coolest kid in school, like a rock star.
When the time came to pursue his own college career, though, dad’s alma mater wasn’t interested in Will, a fact that certainly would add a little incentive to those match-ups between the Bears and Terriers.
Then there was Salem State. Bill — having already coached his eldest son, Andrew, from 2002-07 and even his own brother, John, back in the 1980s — probably would have rolled out the red carpet to coach his son, just as he’d done over several summers with the Massachusetts Select teams, but that wasn’t the right fit either. The opportunity to play Division 1 was just too good to pass up.
“Maine’s an unbelievable place with a huge tradition,” Will said. “It was a no-brainer. I had a great experience and a great career there, made the best friends and I have an unbelievable girlfriend who I met on the first day of school. It was the perfect place for me.”
Will wrapped up his four years with the Black Bears last spring, becoming just the seventh Maine defenseman to reach the 100-point plateau. The smooth-skating, quick-thinking co-captain finished his career with 19 goals and 101 points, with 263 penalty minutes, in 141 games. He then joined the American Hockey League’s St. John’s IceCaps for his first taste of life in professional hockey.
Now 24, Will’s in his first full pro season with the Jets’ top affiliate, marking another new level for him and the next stage of his relationship with his father, whose playing career peaked at a tryout with the Boston Bruins following college.
“We talk about the game, watch games and analyze games together,” said Will, adding that his mom, Liz, and sister, Rachel, might say they talk hockey a little too frequently. “That’s where I get a lot of my hockey sense and smarts from, watching games with him, picking apart the game, seeing how defensemen do this and do that. We bounce ideas off each other while we watch games.”
“We have our own language, probably,” Bill said. “I’ve watched most of his games along the way, live or on the Internet, and he’s always been open and I really appreciate that. A lot of times when kids get older, they don’t want to hear everything or don’t want to hear what they don’t want to hear. In Will’s case, he’s a real student of the game.
“He’s trying to learn and evaluate himself in the process, and he’s open to my suggestions and what I might have to say,” Bill continued. “It’s funny, though, as he gets older, I’m listening to him a lot more in my situation, too. He’s a very smart player and a knowledgeable hockey person and there are a lot of times in our conversations when I’m getting more from him than he’s getting from me.”
It’s true. Will’s developed a real interest in coaching in recent years. The two men frequently exchange ideas and opinions over the styles that teams play, generating what’s usually a compelling back and forth given their experiences in the game.
Maybe, if the stars align one day, Will could join the Salem State chapter of the family business, where Andrew is a member of Bill’s coaching staff and John, once a coach as well, runs the school’s arena, the O’Keefe Center.
“I haven’t thought of that,” Bill said with a laugh. “My whole family’s working together and it’s a great thing, but we’re all rooting for Will, watching and supporting him.”
“I want to have as long a playing career as I possibly can,” Will said. “That’s all I’m worried about right now. But when I’m done, I’d love to coach hockey. I’ve never envisioned myself doing anything else besides being in this game.”
It’s easy now to forget that frustrating period in Omaha when a 19-year-old Will considered walking away and the significance of Bill’s intervention, one that eventually could help propel his son into the National Hockey League.
“I know what he wanted to do,” remembered Bill, speaking as much as a coach as a father. “He wanted to push the envelope and play at the highest level. He decided to go to the USHL and had a tough first year. It’s a great league, it was a solid team and he had some ups and downs. It was a growing year for him. I think he met that challenge and developed from it. It was a positive then and it continues to be now.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.