O'Neill's mind back on ice

Dealing with the death of his brother and being injured made last season a write-off for Maple...

Dealing with the death of his brother and being injured made last season a write-off for Maple Leafs winger Jeff O'Neill. (Toronto Sun File/Craig Robertson)

TERRY KOSHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:25 AM ET

Jeff O'Neill might have filled a Maple Leafs uniform last season, but mentally he usually was nowhere to be found.

That won't be the case this season, the 30-year-old said yesterday. Now more than one year removed from the death of a brother, O'Neill is ready to put his mind back on his job.

"I feel like I am actually concentrating solely on hockey right now," O'Neill said after a workout at Lakeshore Lions Arena. "Last year was such a blur, I did not get a chance to be thankful for being a Toronto Maple Leaf. It was just a really weird year and I am looking forward to a fresh start."

BROTHER KILLED

In July 2005, O'Neill's brother Don was killed in a motor vehicle crash in Toronto. In the season opener last October, O'Neill crashed into the net against the Ottawa Senators and suffered a right shoulder injury. Bugged by the injury for the rest of the season, O'Neill had surgery in early May.

On the ice, O'Neill was dreadful. He had 38 points (19 goals and 19 assists) in 74 games and was a team-low minus-19. Sprinkled in were visits to former coach Pat Quinn's doghouse, and O'Neill was a healthy scratch at times.

In March before a game in New York against the Rangers, O'Neill was so disillusioned he hinted he might retire at the end of the season.

Now, after watching his former club, the Carolina Hurricanes, win the Stanley Cup and getting his shoulder back into proper shape, O'Neill's outlook could not be more different.

"Being 30 years old and retired, when you look back, is a pretty stupid idea," said O'Neill, who will make $1.5 million US in 2006-07. "I needed a break to step back and get away from it, collect my thoughts and realize how good the game has been to me and my family."

No one expects O'Neill, who will be reunited with former Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice, to ever fully get past his brother's death. But he said he is coping better.

"I did not know how much it was going to hurt, but it hurt a lot," O'Neill said. "It takes a lot out of you stress-wise, and there is no way of really getting over it. I just think I am more comfortable with it and I'm ready to play again."


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