O'Neill gets Leafs wish

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:32 AM ET

OTTAWA -- Life has been unkind to Jeff O'Neill this year, but one phone call changed that yesterday.

It was his childhood team, the Maple Leafs, ringing to confirm a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes that could see the King City native wind up on a line with Mats Sundin and Gary Roberts, the latter a good friend and teammate for three of O'Neill's 11 years with the 'Canes.

Carolina gets a conditional pick in 2006 that could be as high as a third-rounder depending on O'Neill's goal output, which was 41 at his best in 2000-01, but dipped to 14 in '03-04.

O'Neill immediately signed a two-year deal worth $1.5 million US both this season and next, which does not alter the Leafs' salary cap too badly in terms of keeping unrestricted free agents such as Roberts.

"I'm thinking outside the box right now," O'Neill said as he digested the news from his cottage on Lake Joseph. "I'm happy to be playing for the Leafs in a new city. But with everything that has happened to my family in the past 2 1/2 weeks, if I put a smile on their faces for just half a day (with this result), then I'm glad."

O'Neill is still reeling from the death of his oldest brother Donny, hockey mentor to Jeff and middle sibling Ryan. Donny O'Neill was killed July 21 when his pick-up truck rolled off the ramp at Highways 401 and 407.

At Donny's funeral, Jeff wore his brother's Peterborough Petes captain's sweater in tribute.

It's a difficult time when O'Neill wants to be close to his family (he expressed a desire to come to the Leafs the day before the tragedy) and his status in Carolina had changed greatly since it made the 2002 Stanley Cup final.

Late in the 2003-04 season, with trade rumours abounding, O'Neill suffered a torn labrum in his right shoulder. His offensive numbers had been in a slow decline and, this past March, he was arrested on an impaired driving charge about four blocks from his home in Raleigh, N.C.

He is scheduled to appear in court there in September.

The trade was put in motion on Friday when a Toronto doctor checked O'Neill's shoulder and pronounced him fit. Leafs general manager John Ferguson and Carolina GM Jim Rutherford then completed the deal.

O'Neill was due a qualifying offer of $2.8 million US this summer, including the 24% salary rollback, but had said he didn't expect Rutherford to keep him.

Jeff O'Neill thanked Rutherford and owner Peter Karmanos for choosing him fifth overall in the 1994 draft, back when the 'Canes were the Hartford Whalers. The Leafs are a completely different animal.

"I won't be coming to Toronto to make any Jeremy Roenick-type statements. I'm not going to hug the owner, I just want to be a help," he said. "I'm as ecstatic as I can be. I'm 20 minutes down the road from the rink.

"(The attention) is going to be different for sure. My first two or three years, we played in Greensboro where there was one reporter who covered us and if he chose not to, he watched the game on television. The media will be larger, but it is what it is. You've got to give it a shot and try it. I'll have to change."

O'Neill said it was hard to conceal his blue-and-white passion, even after Hartford picked him.

"I couldn't help cheering for Dougie Gilmour," he said.

"My whole family cheered for the Leafs all their lives. Secretly, I think they cheered for the Leafs a bit every time we played them."

Naturally, he'd love to play with Roberts, who along with Joe Nieuwendyk and Tie Domi, is in exclusive negotiations with the Leafs until noon tomorrow when all NHL teams can sign free agents.

"I won't tell the Leafs how to run their team," O'Neill said. "But I know Mats Sundin is a great player and Gary made him better being on his line. It comes down to the Leafs making a business decision."


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