The family that plays together...
by Joseph Edwards/CHN Writer
Brian and Stephen Gionta. Ben and Patrick Eaves. Paul, Steve, and Martin Kariya. Brad and Tony Zancanaro. Chris and Greg Collins.
Hockey East has seen numerous families come through its member teams. As Will O'Neill embarks on his college hockey career at Maine this season, he will continue another lineage that is much more unique.
Will comes to the Black Bears as a 20-year-old freshman defenseman with an impressive resume: Anderson and Clark Cup Champion as a member of the USHL's Omaha Lancers, 2004 U-17 USA team member, and 2006 seventh-round draft pick of the Atlanta Thrashers, just to name a few bullet points.
While his personal accomplishments are nothing to scoff at, O'Neill still has some tough acts to follow at his family's own dinner table.
His father, for instance, Bill, is the coach at Div. III Salem State College, and has put together a 417-255-42 lifetime record and two Final Four appearances. During his tenure, he has overseen the collegiate careers of Will's brother, Andrew, who is now an assistant coach at Div. III Williams College, and uncle, John, who manages the Salem State rink.
"It was great," Will says. "I had three mentors, three coaches. I was always in the rink, all the time. I've never known anything other than loving hockey — I was on the ice as soon as I could walk."
Will's youth was spent at the Vikings' practices, shooting pucks in the corner with Andrew, as the two continually tried to one-up the other.
"We were always battling and competing," Andrew reminisces.
The hockey rivalry extended beyond the ice, as street and pond versions mixed in as well. Whenever there was a question, however, the boys knew just where to go.
"I've always had a constant coach in my father," Will says. "Whenever I needed it, right there, firsthand. I could see myself getting better."
When Will wasn't playing, he picked a good role model to follow.
"Whenever I didn't have a game, I was at Andrew's," he says. "I would always watch my brother, try to emulate him. He wore number nine, so I wanted to wear number nine. He's how I got into hockey the most."
Will watched his brother head to prep school, then a post-graduate year, followed by his time on the Salem State roster. He followed him intently, but knew his path to college hockey wasn't going to follow the blueprint.
"I always wanted to play Division I hockey, in Hockey East," Will says. "I knew I had to go to juniors if I wanted to move up to college hockey. It was a big-time sacrifice to leave my family and friends."
If any family were to understand, though, the O'Neills would be it. Bill, Andrew, and Uncle John are college hockey veterans, while sister Rachel spent her undergraduate time working for Don Cahoon in the UMass hockey office, and mom, Liz, is a fixture at the Vikings' games. ("I'm lucky they're as close to me as they are," Bill laughs. "They've embraced [the college hockey lifestyle].)
"Not many people could take the road he has," Andrew says. "I don't know if I could do that. He's right in the thick of it."
When it came time for Will to choose where to play his college hockey, he had plenty of brains to pick.
"We spoke about it as a family," Andrew recalls. "We weighed the positives and negatives, but we let him make the decision."
Will landed on Maine, where he already sees the role hockey plays in everyday life in Orono.
"The tradition, the environment in Maine is special and unique," Will opines. "Hockey is everything up here."
If that doesn't sound like a home for one of the O'Neills, they're sure to talk about it. Phone conversations and text messages are a daily occurrence amongst the family, though the talk often goes beyond hockey. That hasn't stopped Will from getting good advice from his older brother.
"He's told me to stay focused, work on school," Will says. "He's been through college hockey."
As Will goes through the experience himself this season, he'll be writing the next volume the O'Neill family college hockey story, and if history has anything to say, it'll be a good read.