The former Boston University men’s hockey team captain joined the Terriers in April as an assistant coach for the 2014-15 season, completing a full-circle move for O’Connell, who is once again affiliated with the same program that he played for almost 20 years ago.
“It’s great. I’m excited,” O’Connell said. “I’m excited for the year to start. I think we’ll have a pretty good team. I think how good guys can get throughout the year and how they improve is going to dictate the outcome of how we end up.”
O’Connell joined the Terriers during the 1995-96 season as a heralded recruit. Over a year before his arrival at BU, the Watertown native was selected by the New York Islanders in the fifth round of the 1994 NHL Draft.
Playing a key role on a BU squad filled with NHL talents such as Chris Drury, Shawn Bates and Tom Poti, O’Connell and the Terriers established one of the greatest stretches in program history in the late 1990s, posting a 97-41-14 record from 1995-99.
While there were many positive takeaways to choose from for O’Connell, his fondest memory of playing for the Terriers was the team’s success in the annual Beanpot tournament. O’Connell and other members of the Class of 1999 are one of only four classes in program history to win four Beanpot titles.
Even though O’Connell was never able to capture a NCAA title, he made two Frozen Four appearances with BU in both 1996 and 1997 – including a loss to the University of North Dakota in the 1997 championship game, 4-2. Captaining the team during his final campaign in 1998-99, O’Connell led his squad in scoring with 39 points (nine goals, 30 assists) in 36 games.
By the end of his career with the Terriers, O’Connell acknowledged that learning under longtime BU head coach Jack Parker helped him grow as a hockey player in multiple areas – mostly due to the completive tone that Parker established from the get-go with his teams.
“He was a great coach,” O’Connell said of Parker. “We had good teams, so it was very competitive. It was setting a high standard and then coming to work and practice every day trying to get better on and off the ice. We held a high standard and he made the practices more competitive. It was very intense. He was ready to go for practice, which led to players being ready to go and be ready to compete every day.”
While O’Connell may have turned in his scarlet and white sweater in 1999, he did not hang up his skates following his departure from Walter Brown Arena. O’Connell later played professional hockey for four teams in both the East Coast Hockey League and the British National League from 1999-02, compiling 132 points (54 goals, 78 assists) in 127 pro tilts.
Once he put a close to his playing career, O’Connell immediately made the transition from the ice to behind the bench, serving as an assistant coach at Berkshire Prep School in Sheffield during the 2002-03 season before making the move up to the collegiate level the following year at Colby College.
After stints at both Niagara University and College of the Holy Cross, O’Connell entered into the Hockey East coaching ranks in 2007-08 as an assistant coach at Merrimack College before serving the same role over the last six seasons with both Northeastern University (2008-11) and Harvard University (2011-14).
Throughout his coaching career, O’Connell has garnered praise for his recruiting skills. During his time at Northeastern, the Huskies received commitments from both stand out Providence goaltender Jon Gilles and 2014 Hobey Baker Award recipient and former Boston College forward Johnny Gaudreau. Both players later de-committed from the program.
For O’Connell, the key to his success in terms of identifying talent is to trust his instincts and to collaborate with the rest of his staff.
“Just going out there and working hard,” O’Connell said. “Using your resources, using what you see and not listening to anyone and trusting what you’re looking at and what your staff is looking at and what you’re trying to do as a group – that’s the biggest thing.
“Working with [associate head coach] Steve [Greeley] and [head coach] David Quinn so far, it’s been really positive. They’ve both been very sharp when it comes to what they’re looking at, and they’re very organized and hard-working, so hopefully, I’m a good addition to that.”
While he has excelled at building up multiple teams, O’Connell is certainly no slouch when it comes to instructing his players on the ice. During his first season with the Crimson in 2011-12, O’Connell helped establish the country’s most potent power-play unit, which posted a 27.3 percent success rate.
While the duty of serving as both a recruiter and a mentor has its own set of challenges, O’Connell holds both jobs in equally high esteem.
“They’re both fun jobs,” O’Connell said. “Basically, it’s two different jobs. One, you’re trying to help build the team, the other one, you’re trying to help coach the guys that you were trying to recruit, so they’re both equally tough jobs, but at the same time, both fun and rewarding.”
The journey back to his alma mater has been a long and winding road for O’Connell, but the 38-year-old coach doesn’t have much time to reflect.
With an influx of freshmen already training at Agganis Arena and the season opener almost a month away, O’Connell is diverting all of his energy toward helping a talented group of players achieves the same level of success that he attained almost two decades ago.
“Hopefully, we’re a lot better at the end of the year than at the start, because we’ve got nine or ten freshmen,” O’Connell said. “Practice is going to be important, player development is going to be important…Hopefully, at the end of it, we’ll make good strides as a group.”