PHOTO: Jack Murray
With the 2019/20 season coming to a close, we will take a look at each of the six 20-year-olds on the Vees roster and look back on their junior hockey careers. Next up: forward Jay O’Brien.
The 2018/19 season was one that forward Jay O’Brien made a leap into from high school, suiting up for Providence College in the NCAA as a true freshman. A campaign that was hampered by injury and learning a balance of school and hockey made for a difficult transition and, ultimately, a big life choice. “It’s never easy to make a big decision like I did to leave college,” said O’Brien, “The jump from prep school to college is one that was more than anticipated for me. When I look back on it, I was so young in that I was only 18 and now that I am 20 years old, with a year of junior hockey under my belt, it feels entirely different.”
That decision to play junior hockey saw the Hingham, Massachusetts native come to Western Canada for the first time and commit to play for the Vees. Traditionally, a 20-year-old player in junior hockey has experience at that level, whether in the BCHL or other junior leagues. For O’Brien, his story was a different one, “I’m coming from a different background than guys like David (Silye), Jack (Barnes), Colton (Kalezic) and Carson (Kosobud), who have been playing junior hockey for three or four years now,” mentioned O’Brien, “This was my first year of junior and I didn’t really know what to expect. I went to Youngstown in the USHL for a couple of weeks after my junior year in high school but I was only 16 and I was more worried about playing well and focusing so much on the hockey side that I didn’t really take in the experience.”
Focusing on hockey was what O’Brien wanted to get back to when making the decision to play in Penticton and bringing joy back to the game that he loved, “You hear everyone say that junior helps your development so much and honestly, I agree with that,” said O’Brien, “My life is hockey, I love going to the rink every day and there is nothing better than going to the rink and being able to hang out with the guys. If you’re someone who loves hockey, junior is a perfect spot and I couldn’t agree more with my decision to come here.”
“It was my first year so there was that excitement to come to the rink every day and see the guys,” continued O’Brien, “I had so much fun coming in every day and practicing and it holds a special place for me and it still doesn’t feel real and I can’t believe it is over.”
Coming in and not knowing what to expect from junior hockey, O’Brien got his first taste in the exhibition season when the Vees hosted the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. A two-game weekend set that had more feeling than a normal preseason back-to-back matchup, “That was intense,” recalls O’Brien, “That first weekend is one I will always remember. It was like legit playoff games and were so intense with chirping and big hits. The fans were into it and I think that was huge for us to get those couple of games under our belt and go right into the regular season.”
The start of the regular season saw the Vees win each of their first 11 contests and created one of the first moments to remember for O’Brien, scoring an overtime, game-winning goal in Prince George against the Spruce Kings. For Jay, that wasn’t necessarily why the night was so memorable, however, “We had a big win up in Prince George and I guess that’s where I got my first taste of junior hockey when I got stitches about my eyebrow, done nicely by Kerrzy (Vees Trainer Brendon Kerr),” said O’Brien, “Those were the things you will always remember, getting stitches and then coming back to score the OT winner and have all the guys come over and celebrate and coaches giving you a pat on the back.”
“I knew we were going to be a good team early on,” continued O’Brien, “You could see it in practice as guys wanted to be there and be the best player they could. A guy like myself really tried to implement that and push the pace in practice and get everybody going early and start us off on the right foot. We learned a lot early about the way we wanted to play and how different lines looked but I think the biggest thing for us is that we just played really hard and we played together and that’s why we won so many games this year.”
Being a first round selection in the National Hockey League’s Entry Draft, going 19th overall in 2018 to the Philadelphia Flyers, O’Brien has been used to garnering attention from the opposition and was no different in his transition to junior hockey, “This year kind of reminded me of my last year in high school,” said O’Brien, “Everybody is keening on you and wants to take a lick at you and get you off your game but for me, there is nothing more I like better than that. I like getting into it with guys on the ice and it fuels the fire for me and makes me play with an edge and a bit chippy.”
As the season progressed, the play of the Vees seemed to get more and more intense, no matter who was in our out of the lineup. One constant always remained the same and that was how tight-knit of a team this was, “I think Fred (Harbinson) did a great job in finding the group that really fit our mold in guys that wanted to win and wanted to be a Vee,” mentioned O’Brien, “When you have guys like that, it makes it pretty easy to come together as a group. I think just the fact that we were able to come back in so many games, I don’t think I have ever been a part of a group like that before and says a lot about the team we had this season.”
“I think the biggest thing will probably be all the guys,” O’Brien mentioned about what he will remember the most from his time in Penticton, “I think we had the perfect combination of guys that liked to joke around but knew when it was time to get serious. We had a lot of different personalities and guys that brought different things to the locker room, we had goofy guys but everyone knew the times it was okay to joke around and have fun and when it was time to lock it down.”
“It was one of the best teams I’ve ever been on in terms of locker room chemistry and just everybody worked so hard on the ice and was so competitive,” continued O’Brien, “I think we had a lot of real competitors in the locker room that wanted one extra rep in practice or the gym and it just had a really special feel. I heard so many good things about Penticton and it’s reputation but once you get to know everyone there with the coaches and people around the team, it’s a really special place. I think it all starts with the owners in Graham and Sue (Fraser), they do such a great job with building the team and giving you every resource you need to become a good player and that’s why they have developed so many good hockey players.”
O’Brien will continue his hockey career back in collegiate hockey and much closer to home in 2020, heading back to Massachusetts to play with Boston University in the fall. “I’m pumped,” commented O’Brien, “It’s such a different feeling right now than it was in the summer before going to Providence. It was so chaotic with the Draft and the NHL Combine as well as the World Junior Showcase, it felt kind of rushed going into college. The biggest thing for me was the mental side of it and I feel ready to go. I’m excited to get back into college and play for such a historic university and play with a lot of guys that I grew up playing with and under a Head Coach in Albie O’Connell who I know very well and I’m pumped to get things going there.”
The Vees would like to thank Jay for everything he did while in Penticton and his contributions to the organization and the City of Penticton and wish him the very best in his future endeavours!