March 26, 2009 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Bulldog Determination

Yale Freshman Fights Off Serious Knee Injury, Rises From Obscurity To Make His Mark

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

Brian O'Neill had 12 goals as a freshman for the Bulldogs. (photo: Brad Pettengill)

Brian O'Neill had 12 goals as a freshman for the Bulldogs. (photo: Brad Pettengill)

As Brian O'Neill sat on the couch of his suburban Philadelphia home after his sophomore season of high school, pondering the results of an MRI exam on his knee, the idea of playing in the Division I NCAA tournament was about as ridiculous as winning American Idol and the Olympic decathlon. In the same year.

It's difficult enough to be a 5-foot-9 hockey player from Southeastern Pennsylvania, no matter how much you may dominate the high school leagues there. But where there was once hope, at least, of taking a shot in the United States Hockey League — maybe then Division III — O'Neill now had a doctor telling him that the cheap shot he took to the knee during the Eastern Pennsylvania championship game (known as the Flyers Cup) meant his playing career was over.

"It was really scary," O'Neill said. "Going from playing really well to not being able to play ever again. That was a tough day for me."

After spending the day pondering this fate, O'Neill's family got a second opinion.

"It's not that bad," the second doctor said. "You might be able to come back in six to eight months."

That was a relief, of sorts. However, the USHL was on hold. Bigger dreams? Forget it.

O'Neill stayed in Pennsylvania to play another year of midgets.

"Luckily I was (OK), but it took me a year and a half to get back to where I was," O'Neill said.

Fully recovered, but a year behind schedule, O'Neill got his opportunity at the USHL's Chicago Steel tryout camp in the summer of 2007. That's when lightning struck.

In just a week of tryouts and practice games, O'Neill so impressed the college recruiters in attendance, particularly Yale assistant C.J. Marattolo, that he was offered a spot immediately. Always a good student, O'Neill seized the opportunity. He didn't just apply, get accepted, and get the spot at Yale — he went out and made himself better and better through his year in Chicago.

O'Neill played half the season with the dynamic Andy Miele, who left midway through the season to go to Miami.

"That helped my confidence, playing with a goal scorer," O'Neill said.

He had used his time in Chicago so wisely, that when he came to New Haven, coach Keith Allain had confidence to play him with the top line of Sean Backman and Marc Arcobello.

There were some growing pains, as there always are, but the team's incremental improvement through the year, coincided with O'Neill's, and by season's end, both were soaring. An amazing four-goal third-period comeback at Colgate one night, propelled Yale to a regular season championship. Three weeks later, the Bulldogs had their first-ever ECAC tournament championship, defeating a program, Cornell, that had won a record 11 ECAC titles in its history.

In the final game, O'Neill set up Backman with the game's first goal, threading a perfect pass across to Backman, who was cutting in the back door.

"The whole situation, the atmosphere, you always dream of something like this," O'Neill said, after the championship. "Going against a team like Cornell, it just means that much more to me."

In all, O'Neill had 12 goals this season, and was named to the ECAC's All-Rookie Team and the College Hockey News national All-Rookie team. But he also had something more rare for a freshman, the ability to play two-way from the get go.

"He's such a great two-way player," said Yale coach Keith Allain. "He's also a great complimentary player, because he's playing with two special guys there. He can make plays and finish."

"I'm not really a pure goal scorer," O'Neill said. "Especially with Sean on the line, I get him the puck as much as possible."

And so here he is. Friday, O'Neill and Yale will play Vermont in the first round of the NCAA tournament — just Yale's third appearance ever, and first since 1998. And, as if fate hasn't smiled upon them enough, it just so happens to be the year where Yale is hosting the East Regional in Bridgeport, Conn., something that was decided six years ago. That means Yale will play in front of a lot of its own fans.

Theoretically, there's other levels O'Neill can attain. He can get stronger, faster, smarter. But whatever happens, it's already a long way from that day on his couch.

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