Touted as one of the best hockey prospects to ever come from the state of Tennessee, Aaron O’Neill recently finished his first season with the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League (USHL). O’Neill, now 17 years old, has already been successful over his young hockey career. Prior to playing with Green Bay, O’Neill played for the TPH Thunder U-16 Team where tallied 34 points (15G – 19A) in 40 games during the 2012-13 season. He also helped the Centennial High School Cougars win the regular season title in 2013 , tallying 21 goals and 12 assists in 17 games. Last year, O’Neill was drafted by the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) in the 10th round of Priority Selection. He was also invited to attend the United States National Team Development Program camp in the spring of 2013.
All of this led to O’Neill signing a contract with the Green Bay Gamblers where he played 32 games this season. Last fall, O’Neill also announced his intention of playing college hockey for the University of New Hampshire.
If there’s one thing that can be shown by all of the success that Aaron O’Neill has had in his career already, it’s that hockey is alive and growing in the south. O’Neill is a true talent and he was developed in Tennessee. He has high aspirations of making it to the NHL where he could join another Tennessee product, Blake Geoffrion, as drafted players from the state. Recently, O’Neill returned to Tennessee to undergo shoulder surgery. He will be ready for the 2014-15 season, and we were able to catch up with him about his experiences so far.
Hometown: Franklin, TN
Birthday: May 5, 1997
Commitment: University of New Hampshire
Penalty Box Radio: You were first selected by the Plymouth Whalers, but you elected to sign with Green Bay, what was your reasoning behind this? Was it so you could still be eligible to play college hockey?
Aaron O’Neill: I felt that at this point in my career- being a younger player- that I was not ready to give up my college eligibility. I also felt that the USHL and Green Bay would be the best place for me to develop and grow myself as a player. I am very happy with the decision I made.
PBR: What was the experience like playing for Green Bay?
O’Neill: Playing in Green Bay was a great experience. It was probably my most difficult season I’ve gone through playing hockey, but I felt I grew exponentially as a person and a player. I feel like this season really helped me develop and [it] prepared me going into this next season, to step into a bigger role and contribute more to the team. I am very happy with my decision to go and play in Green Bay and I am very excited about going back next season.
PBR: Not too many people are familiar with the USHL. How would you describe it in terms of development of players and quality of competition?
O’Neill: The main focus of the United States Hockey League (USHL) is to move players on to the Division I college level. I believe this year we had around 300 players commit to D1 schools and that has been about the average every year. They also are having more and more kids selected in the NHL draft. Two years ago they had about 32 kids selected and last year they had about 37 selected so the numbers are growing just as the league is. It is expected that about the same number of kids will be drafted in this year’s draft. In terms of development and competition, this is the premier junior hockey league in the US. The competition is right up there with any other league in the world. Our league fields high level talent very similar to the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). For me, it was fantastic. Every night I was competing against guys that were two-four years older than me as well as future NHL players and current NHL draft picks, so to me the competition was second to none.
PBR: You’ve committed to the University of New Hampshire for college hockey. What was the process like in choosing UNH and why did you choose to commit there?
O’Neil: There were a couple different schools that showed interest in me, but I just felt that New Hampshire was the right fit. I liked their combination of schooling, high level of hockey and the size of their campus. New Hampshire offers classes that I am interested in studying and a high level of education to go along with it. Their hockey program plays in probably the biggest and most competitive conference, Hockey East, in all of college hockey and they contend in the conference as well as nationally every year. The combination of these two things alongside the beautiful campus made choosing New Hampshire a no-brainer for me.
PBR: What would you say makes you different from other hockey players? Do you have any skills or difference in mindset that you think sets you apart?
O’Neill: I think one assets that allows me to compete at a high level at a young age is my speed. The game of hockey is more and more becoming a game based on speed and how fast you can play the game. My coaches can help me develop other areas of my game in terms of skill work and defensive positioning but speed is one thing that is hard to teach. This has been one major area that has allowed me to progress a little more quickly than some other players.
PBR: How have your previous coaches prepared you throughout your career? Does anything stand out that they’ve taught you about hockey or life in general?
O’Neill: They have definitely taught me some fundamentals that have helped me be able to compete in and fit into different systems my coaches now are implementing. Some things relating to stick positioning and defensive positioning have greatly helped prepare me for this level I am at now.
PBR: What are your short term hockey goals and long term hockey goals?
O’Neill: My short terms goals are to be able to come in this next year and contribute night in and night out to our team in Green Bay, and play a significant role in helping our team win hockey games. Long term, I want to be able to go in and contribute at New Hampshire as a freshman and then beyond, obviously. After New Hampshire I want to achieve my goal of playing professional hockey and playing in the National Hockey League.
We wish Aaron all the best in his career and hope to catch up with him in the future. You can follow his updates on Twitter @A_A_Ron11.
*Header image courtesy of The Augusta Chronicle*