Archbishop Spalding’s hockey coach Rob Trantin remembers Cameron O’Neill as a little boy, batting the puck down the street from his own parents’ house.
Trantin knew his older brothers. He knew the O’Neills as a good hockey family.
But as he got to know the youngest son, he began to realize something else. O’Neill was becoming something almost completely alien to Anne Arundel County.
“I told everyone from the start,” Trantin said, “he’s a future NHL player.”
O’Neill, 18, confirmed Trantin’s prophecy earlier this month when the Ottawa Senators selected the Odenton native in the fifth round with the 143rd overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft.
When it happened, O’Neill passed out mentally for a second as his family burst into cheers around him.
“I had been imagining this for months, but when it happened it didn’t feel real,” the 6-foot-1 forward said. “I still couldn’t believe it.”
As hockey becomes more popular in Maryland and Anne Arundel County, an area largely dominated by lacrosse, O’Neill, a University of Massachusetts draftee, getting drafted is a rarity but not unprecedented.
In 2010, the Montreal Canadiens drafted Jarred Tinordi, son of longtime NHL defenseman Mark Tinordi, who lived in Millersville and attended middle and high schools in Severna Park. Tinordi currently plays for the New York Rangers as a defenseman.
O’Neill certainly felt like an outsider as his friends started signing up for soccer, football and lacrosse camps when he was young. But that didn’t bother him. Inside his house, everything was hockey. His older brothers, Colin and Jason, went on to compete for UMass-Lowell and Providence, respectively.
“I didn’t mind being different. I liked it. I love playing hockey,” O’Neill said.
Many of her teammates at Piney Orchard in Odenton, one of two rinks in Anne Arundel County, said the same thing. They were used to being the only ones playing hockey.
The same was true when O’Neill went to Spalding, a school that values its hockey program more than most schools in Maryland because it’s considered a varsity sport. O’Neill thrived. The freshman scorched the opposing nets with 35 points (12 goals and 23 assists), lifting the Cavaliers to the 2018-19 Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association title and a berth in the Mid-Atlantic Prep Hockey League Finals AA for the first time in the program’s history.
Trantin recalls that even the older players on the team saw O’Neill as a leader.
“He made everyone better, whether you played on the ice or not,” Trantin said.
But despite O’Neill and the Cavaliers’ success, their coach knew the budding star had to go. As much glory as O’Neill brought to Spalding, the freshman missed tons of class to travel with the Rockville-based Maryland team. No professional scouts came to the Severn school to find their next prospect. Trantin urged O’Neill’s family to get him out of Maryland.
“We really respected that because you’d think most coaches would be selfish and want to keep their players here,” O’Neill’s mother, Kathy, said.
O’Neill is grateful to have had an unusual hockey education. This only reinforced his work ethic. O’Neill ran more than he skated and rollerbladed when he couldn’t get on the ice.
“I think it makes you work a little harder because of the lack of resources,” he said. “There aren’t as many rinks and it’s harder to get ice time, so you have to shoot a lot more off the ice than on.
It was night and day compared to the world O’Neill had entered.
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From his sophomore year through 12th grade, O’Neill enrolled at Mount Saint Charles Academy in Rhode Island, a school that describes its hockey program as “nothing short of epic.”
Gone are the days of squeezing ice time at the local rink and spending hours on the road. Now O’Neill had only to look out the window.
This choice paid off. O’Neill had 57 goals and 76 assists in his final season at Mont Saint Charles. In the weeks leading up to this year’s draft, his stock rose. NHL Central Scouting ranked the Odenton native 77th among the best North American skaters in the draft.
It was because of this that Kathy O’Neill held her breath as 142 other players were selected on July 7-8. When it finally happened, she felt more relief than anything. She spent the next week scrolling through the Senators’ Twitter in fascination, spotting her son in professional attire standing among other real hockey players at their development camp.
“You can’t describe how exciting it was,” she said.
O’Neill will spend his next year in Nebraska, playing a full season for the Tri-City Storm, a top junior program in the United States Hockey League that had five other players drafted in 2021. From there, O’Neill will play move to UMass. He does not know how many years he will play there before Ottawa.
“I’ve worked for this all my life. For this to finally happen is a dream come true,” O’Neill said.