O'Neill finds coping tough

TERRY KOSHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:59 AM ET

OTTAWA -- Jeff O'Neill knew this season was going to be difficult after the loss of his oldest brother last summer.

But coping since the death of Don, who died when his pickup truck rolled off the ramp at Highways 407 and 401 last July 21, has been beyond what O'Neill imagined.

Athletes often will say they can forget just about anything on the ice and have a singular focus. Not so with O'Neill.

"I was hoping that would be the case, but for me it has been something in my head constantly and it is distracting," O'Neill said. "I was hoping to concentrate on hockey this year and that it would be kind of my getaway, but it has been awfully tough. I make no excuses. The results are what they are and all I can do is work."

Entering last night's game against the Senators, O'Neill, who turns 30 on Feb. 23, had 14 goals and 14 assists in 44 games and was a team-worst minus-12. O'Neill's rights were acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes last summer and he immediately signed a two-year pact with the Leafs.

Jeff is tight with his other brother, Ryan, and the two will become next-door neighbours in King City this summer.

"We just look at each other sometimes and we are in disbelief," Jeff said. "(Losing a close member of the family) is always something that happens to someone else in another town. My whole life, I think I have the fairy-tale family. Everybody is healthy and everybody has a good job and then this happens. I have been to (Don's grave) a couple of times, but it is such a sad place to be, a real tough place to go to."

Part of O'Neill's coping process has been aided by his teammates, especially Darcy Tucker and Bryan McCabe, who O'Neill singled out.

"We have had many conversations about it and they have been really good friends to me," O'Neill said. "Their stupid jokes also have come in handy a couple of times."

O'Neill was asked whether he could sense better days ahead.

"I sure hope so because there has not been a whole lot of them," O'Neill said. "I think the only time there have been good feelings around my camp has been after a win or something where you are kind of cheerful."


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