BEIJING – The days prior to departing for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games were stressful for anyone making the long journey into the great unknown.
For Brian O’Neill it was even more nerve wracking as he waited for his fiancée Anniinato give birth to their first child in Helsinki, Finland.
Declan O’Neill came just three days before dad was to depart on a Team Finland charter for China to meet up with his USA teammates.
“It was definitely a stressful couple weeks leading up to my departure date, but I’m really glad that everyone’s healthy and it was nice to see them for a couple days before I left,” said the relieved new dad.
“Knowing they’re both healthy definitely freed up my mind a bit. I’m looking forward to seeing them when I get home.”
In the meantime, dad has a little unfinished business to attend to. As the only hold over from the 2018 U.S. Olympic squad, the 33-year-old Yardley, Pa., native still has a bit of a bitter taste left over from the way his initial experience ended in PyeongChang, South Korea.
“We didn’t have the luxury that a lot of the other countries had of practicing for a week or getting familiar with the guys. We had to jump right into it and still we were a post away advancing to the medal round,” said O’Neill, who rang a shot off the crossbar in overtime before the team lost in a shootout to the Czech Republic.
“I hate losing in a shootout, but those are the rules. I thought we had a chance to win gold that year.”
Now in his sixth season with Finland’s Jokerit team in the Kontinental Hockey League, O’Neill is having another solid year in a league that suits his size and style of play.
“I’ve been really comfortable in Finland, which has been huge for me personally. That’s kept me happy off the ice, which has led to some success on the ice,” said the 5-foot-9 forward
“I enjoy the KHL game. There is a little bit less hitting, which obviously for a smaller guy is definitely beneficial in terms of longevity for your career.”
Still, even after the NHL pulled out of sending its players overseas, he didn’t dare dream that lightning would strike twice. And yet here he is again, ready to put on the USA sweater one more time.
“You never want to get too far ahead of yourself,” said O’Neill, who scored a goal and three assists in his first Olympic experience. “I think my game has grown a lot, so I feel like I’m in a really good spot in my career. But then again, there are so many good players in USA Hockey.
“To get another opportunity at this, I didn’t think I was going to get the first one. And then finishing seventh definitely left the bitter taste in my mouth. I’m pumped to get another chance to redeem myself.”
He will be hooking up with some old friends on a line that will be counted on to jumpstart a team that should be fast and fun to watch. He and Andy Miele played junior hockey together with the Chicago Steel, and he was teammates with Kenny Agostino for two seasons at Yale University.
“I’m very familiar with both of their games, which anytime you don’t have a whole lot of prep developing some chemistry that’s a huge benefit,” O’Neill said.
“I know exactly what those two are capable of doing, what they like to do, what they don’t like to do on the ice. It’s been fun connecting with them again.”
A lot of ice has passed under their skates since they last teamed up, but the time together here in the athletes’ village and in the locker room has melted away the years.
More than just their contributions on the ice, U.S. head coach David Quinn is counting on all three to provide guidance and leadership in a locker room with 15 collegiate players in it.
“Obviously he’s a guy that’s had a lot of successes in his career, a guy that played in the last Olympics and did a really good job,” Quinn said.
“These older guys, European guys and pro guys, we chose them for two reasons: one, the type of players they were, and two, the type of people they were. That certainly went a long way in deciding who we were going to choose for this Olympic team.
“[Brian] is certainly someone that when we knew we were going to change gears, he was one of the first guys that we thought of.”