Although his reappearance in Raleigh is sure to invoke feelings of nostalgia for all those who followed the Hurricanes during his seven year stint with the team, Jeff O’Neill doesn’t want to you get too excited just yet.
The 32-year-old forward, who is attempting a comeback with the Canes by way of a training camp tryout, repeatedly downplayed the situation after taking part in one of the Hurricanes’ informal players-only skates this week.
”This is not really that big a deal,” he said. “This is just a tryout where we’ll see what happens. If I play well and it looks like I can play, maybe something will happen. If not, it’s not going to happen.”
O’Neill, still the Hurricanes all-time goal scoring leader with 176 and second only to Glen Wesley in games played with 536, didn’t play pro hockey at all last season following a two-year stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Once he decided he was interested in coming back to the NHL, he had his agent contact Carolina General Manager Jim Rutherford, who agreed to the tryout.
“I’ve had some success here in the past and obviously a lot of names are different here in the locker room, but I’m very familiar with the area and just comfortable here in general, so it’s an easy fit for me,” he said.
O’Neill’s best offensive season in the NHL came with the Hurricanes in 2000-01, when he scored a career-high 41 goals – two more than he scored during his stay with the Maple Leafs. He was also named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team in 2002-03.
For what it’s worth, which may not be much considering the relatively relaxed nature of the drills and scrimmages he’s participated in thus far, O’Neill, wearing a Hurricanes jersey complete with his old number 92 on his helmet, doesn’t look out of place among the current Carolina players.
”Smart players can come back because they don’t lose that,” said former teammate Rod Brind’Amour, who has been running the informal practices. “He’ll get his conditioning, but he’s always had the intelligence to play this game, so he’s a step ahead of most players already.
”Whether or not he wants to dig in there and give it another shot, that’s what’s going to remain to be seen,” added Brind’Amour. ”I think sometimes when you’ve sat away from it from awhile that makes you hungrier to come back, and I think that’s where he’ll be at.”
O’Neill, who says the year off has given him a “generally fresh state of mind,” hopes that will be the case, but isn’t counting on any special treatment from the Hurricanes’ management despite his undeniable place in the team’s history.
”Jim Rutherford and Ronnie Francis, I consider them friends of mine and I think they’re going to be straight-up honest with me,” said O’Neill. “If it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen, they’re just going to tell me it’s not going to happen. It’s as simple as that.”
Regardless of what happens come training camp and beyond, O’Neill seems content just to give it his best shot and enjoy it while it lasts.
”It’s just nice to be back in this locker room, and even if things don’t work out I got to put the jersey on again,” he said. “It’s only been three days here but it’s already been a lot of fun.”