The Chilliwack Chiefs had a new face in the lineup Sunday as Aaron O’Neill made his BCHL debut.
The 18 year old forward scored a goal as his team topped the Merritt Centennials 5-2 at Prospera Centre, and was all smiles during a post-game skate with fans.
“Obviously they’re having a lot of success and usually with that you’ve got a great group of guys,” he said. “I came in and they welcomed me really good. Hopefully I get to know everyone a lot more, but it’s been great so far.”
O’Neill started this season with the Nebraska-based Tri-City Storm of the USHL, where he got off to an injury-riddled start.
He got caught in a roster squeeze last week and by Thursday found himself driving to Chilliwack.
“I was told this would be a good opportunity to play and contribute to a team that was having a lot of success,” he said. “I got here yesterday (Saturday) morning, met a few people and played today. It’s been quick but it’s also been fun.”
What’s not to enjoy when you join a team that’s 22-6-1-3 and winners of 16 of their last 18?
With little practice time under his belt heading into the Merritt game, O’Neill was told by Chilliwack coach Jason Tatarnic to keep it simple and not stress too much.
“He just told me to relax and get used to the pace,” O’Neill said. “He gave me some great guys to play with, so it came easy.”
O’Neill’s first BCHL goal came late in the second period with his Chiefs up 3-2. He crashed the crease and steered home the rebound of a Jake Smith shot.
“Smitty made a great play on the wall and I knew if I went to the net there would be pucks there,” O’Neill said. “It was good to get that first one out of the way.”
Trying to stat-scout O’Neill is next to impossible.
A search on hockeydb.com shows the Franklin, TN. native collecting two goals and five points in 81 USHL games with the Storm and Green Bay Gamblers.
“I was mostly an offensive player early in my career, but once I got to the USHL I was younger (16) and I turned into a little bit more of a grinder guy,” he said. “Working down low, being a responsible centerman and a faceoff specialist.”
“Coming here I’m hoping to regain some of that offensive side of the game. Getting that goal is a good start and hopefully I can build on that.”
Tatarnic believes O’Neill is a smart two-way player with offensive upside.
“He just jumped in today and grasped a lot of what we do, which to me shows his hockey IQ,” the coach noted. “He probably went to the USHL too young and that might have affected his numbers. That’s a difference between our league and their league where we’re more offensive minded and they’re not so much.”
“He’ll get more freedom here.”
O’Neill’s arrival in Chilliwack coincides with the sad news that Brendan Shane’s BCHL career may be over. In just his seventh game with the Chiefs last weekend, the 19 year old was rocked by a Nanaimo Clipper and wobbled off the ice.
Tatarnic said it was his third concussion in three months.
“He saw one concussion specialist and he’ll see a second one,” the coach said. “He’s taking it day by day.”
“I told him and his day it (retiring) is something they have to look at real hard. They’ll see what the specialists have to say and go from there.”
Back to results, the Chiefs won all three of their weekend outings in impressive fashion. The team went to Prince George and beat the Spruce Kings 7-3 and 6-1.
Jordan Kawaguchi had four goals in the 7-3 win with Austin Adam, Kohen Olischefski and Eric Benshadle also scoring.
Kawaguchi collected another in the 6-1 win, but it was Vimal Sukumaran notching the hat-trick.
Zach Giuttari and Darien Craighead also scored.
Against Merritt it was Giuttari, Olischefski, O’Neill, Linden Hora and Jesse Lansdell lighting the lamp.
“It was a great weekend,” Tatarnic grinned. “Any time you go 3-0 in a weekend it’s a great weekend.”
Chilliwack has two more before the Christmas break, travelling to Wenatchee this weekend to face the Wild.
The Chiefs lead Wenatchee by three points in the Mainland division standings and hold two games in hand.
They could do themselves a huge favour with a pair of road victories.
“We’ve talked about how we’re going to battle there and how important these games are,” Tatarnic said. “We’re up three points and we’ll still have the games in hand after we play them, so we’re in a good situation.”
“It’s our first time heading down there so it’ll be a good test for us.”
See bchl.ca for more. info.