Very sad story has happier ending

Jeff O'Neill (centre), flanked by Eric Lindros (left) and Jason Allison, has had to deal with the...

Jeff O'Neill (centre), flanked by Eric Lindros (left) and Jason Allison, has had to deal with the death of his brother. (Toronto Sun/Ernest Doroszuk)

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:18 AM ET

On this, the first real day of his life as a Maple Leaf, Jeff O'Neill will flee the nagging prodding and pinching of team doctors for a minute of reflection.

As he and his teammates kick off training camp by attending the team's medicals this morning at the Ricoh Coliseum, the kid from King City will ponder the events that led him to his boyhood dream of wearing the beloved blue-and-white.

There is, he readily admits, so much to think about.

How this almost didn't happen.

How close he came to turning his back on the game.

How he was willing to walk away from the NHL for a year in order to tend to his own heavy heart and those of his loved ones.

He was on the verge of doing all these things.

And then he became a Maple Leaf. And suddenly, everything changed.

"I wouldn't have played anywhere else this year," he revealed. "I wouldn't -- and I couldn't -- be away from my family."

Not even in Carolina, the picturesque setting that had served as his hockey home for years?

"I don't know," he said. "It would be hard to be there right now."

Tobacco Road, he figures, would have been too far away. He needed to be closer to his kin. For support. For friendship.

And, most importantly, for the strength to overcome the shocking loss of his brother, Don O'Neill, a former captain with the Peterborough Petes who died in an accident at the ramp of highways 401 and 407 on July 21.

"I can't imagine what kind of thoughts go through your mind when a tragedy like that happens to your family," Leafs general manager John Ferguson said. "You feel for them.

"We will continue to give them any support and I know Jeff will get a lot of support from the organization and his teammates. Anything we can do for Jeff and his family, we will.

"Once he gets back on the ice, hopefully that helps him take his mind off it."

After acquiring O'Neill from the Carolina Hurricanes on July 30, Ferguson had the unenviable task of negotiating O'Neill's two-year, $3 million US deal with Jeff's father, Paul, while the family was deep in mourning.

The trade took place after the O'Neill's approached Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford.

"When they had the loss in the family, Paul called me and said Jeff would really love to play in Toronto and they would appreciate anything I could do to make it happen," Rutherford said at the time.

Seven weeks have passed since Jeff, attending an NHL players association meeting in Toronto, received the tragic news about Don, his elder sibling and childhood mentor.

Yet the healing process goes on. Even Jeff has no idea how long it will last.

His one refuge, he admits, is going to the rink and realizing he is now a Toronto Maple Leaf.

"This is the best getaway for me, the best escape," O'Neill, 29, said. "Growing up, this is what I wanted to do, where I wanted to be. I mean, me, actually being a Toronto Maple Leaf ..."

For a moment, you can hear the childhood glee in his voice. Then, just as quickly, it is gone, replaced by the reality of the situation.

"It's great to be here," he said. "But not five seconds goes by without me thinking about my brother."

For the past three weeks, he has worked out at Lakeshore Lions Arena, participating in informal scrimmages with the likes of fellow Leafs newcomers Eric Lindros and Jason Allison.

Whether it be suiting up in the Toronto dressing room or just looking down at the familiar blue Leafs logo on his white practice jersey, the entire experience has been the best medicine for his aching soul.

Even the odd shopping binge has helped.

Several weeks ago, as he was walking by a sports memorabilia store at a local mall, something caught his attention.

He took a second look.

No, he wasn't just seeing things.

There, dangling from hangers, were a cluster of Leafs game jerseys with the name "O'NEILL" and his familiar No. 92 stitched on the back.

He bought two of them.

"I couldn't help myself," he said. "They were nice. It's almost like I saw them and told myself, "Ya, I guess this is really happening."

"The whole situation is a good fit for me. My parents are really excited.

"They can come to the games. We can have Sunday dinner together. It's really special."

There has been no shortage of distractions for Jeff and his parents, Paul and Laverne, since Don's passing.

Paul and Laverne recently bought a house just south of Barrie and are preoccupied with fixing it up.

They also have welcomed a new addition to the family. On Aug. 18, Ryan O'Neill, Jeff's older brother by 11 months, got married in Jamaica.

"At least I gained a sister-in-law in Daniella," Jeff said. "But it was tough for the whole family too. I mean, we were excited when they both came back, but it's sad, too, in the fact that (Don) would have been so thrilled to welcome (Daniella) to the family."

It has been a trying year for O'Neill, although you'll never catch him feeling sorry for himself.

For starters, he has fought his way back from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder.

Leafs doctors declared it fit two months ago, opening the door for Ferguson to acquire him from the Hurricanes for a conditional draft pick in 2006 that could be as high as a third-round selection.

In March, O'Neill was arrested on an impaired driving charge about four blocks from his Raleigh, N.C., home. He is scheduled to appear in court there this month.

Through it all, Don's death revived horrific memories of the vehicular accident six years ago that cost O'Neill's teammate, Steve Chiasson, his life.

On May 3, 1999, hours after the Hurricanes were eliminated from the playoffs by the Boston Bruins, Chiasson, 32, died when his truck flipped.

Earlier, the team had gathered at the home of then-Hurricane forward Gary Roberts after arriving from Boston and Chiasson was on his way home.

O'Neill understandably will not comment on the Chiasson situation. Given what has transpired in his own life the past few months, it just hurts too much.

Besides, there are too many pressing issues he must deal with here in the present, not the least of which is his fear of flying. He has started undergoing hypnosis treatments to deal with it.

"There was no way I would ever play for a Western Conference team," he said. "Those guys spend far too much time on airplanes."

Unfortunately, O'Neill's hope to play with Gary Roberts, his longtime friend from their Hurricane days, evaporated when Roberts opted to sign with the Florida Panthers.

"That's the business part of the game," O'Neill said. "But that doesn't change the influence Gary had on me."

Before Roberts, a physical fitness junkie, arrived in Raleigh, they referred to O'Neill as the "McDonald's King."

"My attitude was to show up to the rink and figure that things would happen from there," O'Neill said. "I thought all you had to do was play hockey. But Gary Roberts changed everything for me."

O'Neill had the opportunity to express his appreciation in the summer of 2000.

When Roberts signed as a free agent in Toronto, O'Neill surprised him by presenting his buddy with an expensive watch.

Now five years later, it is O'Neill who is pulling on the Leafs jersey for the first time.

"Sometimes I still can't believe it," he said.

"Don would have been so proud."


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