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Norsemen forward Ryan O'Neill heads to familiar territory, commits to St. Thomas

Former St. Thomas Academy standout plans to play for Tommies next season. Tommies assistant coach Leon Hayward had established recruiting interest in O'Neill before this season.

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St. Cloud Norsemen forward Ryan O'Neill recently verbally committed to play NCAA Division I hockey for the University of St. Thomas. O'Neill leads the Norsemen in assists (9) and points (14) in nine games this season. In three NAHL seasons, he has 35 goals, 80 points and 20 penalty minutes in 112 games. (Courtesy of Pete Knutson)

ST. CLOUD, Minn. — The recruiting process for some players can be relatively short. Under the new NCAA Division I rules, players cannot be contacted until Jan. 1 of their sophomore year of high school by colleges.

There are players who will commit to a college that next year. Then there are players where the recruiting process can last a few years. St. Cloud Norsemen forward Ryan O'Neill is one of those players.

He first received recruiting looks from Leon Hayward when he was an assistant coach at Colorado College and O'Neill was playing for St. Thomas Academy. O'Neill graduated from high school in 2019 and has begun his third season playing junior hockey for the St. Cloud franchise in the North American Hockey League.

Hayward took a job as an assistant coach at the University of St. Thomas this summer. O'Neill verbally committed to the Tommies on Sunday, Oct. 24.

"Toward the end of last year, when our (Norsemen) team started having some success, he started to watch (me) then," O'Neill said of Hayward. "It just kind of picked up at the start of this year.

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"About a week ago, I went and visited (St. Thomas). I just felt like it was right," he said. "I'm really excited about how it's a new (Division I) program and that's going to be cool to be a part of. It's really good academically. It's close to home and it's cool to play that close to home. There's a lot to like. It's a smaller school, but it doesn't necessarily have that feel."

O'Neill said that he knows where everything is at St. Thomas Ice Arena in Mendota Heights and he will "just be moving over one locker room" from where he played high school hockey.

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St. Cloud Norsemen forward Ryan O'Neill recently verbally committed to play NCAA Division I hockey for the University of St. Thomas. (Courtesy of Pete Knutson)


Developing in juniors

O'Neill, who turned 20 in February, has gotten more productive each season in the NAHL. In 2019-20, he had 12 goals, 26 points, six penalty minutes and was a minus-14. Last season, he led the Norsemen in goals (18), was second on the team in points (40), had 14 penalty minutes and was a minus-6. He came on at the end of last season, picking up 10 goals and 19 points in St. Cloud's last 18 games.

This season, he leads the Norsemen in assists (9), points (14), is tied for the team lead in goals (5) and is a plus-5 in nine games.

"Junior hockey is a long process, that's for sure," said O'Neill, who is listed at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds. "My first year, I was new to the whole thing. It was all right, but obviously, I thought I had more in me.

"Toward the second half of last year, I started to figure out more about how much really goes into it and how much hard work you have to do. There's a lot that goes into it and all of the little things that matter. I think it's finally starting to come together."

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During last offseason, O'Neill said he worked on his strength and developing good eating and sleeping habits. Norsemen coach Corey Millen said that he had a long exit interview with O'Neill after last season because he wanted to know what more he could do to become a Division I player.

"What you put into it is what you get out of it and and I know he put in a real good summer," Millen said. "He worked hard in the gym and on the ice. He put the work in."

With being in good shape and playing in his third junior season, he is playing with more confidence.

"I can play with speed, I think I have a good hockey IQ and see the ice well," said O'Neill, who is playing wing for the Norsemen. "I think I make my teammates better and give them opportunities to score.

"I think I can play any role whether it's keeping it simple with dump-and-chase (hockey) or if we need to score late in a game."

Millen, a former NHL player and All-American at the University of Minnesota, said that O'Neill has more than one element that he provides to the team.

"Ryan's got a good mix to his game — he's got a good brain, a good stick and he's got offensive ability," Millen said. "When he really competes, it's a good combination with his skill level.

"He's not a burner, but he skates well. He competes hard on pucks. When he does that, he's a horse."

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O'Neill said he thinks he will major in finance in college and has been taking at least one class through Century Community College in White Bear Lake.

His commitment to St. Thomas gives the Norsemen six players who have committed to Division I schools. The other five are defenseman Sam Duerr (Maine), goalie Josh Langford (Maine), defenseman John Opilka (St. Cloud State), forward Blake Perbix (Northern Michigan) and forward Nate Warner (Minnesota).

Mick Hatten is a reporter and editor for Forum News Service and helps manage TheRinkLive.com, a website dedicated to hockey. He began working for Forum Communications in November 2018 and has covered St. Cloud State University hockey since 2010. A graduate of St. Cloud State, he has more than 30 years of experience as a journalist and has been a youth hockey coach since 2014. mhatten@forumcomm.com
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