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Hockey: O’Neill keys icers’ defense

Dan Murphy | Thursday, February 1, 2007

Last season the Notre Dame defensive unit opened up the year by allowing five or more goals in three of its first five games. After an 8-5 home loss Nov. 4 to No. 3 Michigan, Irish coach Jeff Jackson decided he had seen enough and benched his top defenseman, Wes O’Neill.

The next night was the first – and only – time that the Ontario native was not on the Irish lineup card in his hockey career. Now a senior, O’Neill has played in 140 of a possible 141 games since coming to Notre Dame in 2003 – a stat matched only by fellow senior Jason Paige.

O’Neill, now an alternate captain, called his night off a “wake-up call” from Jackson that allowed him to stay focused throughout the rest of the year.

“It was the first time I’ve ever been benched,” O’Neill said. “But it was good because after that game I played pretty good for the rest of the year.”

Since then, he has only helped to anchor the No. 1-ranked defense in the nation, as well as collect his second consecutive Bill Nyrop Award, given to the top defensive player on the team each year. Nyrop was an All-American defenseman during his four-year career at Notre Dame. He later went on to win three Stanley Cup Championships on the dominant Montreal teams of the late ’70s before passing away due to cancer in 1995 at the age of 43.

“Anytime you win an award named after a guy like that, it’s pretty prestigious,” O’Neill said. “We have a lot of great defensemen on our team, and any one of us could win it any year.”

O’Neill is a serious candidate to collect his third trophy at the conclusion of this year. He would be the first Irish blueliner to ever achieve the honor three years in a row.

O’Neill has also been an offensive threat throughout his career.

He was second on the team in scoring his sophomore year, with six goals and 14 assists. The following year he buried another six pucks while adding 19 helpers.

The highly decorated lefty attributes his success to hard work, his vision on the ice and the 40 pounds that he has added to his 6-foot-4 frame since his freshman year.

“Putting on that extra weight has really helped me be able to dominate in front of the net,” O’Neill said.

The 235-pounder has made a living by punishing forwards parked in front of Irish goaltender Dave Brown, especially when his team needs him most.

O’Neill has played his best games in blue and gold against top-tier opponents. This year he played a big role in wins over then-No. 1 Boston College, Michigan and Miami.

Against the RedHawks last weekend, O’Neill took a low, hard shot from the point, which was deflected past Miami goalie Jeff Zatkoff for a goal when the Irish trailed 2-0. Zatkoff had looked invincible the entire game, but the goal sparked an Irish rally to tie the contest and take a crucial point in a key CCHA series.

“Wes has the ability to be the most dominant defenseman in this league,” Jackson said. “It’s just a matter of him being as intense and motivated against every opponent, because if he did that he would dominate.”

Although both O’Neill and Jackson expressed concerns about his consistency, neither can be upset about the contributions he has made to the team so far this year as the Irish will make a bid to be the No. 1 squad in the country this weekend against Bowling Green.