It’s fair to say that during Jeff O’Neill’s OHL career, he did as much as anyone to dictate the fate of the Guelph Storm.
The Storm won just four games and missed the playoffs by a wide margin in 1991-92, their first season after the Dukes of Hamilton were bought and moved to Guelph. Two months after the sale, the new owners hired Mike Kelly as their general manager. Kelly recognized that his roster was thin and that he needed to rebuild the team through the draft.
“By the time we reached our 20th game it was clear we had to start thinking about our overall future,” said Kelly.
A big part of that future was O’Neill, the first overall pick in the 1992 OHL Priority Selection.
O’Neill was an immediate success. He scored 32 goals and 79 points and won the OHL’s rookie of the year trophy. More importantly, he helped the Storm get into the playoffs for the first time in their new home. They were knocked out of the first round by the Detroit Jr. Red Wings, but their new path had been laid out.
“I didn’t experiment too much at the beginning of the season,” said O’Neill, who followed his brothers Don and Ryan into the OHL. “Then I got more confidence to handle the puck and try some moves. It only took me a couple of weeks – it was shorter than I thought.”
As a sophomore, O’Neill blossomed into a bona-fide scoring star. He was third in the OHL with 45 goals and 126 points and helped the Storm advance to the second round of the playoffs.
“I don’t know if there’s anyone who has as much pro potential as Jeff,” said John Lovell, O’Neill’s coach in his first two seasons in Guelph. “And he has the leadership to go with it. I think he has matured. He leads by example, but he’s an intelligent kid who knows when things should be said.”
By his third season, O’Neill was a first round NHL draft pick and one of the top offensive stars in junior hockey. Expectations were high for the Storm after they brought in former OHL-NHL star defenceman and NHL assistant coach Craig Hartsburg to lead the talented squad.
“I’m looking to have a big year,” said O’Neill before his final junior season. “We know (Hartsburg) is speaking from past experience and we can also see how we’ve improved under his system. Everybody wants to win and become the best players we can.”
O’Neill, whose #92 was retired by the Storm in 2015, combined with veteran wingers Todd Bertuzzi and Jamie Wright on a balanced attack that led the Storm into the OHL final. They lost the championship series in six games to Detroit, but had made an aggressive statement that this team would not be taken lightly again. Guelph made it to the OHL final three more times in the next nine seasons, winning the OHL championship in 1998 and 2004. They’ve missed the postseason just twice since their inaugural season in Guelph.
Written by Aaron Bell