Thursday, September 05, 2013

Meet Aaron O'Neill: UNH's Newest Recruit

UNH Recruit Aaron O'Neill
(Photo: Franklin Home Page)

Historically, most UNH hockey players grew up learning the game in traditional hockey hotbeds like the suburbs of Boston, Buffalo, New York City, Philadelphia, Toronto, Vancouver, and, more recently, Washington, DC. As the popularity of NHL hockey has spread to cities devoid of ice and snow, we've seen players such as Dalton Speelman from San Jose, California and incoming freshman Dylan Maller from Parkland, Florida become Wildcats.

Center Aaron O'Neill
(Photo: Franklin Home Page)
Now, with the verbal commitment of 16-year-old Aaron O'Neill from Franklin, Tennessee, the territory for UNH recruits has expanded into the remarkably vibrant hockey scene in the center of Tennessee. O'Neill, a native of Aiken, South Carolina, has been described as perhaps the best high school hockey player in Middle Tennessee. The stories of how the area around Franklin (located 30 miles south of Nashville) became a hub of hockey in the "Heart of Dixie" and how Aaron O'Neill became the top prospect from that neck of the woods, are fascinating.

It all began in the mid-1980's when General Motors decided to build the first Saturn Corporation plant just down the road from Franklin in Spring Hills, Tennessee. In a unique and controversial agreement between GM and the United Auto Workers, existing employees from plants in Michigan and other parts of the Midwest were given the first option to fill the new positions in Tennessee. An article by David Hill for chronicled how these Midwesterners brought their love of hockey to Tennessee and built youth hockey programs, along with Saturn automobiles, from scratch.

Beginning with a youth hockey team on a single sheet of ice at the former Southern Ice Arena in Franklin, hockey in Middle Tennessee has expanded to include the Greater Nashville Scholastic Hockey League. GNASH is made up of 16 teams representing high schools throughout the region. The rise in the popularity of ice hockey in Central Tennessee helped persuade the NHL to grant a new franchise to the city of Nashville. The Predators launched their inaugural season in 1998.

Last season, as a sophomore at Centennial High School in Franklin, Aaron O'Neill was the 8th leading scorer in the GNASH regular season. The 6'0", 168 lbs. center scored 21 goals and 13 assists in 17 games. He helped the Centennial Cougars win the regular season title. O'Neill was also the GNASH leading scorer in the playoffs with 3 goals and 2 assists in 2 games.

The opportunity to play at Centennial High School was part of what lead Aaron and his family to move from Aiken, SC to Tennessee. Aaron's hockey journey, beginning when he learned to skate in South Carolina at age 4 and leading him to the Thunder AAA Hockey program based in Nashville, Atlanta, and Huntsville, is described in an article by Scott Burnside for

While a preteen living in Aiken, Aaron and his family would have to travel 6 hours to Nashville or 3 hours to Atlanta to play for the Thunder. At age 13, the family made the move from South Carolina to Tennessee. As Aaron's dad Patrick said in the espn article:
"If the question is, did you move for your son to play hockey, the answer is probably yes.”
Aaron's productivity on the ice has taken off over the last couple of seasons. In 2011-12, as a member of the Thunder Bantam Major team, O'Neill was the leading scorer with 39 goals and 58 assists in 61 games.

Last season, Aaron and the Thunder Under-16 (Midget Minor) team competed in the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League. During the regular season, they were at the top of the Mid-America Division with a record of 31-7-1. O'Neill was the Thunder's 3rd leading scorer with 15 goals and 19 assists in 40 games. In the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League Playoffs held in Blaine, Minnesota, the Thunder advanced to the championship game but lost to the St. Louis Blues U16 team. In the 5 playoff games, Aaron O'Neill lead the Thunder in scoring with 3 goals.

