By Danielle Catalano
As the clock neared midnight on the east coast to bring March 28 to an end, so too closed 20-year old Jim O’Brien’s amateur hockey career, as his Seattle Thunderbirds lost their fourth game against the Spokane Chiefs, 5-3, in the first-round playoff series of the Western Hockey League. But as the adage goes, when one door closes, another one opens. For O’Brien, the door opened at 10:15 a.m. Tuesday, March 31, when he took the ice at the Broome County Veteran Memorial Arena in his first professional hockey practice with the Binghamton Senators.
Less than 12 hours after traveling 2,500 miles across the U.S., the Ottawa Senators’ 2007 NHL first-round draft pick was skating right wing, with Marc Cavosie playing center and former newcomer Aaron Slattengren as left wing.
“It’s definitely more maturity…better hockey,” O’Brien says after the 60 minute practice session, adding, “It’s a step up, so hopefully, I’m going to go out there and try my best.”
“You know, he’s excited to be here,” head coach Curtis Hunt says of O’Brien, stems from up Maplewood, Minn., a suburb northeast of Minneapolis. “Until we get him in a game situation, [is when] we will be really able to evaluate him … He’s a big, strong guy. He shoots the puck well off the wall, he can handle it in traffic. That’s the goods I have on him, but again, it’s another level, another phase. It’s going to take him an acclimation period, there’s no question about it. But we’re excited to get him. He adds some skill and some depth to our lineup.”
Looking at O’Brien’s amateur statistics, “some” is an understatement. During his junior hockey career, O’Brien was an offensive powerhouse. In 2004 while playing for the U.S. National Under-17 development team, O’Brien scored 41 points (17 + 34) in 51 games. He played the following season with the Under-18 national club, collecting 17 goals and 24 assists in 51 games and notching four points (3 + 1) in six games as Team USA beat Finland 3-1 for the gold medal at the 2006 International Ice Hockey Federation World Under-18 Championship.
O’Brien next attended the University of Minnesota, scoring 15 points (7+8) for the Golden Gophers, but left college after his freshmen year to compete in the 2007 U18 World Championship, where he earned seven points (3+4) and helped the U.S. squad capture the silver medal.
After being selected 29th overall during the 2007 NHL draft, O’Brien resumed his amateur hockey career with the Thunderbirds. Over the next two seasons, he would accumulate 117 points (48 + 69) in 133 games while amassing a +38 rating. During the 2007-08 season, O’Brien ranked sixth in the WHL in rookie scoring with 55 points in 70 games—and these points came fast and furious. The Minnesota native notched points in 14 of Seattle’s first 33 games of the season and registered a seven-game point streak (4 + 5) from Jan. 16 to Jan. 28. The rookie’s best month, however, was February, where he scored seven goals—including three game winners—and earned 11 assists in 14 games.
Following the Senators’ development camp in June, O’Brien returned to Seattle for the 2008-09 season and his offensive touch went into overdrive, averaging nearly one point per game the rest of the season. Highlights of his 62-points-in-63-games performance include:
• Posting a 12-game point streak (7+9=16) from Oct. 10 to Nov. 7, in which he netted back-to-back two-goal games on Nov. 1 and Nov. 4 and earned an overall plus/minus rating of +9.
• Collecting a career high four points (2+2) in Seattle’s 6-2 win over the Portland Winterhawks the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
• Earning multiple points in four of Seattle’s last seven regular-season contests, resulting in four goals and seven assists.
To top everything off, O’Brien recorded one goal, three assists, and a +4 rating with Team USA at the 2009 IIHF World Junior Championship held in Ottawa this past winter.
When put into perspective, O’Brien’s arrival in Binghamton is either perfect timing or eerily coincidental. The Thunderbirds have made it to the playoffs five straight years and the B-Sens are looking to make it to the post-season after a three year absence. O’Brien nine goals tied him as Seattle’s team leader on power-play goals while the B-Sens continue to lead the American Hockey League in man-advantage situations. In addition, the B-Sens are down two centers, the position O’Brien played most throughout his time in juniors.
Knowing all of this, Hunt is holding off committing the 20-year old to anything, preferring instead, to keep all offensive opportunities available for his newest skater. “Jimmy’s a guy who can play the right side or middle, so again it gives us that needed depth, that’s for sure,” he says.
So, as O’Brien’s first day as a hockey pro came to completion, he was asked about playing in tomorrow’s match-up against East Division rival, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. The quick study that his is, O’Brien answered like a veteran player. “I’m going to do everything I can to go out there and play my game and hopefully help this team,” he says. “Right now, they’re looking to hold on and get in the playoffs here and make a run. I’m going to do whatever it takes to help them out.”