Jeff O'Neill is starving. "Dude," he growls from the driver's seat
of his black Mercedes S430, "I've got to get something to eat or
I'm going to pass out." It's lunchtime, and the Carolina
Hurricanes' 26-year-old winger has spent the morning sweating
through a workout. Fifteen minutes later O'Neill is seated at a
table in a Raleigh health-food store, attacking a slab of salmon
and a salad. Between mouthfuls he muses on the culinary life of a
bachelor. "Cooking for yourself is a pain in the ass because
you've got leftovers and they just sit around," he said. "But
during a long homestretch, I like to eat three or four
home-cooked meals. You know, I boil vegetables, cook a steak or
chicken on the barbecue, or pull out the George Foreman."
Nothing fancy, mind you. He's a puckhead, not Wolfgang Puck. And
not surprisingly, there's nothing fancy about his hockey, either;
he plays a simple game of booming shots and crunching bodychecks.
Simple but effective: With 72 goals over the past two seasons,
O'Neill has vaulted into the ranks of the league's top young
power forwards. His 13 postseason points and team-high eight
goals, put together as the Hurricanes crashed the Stanley Cup
finals, brought O'Neill the attention he had craved in his seven
seasons in Hartford and Carolina. "You only get the attention you
deserve when you win," O'Neill says. "If you're on a losing team,
nobody cares about you anyway--as they shouldn't. When you start
winning, that's when you get respect."
Little by little, O'Neill has assembled the elements of an elite
player's game. He's proved to be consistent, with three
consecutive seasons of 25-plus goals and 60-plus points. He's
grown into his 6'1", 195-pound frame and become a physical force.
But perhaps the strongest indicator of his development is his
play on the road. Some marquee scorers struggle when, as
visitors, they're forced to go head-to-head against the home
team's top checkers, but O'Neill is more effective in that
situation than he is playing at home. Last season O'Neill scored
20 of his 31 regular-season goals in away games, a 64.5% mark
that ranked fourth in the league. Over the past three seasons he
has scored 55 goals on the road, 56.7% of his total output.
"Lots of skill players don't want to go through a 60-minute game
fighting like a dog for every shot, and they rely on the coach to
get them a more favorable matchup so they can have an easier
night," says Carolina coach Paul Maurice. "Jeff's not like that."
For O'Neill, thriving on the road begins with a streamlined
approach on the ice. "We keep our game simple, a tight-checking,
physical style," he says of his line, which has Ron Francis at
center and Sami Kapanen at right wing. "Sometimes we get fancy at
home, making passes we aren't capable of." On the road against a
checking line, O'Neill's unit puts an emphasis on gaining the
offensive zone and then establishing a forecheck, a hallmark of
Maurice's conservative system. Because the first priority of the
opponent's checking line is typically to separate the
slick-passing Francis from the puck, O'Neill and Kapanen attempt
to get the puck to him in one of several key spots: behind the
net, where Francis can use the cage as a shield and feed either
wing in the slot; coming across the blue line, where he can
accelerate with the puck and make it difficult for defenders to
mark him; or down low, where he can quickly feed O'Neill or
Kapanen near the far post. What's more, because checking lines
rarely attempt a rush and usually dump the puck, O'Neill's line
can think offense almost all the time, aggressively pursuing the
puck to set up a second or third chance during a possession.
Though O'Neill can often fight through defenders, he's more
effective when he picks his spots. "Playing against some 6'2" kid
who wants to bash everything in sight wears on you," says
O'Neill. As a result, he conserves his energy on the road by
curbing his skating inside the blue line. Praised early in his
career for his speed, O'Neill was too often spinning his wheels,
overpursuing the puck or taking the long route around defenders.
With experience has come the knowledge of the tendencies of both
opponents and teammates.
O'Neill has also developed a pregame road routine that gets him
in the proper mind-set for the match. The night before a game he
joins Francis and defensemen Bret Hedican and Sean Hill for
dinner, usually at a restaurant of Francis's choosing, and
afterward orders key lime pie from room service before hitting
the sack by midnight. On game days O'Neill takes a light morning
skate and then naps as late as possible in the afternoon, usually
waking up when roommate Jeff Daniels hits the shower. "He's
always complaining about something," says Daniels. "I'm up too
early, I'm making too much noise getting a shower. That's why I
let him hold the remote at night, to keep him happy."
By playing smart and saving his strength, O'Neill has become a
particularly dangerous scorer on the road in the postseason. Last
season he had five goals and four assists in 12 playoff matches
away from Raleigh. His signature performance came in Game 3 of
the Eastern Conference finals in Toronto. Early in the first
period he was nailed by the puck under his right eye, causing it
to swell almost shut. After trainers taped bandages around the
eye and on his cheek, O'Neill resumed playing, even as the right
side of his face turned a brawler's rainbow of brown, purple and
yellow. Then, at 6:01 of overtime, he scored the game-winner,
which gave Carolina a 2-1 series lead. When the series returned
to Raleigh for Game 5, hundreds of fans wore black paint around
their eyes in homage.
