|Veteran Sean O'Donnell has played a lot of different roles during his career and in his second stint with the Kings, he's more of a mentor to young Jack Johnson and Drew Doughty.
It would be easy to fit Sean O’Donnell into a caricature.
At age 38, he would be the player coasting to the end of his career, enjoying the Southern California lifestyle, cracking wise in the locker room and loafing through practices.
Those players do exist in professional sports, but less often in hockey, and not at all in the Kings’ dressing room. O’Donnell is the oldest Kings player, by five years, but time has done little to soften his approach to the game, which is as fiery as ever.
Now in his 15th NHL season, O’Donnell remains a reliable defenseman, but he’s much more. He’s a self-described "paternal" figure for young star defenseman Drew Doughty, a steadying voice in the locker room and, by all accounts, a selfless teammate.
"He's been a pro for almost 20 years," Kings defenseman Matt Greene said, "and he's just got a smarter approach to the game than a lot of us do, because he's been around for so long. Any time he comes to me, it's one of those deals where, if he's taking the time to pull me aside to say something, it means a lot. He knows what he's doing."
The biggest compliment to O’Donnell might come from something he didn’t do. Last week, when coach Terry Murray wanted to get recent acquisition Randy Jones into the lineup, he had a few options but decided to scratch O’Donnell from the lineup.
The move was significant. Beyond being a veteran player, O’Donnell had not been scratched from a game since Feb. 7, 2007, an eternity for a hockey player, particularly a defenseman, and no doubt a source of much pride for O’Donnell.
Murray could have had a problem on his hands. O’Donnell could have gone sour, complained publicly and caused a disruption for a team that desperately needs smooth sailing as it attempts to crack the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
Instead, O’Donnell approached it as he does most things, with reason and poise.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to play every game," O’Donnell said, "but at the same time, coaches don't just do things. Terry has been around a long time, and Terry is a smart coach. They just don't do things for no reason at all.
"Sometimes, as a player, you maybe don't see the big picture sometimes. Terry explained some things to me. I understood it. I didn't like it, but I understood it. This is an 82-game schedule, and you can't get too upset over a game or two. You do what you can. You cheer for the team and just hope that your chance comes to get back in there."
O’Donnell’s response was consistent with his attitude and effort throughout his stint with the Kings, which, depending on how the clock is set, started in 2008 or 1995.
Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in 1991 and traded to the Kings in 1994 for Doug Houda, O’Donnell made his NHL debut in January 1995 and spent six seasons with the Kings before being claimed in the 2000 expansion draft by Minnesota.
O’Donnell’s world tour continued with stops in New Jersey, Boston, Phoenix and Anaheim. At each stop, O’Donnell furthered his reputation as a steady, defense-first – he has only 27 career goals – defenseman who wouldn’t dazzle but wouldn’t hurt the team.
O’Donnell won the Stanley Cup with the Ducks in 2007, and after the following season, the Ducks were looking to cut a bit of salary and the Kings were looking for a veteran, left-shot defenseman to pair with Doughty, whom they had just drafted. The partnership worked well, as Doughty was arguably the Kings’ most valuable player last season.
"He has meant a lot," Doughty said. "He has helped me pretty much at all times, whether it's on the ice, off the ice, something to do with living, whatever the case may be, he's always helping me out.
"I had not too bad of a year last year, and I think a lot of that had to do with him, helping me through every situation, making me feel a little more confident and safe, just knowing I had him there."
Initially, the Kings had their eye on another former King, Mathieu Schneider, but O’Donnell became a target late in training camp and the trade got completed when the Kings agreed to send a third-round draft pick to the Ducks for O’Donnell.
O’Donnell came as advertised. The Kings put O’Donnell’s locker next to Doughty’s, made them on-ice partners and counted on O’Donnell to mentor a rookie nearly young enough to be his son, since Doughty joined the NHL at age 18.
"Over my career, there's been all kinds of roles that I have played," O’Donnell said. "I went from playing on a Boston team where I was one of the shutdown guys, to playing on a young Phoenix team, to Anaheim, where I played with (Chris) Pronger and kind of played second fiddle to him, then to last year with Drew and helping him. There's a lot of different hats you have to wear sometimes, and that's kind of the story of my career."
A former captain of the Minnesota Wild, O’Donnell hasn’t worn a letter on his jersey during his second stint with the Kings, but it would be folly to suggest he’s not a leader.
Teammates describe O’Donnell as providing just the right mix of leadership. When needed, he will speak up in the dressing room. Increasingly, though, he will pull aside one of the captains – usually fellow defenseman Matt Greene – and privately give some words of advice that Greene can spread to the rest of the team.
Again, that’s O’Donnell putting team first. He understands the importance of the Kings developing young leaders. He’s not going to be on the team in five years, but players such as Greene, Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar probably are, so O’Donnell understands the importance of allowing the young leaders to take charge right now.
At the same time, Greene said O’Donnell will speak up when the situation dictates it.
"If one guy is talking all the time, at the end of the day it sounds like Charlie Brown's teacher," Greene said. "When he starts talking in the locker room, guys take it to heart, because we know it's something we need to do if we want to win."
Continue to Part II