Seldom does the hockey world see a first-round draft pick decide to drop down a level of competition. But that’s exactly what Jay O’Brien has done, in the hopes it will carve him a clearer path to the NHL.
Despite being an undersized center, O’Brien was highly touted going into his draft year. He committed to Providence College at 15, securing his dream of playing NCAA hockey. Notching 43 goals and 80 points in 30 games in his final year at Thayer Academy prep school, the native of Hingham, Mass., dominated a program that has churned out multiple NHLers. At the USA Hockey under-18 nationals the same year, he posted eight points in eight games.
O’Brien played an excellent 200-foot game. His teammates, coaches and the scouts marvelled at his balanced commitment to offense and defense and putting the team above his own ambitions. Seeing his upside, the Philadelphia Flyers selected him 19th overall in the2018 NHL draft.
But when O’Brien began his first season of NCAA hockey, he hit a wall. As an undersized forward at 5-foot-11 and just over 170 pounds, playing on a team loaded with talent down the middle, O’Brien found himself fighting for ice time and struggling to put the puck in the net. His season was further derailed when two concussions relegated him to the stands while his teammates competed for a national championship. The Friars’ 2018-19 season ended with a healthy O’Brien helplessly watching from the press box while his teammates played in the Frozen Four.
It was, without question, the most difficult point of O’Brien’s hockey career. For the first time, he seemed unable to keep up. While it is difficult for any college freshman to play against older opponents, it is doubly so for a center who doesn’t have the muscle to compete. “I wasn’t ready for that challenge,” he said. “It seemed like every time I took a few steps forward, I’d take a step back. It was frustrating.”
By the end of last season, O’Brien knew he needed a change. He made the excruciating decision to walk into coach Nate Leaman’s office and inform him he was leaving. “I just needed to clear my head,” he said, “I guess take a step back. I just told him I needed to re-evaluate things…Things change, things happen, that’s life. Everybody’s got to make moves to better themselves and go to a place where they’re most happy.”
His search for a new hockey club was supported by everyone involved – his parents, Frank and Amy; his agent, Matt Keator; and, the Flyers organization. “I sat down with (Flyers executives) Chuck Fletcher and Brent Flahr at the end of (2019 rookie) camp,” O’Brien said, “And they basically said, ‘We’re going to support you, we see you’re not different than when we drafted you. Don’t let the one bump in the road turn things around.’ ”
He landed with the Penticton Vees of the B.C. League, one of Jr. A’s most prolific organizations. With the change of scenery came a change in O’Brien���s eating, sleeping, and working habits. He added 12 pounds of muscle and bulked up to 184 pounds. For Vees coach Fred Harbinson, it was a unique opportunity to take a talented player and build him back up to his potential. The team helped O’Brien regain his confidence back by placing him on a line with Jackson Niedermayer (son of former NHLer Scott) and Alex DiPaolo, two talented forwards committed to playing NCAA hockey next season. In the team’s first four games, O’Brien posted seven points, including the overtime winner in the team’s fourth game that showcased his speed and slick hands.
His teammates have responded to his positive attitude, rallying around him as someone who can lead by example and through his experience. O’Brien was named an alternate captain before even suiting up for his first game. “When he comes to the rink every day, you can see he’s going to be a leader for us,” Harbinson said. “He has a real good demeanor that way. On the ice he’s leading by example with his work ethic.”
Although the season is still young, O’Brien has regained the swagger that intrigued scouts in his draft year. His game is back to where it was, and he is confident that next season, when he suits up for Boston University, the result will be different. Life may knock you down and when it does, it’s going to, in his words, “suck.” But there’s no shame in admitting failure. The most important thing is to acknowledge the setback, get up off the mat and put yourself back in a position to succeed.