Unretiring and indecision. Those two things certainly seemed to have defined this summer.
Whether it was in the NFL, the MLB, the NBA, or the NHL, you could probably name one player who has had a difficult time deciding to retire, and then publicly stating he'd like to come back to the sport he loves, only to be met with outcry and abuse.
Jeff O'Neill did the same thing this past week, though—and almost no one took notice.
In a fairly low-key announcement, the Carolina Hurricanes told the press that they had invited the long time Hartford Whaler and Carolina Hurricane to training camp this September.
For O'Neill, training camp is something he probably thought he'd never experience again.
It was just last year, the 2007 offseason, that O'Neill announced his retirement from the NHL.
It may not have been because he lost the drive to play hockey—but for O'Neill, the passion didn't seem to be there anymore. Completely understandable when you consider the circumstances that Jeff was playing under.
After beginning his career in a fairly average manner with the Hartford Whalers, O'Neill's best offensive campaign came in 1999-2000, when he posted 25 goals and 63 points. From there, he continued to improve, posting a career-high 41 goals the next season, followed by two straight 30-goal years.
O'Neill also got himself into 28 playoff games throughout this time, including the fateful 2001-02 season where the Hurricanes would make their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance, only to be easily dispersed by the Detroit Red Wings.
The year before the lockout, however, O'Neill fell flat on his face. In 2003-04, O'Neil scored 14 goals—his lowest total since his sophomore season—and he tore the labrum in his shoulder. For a guy who had spent three years smelling like roses, O'Neil's difficult time was just getting started.
Like all of the NHL players, O'Neill had a choice during the lockout—either sit out from hockey for (hopefully just) a year, or play overseas.
O'Neil—who is very committed to his family—chose to stay at home.
After staying at home during the lockout, O'Neill still couldn't catch a break. He was caught and charged with impaired driving in Raleigh, N.C. and it seemed that he wasn't wanted in the only organization he had ever known, as trade rumors circulated the troubled winger.
Little did O'Neill know it was about to get worse.
Just before the summer of the first entry draft since the lockout ended, Jeff O'Neill was met with tragedy. His brother Donny—the older brother who took Jeff under his wing and showed him the game—was gone. Donny died when his truck rolled off highway 401 outside of Toronto.
O'Neil was devastated.
Following those tumultuous times, a little light shone into O'Neill's life. He got the opportunity to play for his hometown team—the Toronto Maple Leafs.
As much as it was a dream come true for O'Neill, however, he could still only think about his family "If I put a smile on their faces for just half a day with this, I'm happy,". he said. A boy who was finally going to live his dream couldn't think of dedicating it to anyone else aside from his family.
Unfortunately, O'Neill's time in Toronto soon became one he'd rather forget.
It first began with Gary Roberts—whom O'Neill had befriended during their time in Carolina—signing with the Florida Panthers, eliminating the opportunity for O'Neill to play alongside his good friend and one of the most legendary Leafs ever—Mats Sundin—on Toronto's top line.
In light of everything though, O'Neill put up some alright numbers with Toronto in 2005-06, posting 19 goals and 19 assists, and it seemed that O'Neill's former coach Paul Maurice was going to get the best out of him in his time in Toronto.
The 2006-07 season started well for O'Neill, as he posted 17 points in 24 games to open the season. As the games wore on though, the weight of the emotions Jeff still had over his brother Donny's death, as well as his fear of flying began to show in his play, and wear on the Leafs organization.
An NHL player with a fear of flying—that can't be a good combination.
In O'Neill's final twelve games with the Leafs, he was scoreless, and a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness ended his season on March 23rd in Buffalo.
Not long after came the news that O'Neill felt that he was done with hockey, that because of everything happening with him at that time, he needed to step back from the game.
Today though, it seems that O'Neill is ready to try it again—and his old General Manager and friend Jim Rutherford is just the person to give him that chance, as the 32 year-old O'Neill has received an invite to 'Canes camp.
For his sake, I hope he can prove that he's earned a spot on the Carolina Hurricanes roster.
Or at least proves to the league that, after everything he's been through, he can still play, and still be a factor, maybe prove that he's still that mullet-wearing, hockey-loving kid he used to be, with the same passion anyone brings to the game—just now with a little added fire.
Jeff O'Neill—wouldn't that be a story?
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer for Bleacher Report and the NHL Community Leader. If you'd like to get in contact with Bryan, you can do so through his profile, and you can also read his previous work in his archives.
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