O'Neill's outstanding play attracted the attention of scouts from the Canadian Major Junior leagues, the United States Hockey League and prep schools. On April 6th, Aaron was drafted by the Plymouth Whalers in the 10th round of the Ontario Hockey League Draft. The Whalers' assistant general manager said:
"Aaron is a very smart forward, and he sees the ice very well and he's definitely not done growing into that frame that he has."
In advance of the 2013 USHL Draft, Aaron was invited to visit the Green Bay Gamblers' coaches and facilities. On April 17th, O'Neill signed a tender contract with Green Bay. The tender system allows USHL teams to utilize a first round pick to sign up a young player prior to the draft. Under this system, O'Neill has a commitment from the Gamblers to play in a minimum of 50% of the regular season games in 2013-14. Aaron's high school hockey coach Mark Layne gave Green Bay a preview of the type of player they signed:
"They’re getting a very smart young man, that uses his assets his speed and skating ability. He sees the ice very well and he’s learning in growing into getting in those hard areas, those dirty areas if you will, to dig the puck out.”
Aaron has begun his junior year at a local high school in Green Bay. The Gamblers' regular season begins on Sept. 20th at the Chicago Steel. A number of UNH players have played for Green Bay including current senior Dalton Speelman and former players Mike Borisenok, Mike Sislo, and Ty Conklin.

I had an opportunity to interview Aaron, via email, about his background, commitment to UNH, and future plans:   

Mike Lowry ("C-H-C"):  Congratulations on your commitment to play for the University of New Hampshire.  What are the main reasons you chose UNH?
Aaron O'Neill: Thank you. One of the biggest reasons why I wanted to come to UNH was that I felt they could offer the full package of high academics, a good school atmosphere and a top 10 hockey program. Putting all those things together it just felt like the right place for me.

Mike Lowry:  What other college programs were you considering?
Aaron O'Neill:  There were other programs that had interest in me and I had some tough decisions to make. In the end I fell in love with UNH's program and campus. I am extremely happy with my decision to be a Wildcat.

Lowry:  The Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League drafted you last spring. Do you have any interest in foregoing the NCAA route and playing major junior hockey in Canada?
O'Neill:  Currently I am committed to two great programs, the Green Bay Gamblers and UNH. I am excited about my chance to learn from these two coaching staffs and contribute to the team.

Lowry:  Have you and the UNH coaches agreed on a target date for you to enroll as a freshman at UNH and join the team?
O'Neill:  Obviously I would love to come right in in 2015. I trust that the coaching staff will evaluate my development and bring me in when it is best for the team.

Lowry:  You were born in South Carolina and now live in Franklin, Tennessee. How did you get interested in playing ice hockey?
O'Neill:  When I was a kid in South Carolina, we had a 20x20 porch in the back of our house and my dad also had an old roller hockey stick laying around in the garage. So I picked it up and started playing with it. Also, I watched the Mighty Ducks movies and that just put me over the edge.
I played mite and squirt hockey in Augusta, GA and then played a couple years in Columbia, SC with the Columbia Cyclones. After that, I went and tried out for a AAA team called TPH Thunder that is made up of kids from all over the Southeast. I ended up making that team and played there for four years and now I am in Green Bay with the Gamblers.

Lowry:  You signed a tender to play for the Green Bay Gamblers this season. At age 16, you will be one of the younger players in the USHL. What do you hope to accomplish by the end of the season?
O'Neill:  I want to contribute to the team night in and night out and show my teammates I am someone they can depend on. I have played center in the past and I know at least at first I am going to have to focus on doing a better job at the wing position. The Green Bay staff has done a good job at developing young players in the USHL. I am going to work my butt off an trust in the process.

Lowry:  What are the strongest aspects of your skills as a forward and what areas are you working to improve?
O'Neill: I would say that my strongest aspect is my skating. I use it to generate rushes and scoring chances as well as helping out on the back check in the defensive zone. I also feel that I have good vision on the ice. I do a good job at making outlet passes to start rushes and finding the open man.
I need to improve on my consistency, my movement without the puck as well as my work in small areas. I need to keep trying to shorten the gap between my worst game and my best game because that is what separates the good players from the great ones. At this level everyone is good and I want to work to be the best in everything I do. 

Lowry:  What are your academic strengths? Is there a major course of study you would like to pursue when you get to UNH?
O'Neill: Academics are one thing that I have always taken very serious. No one can ever take away my education. My next practice I could have a career ending injury and be out of hockey so having that strong education to fall back on is extremely important.
At UNH I am looking to major in Business Management and possibly take pre-law as well. After I am done playing I still want to be involved in hockey in some way. My goal is to one day be an NHL general manager.  


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