By Phil Stacey
---- — Will O’Neill is ready.
Make that absolutely, without a doubt, no questions asked ready.
“I’ve poured everything I have into this and am ready to go. I’m excited for the opportunity,” said the 24-year-old Salem native, who is heading off to Newfoundland this weekend to take part in his first professional hockey training camp with the St. John’s IceCaps of the American Hockey League.
A 6-foot-1, 210-pound defenseman who graduated after four stellar seasons at the University of Maine last fall, O’Neill dipped his skates into the pro waters last spring when he joined the IceCaps — the farm team of the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets, who own O’Neill’s rights — after Maine’s season ended in the NCAA playoffs. Playing seven games, he had a goal and two assists for St. John’s, registering nine penalty minutes and finishing with a plus-1 rating.
Having worked all summer not only on his game but also on adding muscle and core strength, O’Neill says he’s ready for the rigors that await him in the AHL.
“I’ve had a big summer, put my time in working on my body and my game. I’d ready to go up there, play my game and show what I can do,” said O’Neill, a captain for the Maine Black Bears last winter who eclipsed 100 career points as a defenseman.
“I wanted to work on everything, but in particular my leg strength. My goal was to get my lower body as big and strong as I could, and I feel like I’ve done that. Plus, I put on 10-12 pounds of muscle, which I think is really going to help.”
O’Neill did all this by working out 1-on-1 with Alex Carew at The Training Room in Marblehead four days a week.
“He’s been great putting a program together for me to work hard and succeed,” O’Neill said.
He also spent a good part of his summer skating at Boston University with other local pros and young standouts, including the Bourque brothers, Chris and Ryan of Boxford; former St. John’s Prep star John McCarthy (of the San Jose Sharks); and New York Islanders prospect Doyle Somerby of Marblehead.
The IceCaps, who reside in the Atlantic Division of the AHL’s Eastern Conference, won their division last year with a 43-25-5 mark.
With the National Hockey League having locked out its players for the second time in nine seasons, there are many players on two-way contracts (i.e., get paid one amount if you play in the NHL and another if you’re in the AHL) who will now be skating in the American League, at least until the lockout is settled. But O’Neill said he’s not worried about that; he views training camp as a chance to show the Jets’ brass what he can do as a professional.
“I’ve put in the time and sacrifice, working on my body and my game, and now this opportunity is there for me to grab,” he said. “The AHL is right there, and the NHL is the next level up. Last year made me realize I can play (in the AHL), but at the same time there are so many good players out there that to compete at that level, you have to be at your best every time you step on the ice.”
As someone who was selected in the seventh round (210th overall) of the 2006 NHL Draft, O’Neill is cognizant that he’s constantly being evaluated. But with a confidence in himself and his ability, he’s at peace letting his game speak for itself.
“I’m a good player and I know that; it’s why I can go in there and have success, I believe. But at the same time, there are no guarantees. I just want to try and help the team win, contribute to the Ice Caps organization, turn some heads, and show the Winnipeg organization I can be a good player for them.
“Anything they want me to do, I’ll do.”