2000 For the Road
| In the 1988 off-season, former Vancouver Canucks General Manager, Pat Quinn made two key acquisitions that still impact the club today. He used the second overall pick in the NHL Entry draft on a lanky teen from Medicine Hat and he hired a new equipment manager out of Winnipeg.
One of those moves garnered more headlines, but both acquisitions have proven invaluable. That lanky teen blossomed into fan favorite, Trevor Linden, and the equipment manager, Pat O’Neill has become one of the best, if not the best, in his trade.
While Linden’s stats and goals have achieved tangible milestones, O’Neill’s have been more difficult to gauge. There’s no stat for skates sharpened or stick lies tweaked, but the February 14 match-up with the Minnesota Wild offers a rare opportunity for such a milestone. The contest marks O’Neill’s 2000th NHL game in action.
“He’s an experienced guy obviously. He’s been around a long time,” said Canucks rookie, Mason Raymond. “It’s kind of an honour to be around a guy who’s been in the league that long and knows his stuff.”
Soon entering his fourth decade in the game, O’Neill has accrued a wealth of knowledge since entering the league with the Winnipeg Jets in 1980. For O’Neill though, the road hasn’t just been one of what he knows, but who he knows.
“My cousin went to school with [former Jets GM] John Ferguson’s daughter so I got his phone number, called him up and said ‘I’m your guy,’” said O’Neill.
O’Neill went through the motions, submitting his resumé and interviewing with management, but it was his initiative and intuitive nature that helped him land his first position.
“I talked to [John Ferguson] for about an hour and a half but I felt like I wasn’t finished with him, so I called him back a couple days later and went down to see him again. I think he liked that I was aggressive there,” said O’Neill. His tenacity paid off. Within the week Ferguson extended the position to O’Neill.
O’Neill stayed on with the Jets from 1980 through the 1987-88 season before Quinn offered him a chance to return to his roots as the Equipment Manager for the Vancouver Canucks.
O’Neill grew up in Victoria working around his dad’s hockey shop, learning the tricks of the trade.
“I learned from [my dad] to do all the stuff that it takes to do this [job],” said O’Neill.
So when the opportunity arose for O’Neill to move closer to his roots and more importantly his family, he packed up and made his exodus back west.
The first few seasons yielded respectable results, but the real ride started in the 1991.92 season. The Canucks finished first in their division and advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 10 years. The Edmonton Oilers ended the playoff run in six games, but the Canucks rode the momentum into the following seasons.
A first place finish the next season yielded an almost identical result in the playoffs. But then there was ‘94.
“A definite highlight is the 94 Stanley Cup finals—most definitely the highlight of my career,” said O’Neill.
For a guy with 2000 games under his belt, that speaks volumes of the storied run. Fans will recall a team that overcame adversity on the ice—adversity that O’Neill’s quick to recall.
“We were down three games to Calgary in round one. No one gave us a [hope] of doing anything. No one except for ourselves,” said O’Neill. “We proved everybody wrong and we did it in pretty exciting fashion and then it just started rolling from there and we really started believing. It was just fun. We planned on winning the Stanley Cup. We came as close as you can come without winning… I’ll cherish that for the rest of my life.”
CALM IN THE STORM
The team overcame the adversity on the ice, but behind the scenes a different kind of adversity quietly brewed.
“Looking back, that was a difficult time for everyone because of the situation with Larry Ashley,” recalled Canucks veteran, Trevor Linden. “I know Patty was under a lot of stress from that standpoint...Patty being the professional that he is [though], you would have never known that he was under that kind of stress. He was as steady as ever.”
Larry Ashley, a longstanding member of the Canucks trainers’ team was in the final stages of a battle with cancer. O’Neill characteristically took the adversity in stride and maintained his unwavering commitment to keeping the locker-room light.
“Not every day’s a bed of roses. You’ve got to keep a good, positive attitude whether it’s a good day or a bad day. It doesn’t matter. The players come in here and they don’t want to see someone who’s upset. They don’t need that. I think that part of our job is to be the first guy that they see that’s in a good mood,” said O’Neill.
That approach to the game hasn’t gone unnoticed in the dressing room.
“You come to the rink every day and you’re happy to see him. He’s not a guy who’s been around too long and is grouchy,” said Raymond.
The level of respect for O’Neill extends beyond the reaches of the Vancouver Canucks too.
“I know that last year the guys in Anaheim said to make sure to say hello for them. So I know that he has a good reputation among the trainers,” said Canucks speedster, Ryan Shannon. “It seems kind of like a men’s club throughout the league. They all stay in touch and they have good relationships with one another. Patty O might be one of the most respected.”
He’s done enough and certainly been around long enough to earn that respect across the league. And if Patty O has anything to do with it, there will be many more opportunities to build on that in his next 30 years.
20 - Year with the Vancouver Canucks
3 - Team Canadas he's been equipment manager
2 - All-Star teams as equipment manager