When Jim O’Brien signed a one-year, two-way deal with the New Jersey Devils on July 1 many of you reading this now went on your phones, tablets and/or laptops to Hockey db or whatever website you go to in search of information on players. There’s nothing wrong with that, as the former first round pick (2007 NHL Draft) of the Ottawa Senators has bounced around quite a bit the past few years. The Hockey Writers spoke with O’Brien about his journey to this point, just hours before he was sent from New Jersey’s training camp to the one about to start with their AHL affiliate Albany Devils.
“Jim’s done a good job; he’s shown what he can do — he’s a guy that’s played National Hockey League games (before). He was a very good player in the KHL and the American Hockey League (last year),” Devils head coach John Hynes said following a preseason game vs. the New York Rangers. “He’s an NHL-type player, he’s done a nice job on the penalty kill; he’s a big, strong (6’3″, 195 lbs.) guy. We thought his best game was tonight; just his skating, his strength on the puck was good.”
The now 26-year-old O’Brien began his hockey journey as a large number of Minnesota kids aspire to — playing for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers; he only played one season there, as a 17-year-old before being drafted by the Sens with the 29th overall pick in the first round. “When I was growing up there was no (Minnesota) Wild, so everybody watched the Gophers growing up and I still remember going to their games as a little kid,” recalled O’Brien with a smile. “To go there (and play) was kind of a dream come true; every little kid growing up there wanted to go there and play — especially before the Wild were in town.”
After Ottawa drafted him, the Maplewood, Minnesota native played the next two seasons in the WHL with the Seattle Thunderbirds where our former colleague at THW Andy Eide told us he was a ‘fan favorite’ while scoring 48 goals in 133 games. “It’s a great fan base, there’s a lot of people out there; we had a lot of interaction with them, and we had great support” he humbly explained. He also believes the city could support an NHL team there. “It’s a big city; they don’t have an NBA team anymore. All they have are the Seahawks (NFL) and the Mariners (MLB), it could work, definitely.”
The beginning of his pro career was a struggle at first — 18 points in his first 82 games with the Binghamton Senators in the AHL. But then he exploded with 56 points in 74 games during the 2010-11 season and seven more points in the playoffs as the B-Sens captured the Calder Cup. “It’s a real tough playoff grind in that league and (winning) was a great experience for me; that’s what you play for. You play to win. To end the season winning that last game, that’s what it’s all about.” That year O’Brien also made his NHL debut with Ottawa, and was pointless in six games.
The following season he netted his first NHL goal against the Florida Panthers on a wraparound that found its way past goaltender Scott Clemmensen. He remembered the play, and even that the game was not televised (you will hear the radio broadcast over the video below), but couldn’t recall who the goalie was that he scored on. “I remember chipping a puck and it just sat there right behind the goal line,” O’Brien explained with a grin. “I just went for a wraparound, there was kind of a scrum in front (of the goalie). I remember it wasn’t televised though,” he added with a chuckle.
We dug up the footage from way back in 2012 of his first goal, complete with Randy Moller screaming:
Last season after starting the season over in Russia in the KHL, O’Brien became ill and had to return home. Once fully recovered he signed with an AHL team, only to learn twenty minutes later that another AHL team claimed him on waivers. “It was definitely a whirlwind,” he recalled, I was over in Russia and I got sick. I had to get my tonsils out, so I had to come back (to America). Then I signed with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton thinking I was going there and I got a call: Hey, Hershey claimed you. Then the Hershey Bears called me twenty minutes later and it was a change of plans,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders.
Despite the fact that he signed a deal with the Devils on the opening night of free agency, O’Brien explained that the location wasn’t something that he had planned out when the day began, but the fit as far as a chance to earn playing time, was. “You know what I really…I remember…obviously you’re a little nervous with free agency. I really tried not to think too much about it, I was just focused on training and kind of let my agent deal with it. He called me up and said this is what we got; there were other teams but we felt this was the best place.”
Along this journey of O’Brien’s there was also a near-miss brush with death — in 2013, in Boston for a game, he and some teammates who were going to be scratches that night had planned to attend the Boston Marathon near the finish line and instead they made a last-minute change of plans and decided to return to their hotel rooms to take a nap. “It was definitely scary once we woke up to a bunch of sirens, our phones weren’t working. I remember getting like 50 texts; we were all watching the news, I mean, we were getting ready to go to the game and they canceled it. It was definitely a scary situation.”
Dan Rice can be reached via Twitter: @DRdiabloTHW or via Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.