O'Neill happy in role with Walleye

Back on ice after injury, Toledo defenseman finds contentment


  • Wes O'Neill leads all Walleye defensemen with 2 goals and 3 points in just six games this season.
    Wes O'Neill leads all Walleye defensemen with 2 goals and 3 points in just six games this season.

    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: mmon­roe@the­blade.com, 419-724-6354 or on Twit­ter @Mon­roeBlade.