"That was nuts," says O'Neill, who joined the franchise in 1995
in its original home in Hartford. "The playoffs were awesome for
this organization. Playing in Hartford, playing in Greensboro
[site of Hurricanes home games during the 1997-98 season], I
always wondered whether I would play in [an enthusiastic] hockey
market, and at that point last year, I said to myself, I'm in.
I'm in now."
O'Neill has long carried the promise of stardom. At 16 he was
picked first in the Ontario Hockey League's priority draft. In
two seasons with the Guelph Storm, O'Neill scored 77 goals and
205 points, and the Whalers made the 18-year-old the fifth choice
in the 1994 NHL draft. But frustrated by contract negotiations
(he turned down Hartford's four-year, $3.5 million offer) and so
cocksure that he felt he deserved to be paid like a star, O'Neill
walked out of Whalers camp that September, leaving Hartford at 4
a.m. to drive alone to his hometown of King City, Ont. He was
blasted by a Hartford Courant columnist, who wrote that O'Neill
had given himself "a black eye" and was a "malcontent."
O'Neill doesn't disagree. "When you come into the NHL as a
veteran of junior hockey, you think you're hot s---," O'Neill
says. "You think you know everything, but you don't. I even
thought I deserved to be on the power play--I was a snot-nosed
kid." Back in Guelph for a third season, O'Neill had 43 goals and
126 points. In January 1995 the NHL and the players' association
signed a new collective bargaining agreement that included a
rookie salary cap. With little choice, O'Neill accepted the
Whalers' offer and reported to training camp for the '95-96
He got off to a rocky start, scoring just eight goals in 65 games
as a 19-year-old NHL rookie, but he wasn't long for hard times.
Consider O'Neill's first (and only) minor league demotion, midway
through the next season. Shipped to Springfield of the American
Hockey League, he played one game but was immediately recalled
when Whalers winger Robert Kron was injured. O'Neill joined
Hartford on the West Coast, and in his second game back in the
NHL he had a hat trick at Anaheim. Springfield was dust in the
rearview mirror. Columbus Blue Jackets winger Kevin Dineen, who
was O'Neill's teammate and road roommate for four years, jokes
about it: "He must have enjoyed his minor league experience,
because now he tells everybody that he's paid his dues."
Dineen was the first in a series of mentors for O'Neill, who,
like many precocious teenagers making the jump to the NHL, found
that adjusting to life as a pro wasn't as easy as he'd thought.
"When you're 19 or 20, you can go out, have a good time, and wake
up and feel fine," says O'Neill. "I thought the NHL was just
about having fun, and whatever happened on the ice, well,
whatever. It was a tough transition, to try to become a man and
succeed in the NHL at the same time."
From the well-traveled Dineen, whose autographed picture O'Neill
still keeps, O'Neill learned the ropes; from Maple Leafs winger
Gary Roberts, a teammate from 1997-98 through 1999-2000 and a
fervent fitness freak, O'Neill learned the importance of physical
preparation, diet and conditioning; and from the Hurricanes'
6'3", 200-pound Francis, O'Neill learned how to reap the benefits
of the blessed combination of size, quickness and soft hands in
the offensive zone.
O'Neill's on-ice success isn't necessarily what endears him to
teammates, though. Rather, for some it's that he never hesitates
to give you his two cents. O'Neill is Lenny Bruce on skates.
Here's his riff on endorsements: "Guys tell me, 'Why don't you
get a car deal?' Everybody in the NHL makes enough money to get
their own goddam car." On being passed over for the Canadian
Olympic team last February: "It probably would have been a lot of
fun, but I ended up having a blast in Las Vegas instead." On a
tattoo he got when he was a teenager: "It's a baby in a diaper
holding a hockey stick. You think you're doing the coolest thing
in the world, and 10 years later you're looking at yourself in
the mirror wondering what the hell the problem is."
O'Neill is in line at the checkout counter of the health-food
store, having loaded up on juices, eggs, premade salads, protein
bars and lots of fresh produce. "Fruit, yogurt, crushed ice,
protein," he counsels. "Put them in the blender, have a shake in
the morning, and at least it deters you from grabbing a bag of
salt-and-vinegar chips." He allows a harried-looking housewife to
cut in front of him and laughs as he spies Britney Spears on the
cover of a tabloid. "Love to meet her," says O'Neill, who is
single. He snorts when it's suggested that, given his stature as
a pro athlete, a rendezvous could probably be arranged. "I'm not
in that circle, bro. I'm not a New York Ranger."
Indeed, schlepping his shopping bags to the parking lot in his
black tank top, baggy brown shorts and flip-flops, O'Neill is a
million miles from Broadway. But he's had a taste of the bright
lights, and he's hungry for more.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY LOU CAPOZZOLA GOING PLACES By playing smarter on opponents' ice, O'Neill was a breakout star in last year's playoffs, with five road goals.
COLOR PHOTO: ELSA/GETTY IMAGES/NHLI EYE OPENER O'Neill, who was hit by a puck in Game 3 of the Toronto series, scored the winning goal in overtime, then a big goal in the clinching Game 6 (left).
COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA (RIGHT) [See caption above]
O'Neill is Lenny Bruce on skates; he never hesitates to give you
his two cents.