Walleye defenseman Wes O’Neill has experienced the highest of highs and lowest of lows in his six-year pro career.
Now the 26-year-old is healthy and happy. O’Neill has found contentment after enjoying a cup of coffee in the NHL early in his career and then suffering from a debilitating back injury last season.
“People don’t see the battles that some of the guys have to go through,” said O’Neill, who is in his first season with Toledo. “I’m just so happy to be healthy and on a team with a great group of veteran guys like myself.”
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound defenseman has played in 267 games among the ranks of professional hockey. He leads Walleye defensemen with two goals and has three points in just six games.
O’Neill has helped Toledo get off to a good start (4-2-0).
The Walleye play their fifth straight road game tomorrow night at Wheeling before returning for two home games Friday and Saturday at the Huntington Center.
“It was a good test for us,” said O’Neill, who had a power play goal in Toledo’s 4-2 win at Reading on Sunday. “It’s huge to get off to a hot start because of the new direction the Walleye are taking.”
O’Neill is among a handful of veteran players Toledo coach Nick Vitucci brought in to bring stability and leadership.
“Wes has a terrific skillset and brings a ton of leadership and experience to our club,” Vitucci said. “He is a true top-flight defenseman who is extremely sound in his own end.”
O’Neill served as captain of Toledo’s rival Kalamazoo last season. But O’Neill said it was injury-plagued: He only played in 29 games and had two assists.
O’Neill said eight games into the season he felt the most excruciating pain in his back while eating dinner with his girlfriend.
“My girlfriend [Nicole] is a doctor, and she made me go right to the hospital and the doctor said I needed emergency surgery,” he said.
O’Neill had a pinched nerve in a disc in his back and had lost all feeling from the waist down in his left side.
“At that point you’re not worried about hockey, you’re worried about quality of life. It took two months to get feeling back,” he said.
The injury was from wear and tear and not a particular hit, he said, giving credit to Kalamazoo’s training staff for his rehabilitation.
But he said he wanted a clean start.
“Coming into this year, I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to play,” O’Neill said. “But I talked to Nick and I told him I wouldn’t agree to sign if I didn’t think I could contribute. I don’t think I’ll ever be back to 100 percent, but I feel good. I’m back to going to the rink with a smile on my face.”
O’Neill, a native of Windsor, Ontario, was a fourth-round draft pick of the New York Islanders in 2004. He also has played parts of four seasons in the American Hockey League.
O’Neill realized his childhood dreams when he made it to the NHL on two occasions.
He played in three games with Colorado in 2008-09 and appeared in two games for the Avalanche in 2009-10.
He never caught on, and he spent most of his career in the AHL and ECHL.
“It’s been an interesting hockey career for me,” O’Neill said. “I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. I believe the path is predetermined for us. But I’d sure like to be a locked out NHLer complaining about my millions right now.”
O’Neill counts himself among millions of young Canadian boys who dream about making it to the NHL.
“I grew up watching Hockey Night in Canada and watching Don Cherry, and you always say you want to be a part of that,” O’Neill said. “But all of the sudden I got that chance.”
O’Neill said he was eating a pregame meal with his AHL teammates with the Lake Erie Monsters when he received that once-in-a-lifetime call.
“I got a call from the coach and he said, ‘I want you to know you are going up,’ ” O’Neill said. “I called my dad [Tim] right away and told him to book a flight from Windsor to Colorado. The other end of the phone went silent. Then he asked if I got called up. It was a big moment for my whole family.”
O’Neill said he was beyond nervous while sitting on the bench with NHL veterans Joe Sakic and Milan Hejduk while waiting to take his first shift.
“I remember standing there ready to go, and Darcy Tucker turned to me and said, ‘Hey kid, no matter what happens, you will always be an NHLer,” he said. “That was when it hit me like a ton of bricks. You realize you’re getting to do something that very few people get to do.”
O’Neill also had the opportunity to play college hockey at Notre Dame. In 154 games in a four-year career, he scored 17 goals to go along with 61 assists and 160 penalty minutes. He played the last two seasons in Kalamazoo.
O'Neill said he is simply enjoying the game again, playing with fellow veterans such as Randy Rowe and Kyle Rogers.
“Toledo is a first-class organization,” he said. “Playing with a great group of guys means the burden isn’t all on your shoulders.”
Although he did not record a point in the NHL, O’Neill has six penalty minutes with the Avalanche.
A big highlight, he said, was playing against Mats Sundin, whom O’Neill called his role model while growing up.
“My first shift in the NHL was my greatest experience,” he said. “That’s definitely why I am grinding it out in the minors — to maybe get another taste.”
GOALIE CALLED UP: Toledo rookie goalie Petr Mrazek was called up to Grand Rapids of the AHL yesterday.
Mrazek started three games for the Walleye and won twice, while posting a 2.02 goals against average and a .944 save percentage. Mrazek, 20, was a runner up for the ECHL Goaltender of the Week honors following his start on Oct. 13th against Kalamazoo (4-1 win).
Grand Rapids also assigned goaltender Jordan Pearce to the Walleye. Pearce started his pro career with the Walleye in 2009. The Anchorage native has a 19-21-3 record while wearing a Walleye uniform. Pearce, 26, was the first Walleye goaltender to win five consecutive starts.
FISH TALES: Toledo went 2-1-0 on a road trip last weekend. The Walleye lost to Trenton 4-1 on Friday and rebounded with wins over the Titans (5-1 on Saturday) and Reading (4-2 on Sunday).
Toledo finally tallied a power play goal on Saturday night when defenseman Joey Ryan scored.
The Walleye, who started the season 0 for 15 with the man advantage, collected another power play in Sunday’s win when O’Neill scored.
Toledo hosts Fort Wayne on Friday and Evansville on Saturday.
Contact Mark Monroe at: email@example.com, 419-724-6354 or on Twitter @MonroeBlade.