Gritty O'Neill up for reunion

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:47 AM ET

You can lead a Canadian to a steaming plate of grits, but you can't make him like it.

Jeff O'Neill, for one, never fancied the oatmeal-like fare that is considered a staple in the south.

"I tried them, I really did," the King City native said yesterday. "But I just couldn't get into it.

"I guess, in the overall scheme of things, I'll always be a northerner."

Certain items of southern cuisine notwithstanding, O'Neill, 29, savoured his eight-year run on Tobacco Road with the Carolina Hurricanes.

Having spent his first two seasons with the Hartford Whalers organization, O'Neill headed south when the franchise relocated to Carolina in 1997 and lived through the growing pains of a team -- and a sport -- attempting to establish an identity in the hoops-crazed Sun Belt.

It is that same past that O'Neill will come face-to-face with tomorrow when he steps on to the Air Canada Centre ice against the Hurricanes for the first time since being dealt to the Leafs over the summer.

"Looking at that jersey on the other side might be a little weird," O'Neill said, referring to the familiar white, red and black Hurricanes uniform he wore for almost a decade. "But it's not like it's the same personnel that was there for the last seven years of my time (in Carolina)."

O'Neill does stay in touch with a number of his former teammates, including defenceman Bret Hedican and ex-Leafs Kevyn Adams and Glen Wesley. He also keeps in contact with selected members of the Raleigh Country Club who became some of his closest friends.

Maybe, he said, the memories really will start to flow in two weeks when he returns to Carolina for a date with the host 'Canes on Nov. 3.

"I've seen a hundred guys return to the city where they used to play and turn the wrong way, heading to the home dressing room instead of the visitors room. Force of habit, I guess," he said.

"I played a lot of home games in that building."

O'Neill praised owner Peter Karmanos and general manager Jim Rutherford for running a "first-class operation." He will forever be grateful to Rutherford for granting his trade request to Toronto after his brother, Don O'Neill, was killed in a vehicular accident north of Toronto.

"It's a little different not having Jeff in the room any more," 'Canes forward Eric Staal said last night. "He's a guy that was with this organization when it started here."

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GOOD TIMES, BAD TIMES

It was a roller-coaster ride for Jeff O'Neill during his 10 seasons with Hartford/Carolina:

-- Favourite Hurricanes moment: "Playing in the 2002 Stanley Cup final against Detroit. We didn't win but just getting a shot at the pinnacle of hockey was satisfying."

-- Lowest Hurricanes moment: "Probably the first two years in Carolina when we played in Greensboro. No crowds, a black tarp covering the empty seats ... It was just an 80-minute drive (from Raleigh) but it was a real pain in the rear end during weeks where you had three or four home games."

-- Most bizarre Hurricanes moment: "When the pig mascot (aka Stormy) had a seizure inside the Zamboni. He was supposed to jump out after being called by a professional hog caller as part of some pre-game promotion, but he was nearly (asphyxiated) from the fumes under the hood."


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