Usually when you ask a Canadian when they first started playing hockey, the response varies from “even before the diapers came off” to “when I was still interested in watching cartoons.”
Rampage forward Jim O’Brien, took some time to warm up to the cool game.
“I remember I started playing after watching my dad (Pete) play his hockey,” said O’Brien. “I think the first year I ended up quitting. I don’t know why, I didn’t like it. Once I started school I had other friends who started playing, and I tried it again and I loved it and I have ever since.”
The reluctant skater from Maplewood, Minnesota went from hockey dissenter to the NHL’s first round on draft day 2007, selected by the Ottawa Senators with the 29th overall pick. O’Brien has eight NHL goals and four assists in 67 major league contests, most recently playing with the New Jersey Devils last season.
The game grew on O’Brien to the point where he not only played regularly, but he had developed into an exceptional player, landing a spot on the US Under-17 and Under-18 National Development teams. He remembered thinking, “This is my favorite thing to do, I enjoy it. It clicked in early like that.”
O’Brien caught the eye of Senator scouts while playing with the Under-18 team in 2006, where he scored three goals and two assists in helping the U-S team to the World Championship at that level. He then moved on to the University of Minnesota, where as the youngest player on any NCAA roster, O’Brien registered seven goals and 15 points as a freshman, before signing with the Senators, which began his junior hockey career.
After two seasons in the Western Hockey League with the Seattle Thunderbirds, including a 27-goal performance his second year there, O’Brien was ready for the pros. Assigned to the Binghamton Senators, Jim began his more than three-year residence in south central New York state.
His first NHL goal has a Rampage connection. O’Brien scored it five years ago on Feb. 15, 2012 against the Florida Panthers in Sunrise, with former Rampage goaltender Scott Clemmensen between the pipes in a 6-2 Ottawa win. Clemmensen played 12 games here, many on rehab assignments.
“Knowing my luck it was the one game the Ottawa Senators weren’t on television that season,” lamented O’Brien. “So my parents didn’t see it. It was a re-direction. The puck just sat on the goal line, took it around the back of the net. Wraparound.”
When the Senators didn’t resign him, O’Brien joined the Novokuznetsk team in the middle of Russia with former Rampage defenseman Matt Lashoff, now playing in Switzerland. With the Russian club, every road trip was at least two-to-three hours by plane and six by bus. If you look up Novokuznetsk, it’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from there.
“The travel in that league is so tough. It spans nine different time zones,” recalled O’Brien, who along with Lashoff were the only two players who’s names didn’t end with ‘v.’
“I remember where the Moscow teams would come in and practice at 6 at night to stay on Moscow time.” Customs were different, of course. “Every day, every player on the team would come up to you and shake your hand. You’d be like, ‘hey I know ya, get the heck away from me’ but it was one of the Russian customs. It was nice to experience something like that.”
One of the reasons the Rampage struggled against Grand Rapids was O’Brien’s absence, since he’s also known as a strong defensive forward and penalty killer, once scoring three shorthanded goals in Binghamton. He and his fiancé are enjoying living in San Antonio, with its climate and beautiful city making it a great place to play hockey.
The current rodeo road trip is putting pressure on any Rampage playoff aspirations, and O’Brien says the current direction can’t continue.
“We know the position we’re in. Every game is very valuable for us right now. We can’t have these bad games. If we do lose, it has to be a game where we play good. That’s hockey. You’re not gonna win every game. We have to go out there, keep on working, execute, and hope we can play really good games and the rest will work itself out.”
The Rampage will try and get off the rodeo road trip schnide this weekend against Manitoba on Friday and Saturday nights, before returning to the AT&T Center Friday, Mar. 3 for Military Appreciation Night against the Grand Rapids Griffins.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Mikko Rantanen continues to show Colorado Avalanche fans what Rampage fans enjoyed last season as he scored the lone Avs goal Tuesday night in a 2-1 setback to the Los Angeles Kings…Rantanen picked the pocket of Kings perennial all-star defenseman Drew Doughty, skated in alone on Peter Budaj and beat the former Ontario Reign netminder with a quick shot to make the goal more impressive, his 14th of the season…the San Jose Barracuda are on a serious role – winning 12 straight. The Sharks affiliate’s record is now 31-11-1-3…as pointed out by Rampage announcer Dan Weiss at one point this past weekend, the top four teams in the Pacific Division were 20-0, while the last four were 0-25-0-1 in the streaks column…Rocco Grimaldi is fourth in the AHL in shots with 157…A.J. Greer is tied for sixth with 34 points among rookie scorers…Julien Nantel’s two shorthanded goals puts him one behind the league leader on the rookie charts…Rampage penalty killers are the seventh best unit in the circuit…the Rampage’s best scoring period is the third period with 47 and the team is 14-0-1-0 when leading after two periods.
Goaltender Josh Tordjman kicked out all 26 Lake Erie shots as the Rampage beat the Monsters, 1-0 on Feb. 22, 2008. Bill Thomas scored the game’s only goal at 12:26 of the second period on assists by Joey Tenute and Jon DiSalvatore. The game, in front of 5,100 AT&T Center fans, was the soonest return for the Rampage on their Rodeo Road Trip.