NHLer turned broadcaster Jeff O'Neill tells it like it is when it comes to the Toronto Maple Leafs
When TSN broadcaster Jeff O’Neill retired following the 2006-07 NHL season, he wondered what he would do for a living.
All he really knew was hockey.
“I have like no education,” said O’Neill, sitting inside an Etobicoke pub on a recent Sunday afternoon.
“So my brother was bringing up ideas, like you should sell cars. And I’m like, ‘If I’m in a parking lot in a car dealership and somebody doesn’t like the car that I’m proposing to them, I’ll tell them to go f--- themselves and then I’ll get fired.’ ”
On the other hand, one of the reasons why O’Neill (or O-Dog as he is known to his friends and followers on social media) has become so popular on Toronto sports radio is because, well, in a nutshell, he essentially tells lazy players and annoying fans (though perhaps in not so many words), to go f--- themselves, or at least go f--- their sub-par efforts or their inane comments — all the while being funny.
Usually very funny.
For O’Neill, it’s just being who he is.
“I love it when people come up to me and say, ‘Jeff, you tell it like it is,’ ” he said. “What are you supposed to do? Are you supposed to lie? Are you supposed to make stuff up? Are you supposed to put lipstick on a pig? That’s stupid. I don’t believe in that.”
Just like he doesn’t believe in having to take calls on TSN’s Leafs post-game radio show, particularly after bad games. And to O’Neill, a bad game is when the Leafs lose and haven’t played very well.
“It’s the same five guys every f---ing time and they’re usually drunk and they have no idea what they’re talking about, so why would anybody put them on live radio?” he said.
When it’s suggested that angry listeners often make for fun radio, O’Neill replied: “I know, but imagine me dealing with it after a 4-1 loss and nobody played good and somebody calls up and says, ‘I hear the Leafs can get this guy for that guy’, and I say, ‘Just stop it.’ I’m at a point now where I’m like, ‘Just hang up the phone, I’m not doing it.’ Because it’s idiotic. It’s f---ing nuts.’ ”
Which is not to say that O’Neill doesn’t appreciate his listeners. He does.
One of his attributes as a broadcaster is, he’s a man of the people. It’s just that he doesn’t suffer fools lightly. But here’s the twist. On TSN’s Leafs Lunch, O’Neill often makes himself the brunt of the joke, like’s he’s the ‘Dumb Guy’ from the David Letterman bit, or the class clown alongside TSN colleagues Bryan Hayes and Jamie (Noodles) McLennan.
Last week, O’Neill tweeted: “In Grade 11 I got 51% on every test I took and people want to add me (to) LinkedIn. Someone explain this to me. This cannot be a benefit to anyone.”
On Leafs Lunch, O’Neill will sometimes wander off topic or interject with some bizarre anecdote that has nothing to do with anything other than it’s a thought that just came into his head. As the host, Hayes will often find himself uttering the familiar refrain: “Here we go ...” though not always out of exasperation.
“The beauty of O is you can bank on him saying something incredibly funny pretty much every segment,” said Hayes. “And totally spontaneous. Who knows what he’s going to say? And that’s the beauty of the show.
“Yeah, I’m the scatterbrain right?” said O’Neill. “If something comes to my head and I’ll bring it to his attention and (Hayes) will shake his head and say, ‘That’s not the topic right now.’ And I’ll say, ‘I don’t care, that’s what came into my head.’ ”
O’Neill has a knack for cracking up his co-hosts, even though he never thought about becoming a broadcaster when he played in the NHL, which is hard to believe.
“That is what makes him a star in my opinion,” said Hayes. “He doesn’t have a filter. If something pops into his head, he’s going with it. He told a story (last) week about how he was playing golf with (former teammate) Gary Roberts and he hit an eight iron when Roberts was up on the green, and he hit him right in the face. He almost killed Gary Roberts. O said, ‘I was terrified. I don’t know if I should be scared for him or scared for my life. Should I drive the cart to see if he’s okay, or drive the cart the other way so I survive?’ That’s the kind of stuff that you can’t plan.”
It’s two days before St. Patrick’s Day, and Jeffrey Paul Flanagan O’Neill is wearing a Maple Leafs baseball cap and, not surprisingly, a St. Patrick’s Day-themed T-shirt. Sitting at a table near the bar, he looks like any other dude sitting around knocking back a couple of pints and watching hockey. The King City, Ont., native acknowledges that he’s not a complicated guy. He loves hockey and beer, his family (they have three young daughters, Ellie, Charley and Irelynn) and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Next to his family, the Leafs are everything to O’Neill, who played two seasons with the Blue and White. Perhaps that’s why he’ll go after slacking players with an abandonment you rarely see from NHLers-turned-broadcasters. Unfortunately it seems the code for many former players is to protect their NHL brethren on the air.
If Phil Kessel’s dogging it, which does happen from time to time, O’Neill will go after him. It’s refreshing.
“He never works hard enough,” said O’Neill, when the topic of Kessel is brought up. “It’s my job to watch and talk about it and if the effort’s horrible, then the effort’s horrible. I don’t make it up. I don’t know Phil Kessel. Apparently he likes fishing and he likes playing cards. And I love that s--t. So I’d probably like playing that with him. But when I watch him on the ice, he does a lot of things that I don’t like.”
In particular, Kessel’s lack of effort when he’s not scoring or when the club is in a slump, as it is right now (a profound understatement).
But the irony is — and NHL fans and O’Neill followers will jump all over this — that O’Neill himself was sometimes knocked as a player for his occasional Kessel-like qualities — a gifted goal scorer who wasn’t (or so it would seem) always in the very best of shape.
But the Etobicoke resident admits as much and tells a story about how he spent a summer training with Roberts, a fitness guru and good friend. They were doing sled sprints (with weights) on a baseball field in Muskoka. After some very tough sledding, O’Neill started puking.
“(Roberts) just looked at me and said, ‘What did you do last night?’ And I said, ‘None of your business.’ And he goes, ‘Whatever you did, you can’t do it again if you want to do the sleds, because you can’t f---ing do it.
“Sometimes you’re just young and stupid and you don’t want to listen to authority because you think they’re being a pain in the ass, but in actuality all they’re trying to do is help you be good, and it’s hard to get that through your head,” O’Neill said.
As for Kessel, he added: “I have to stress this ... it’s not because I was the hardest working player of all time. But I sat beside Kevin Dineen on the bench and I watched him go out on the ice and the way he worked and I know what it takes to be successful. And I watched (Leafs president) Brendan Shanahan when he played. So it’s not about what I used to do, it’s about I wish I used to do. And that’s what I find frustrating.
“I talk a lot about having regrets. I don’t know if Phil Kessel will ever lie in bed when he’s 45 years old and say, ‘Man, I wish I just tried harder.’ I don’t know if he’ll ever think that, but it’s an awful thing to do when you’re done playing ... to have f---ing regrets. I could have been better, I could have been a lot better.”
When people suggest that the O’Dog sometimes ‘dogged it’ near the end of his career, including his last two NHL seasons with his hometown Leafs, he gets emotional and defensive.
For good reason.
“I played for the Toronto Maple Leafs after one of the worse things in my life happened, my brother dying. And people have no idea what I was going through because it hurt a lot and I was having a tough time dealing with life in general, let alone playing in the NHL.”
O’Neill’s older brother Donny, a former captain of the Peterborough Petes, died in a car accident at the ramp of Highways 401 and 407 in July, 2005, the summer before Jeff’s first two seasons with the Leafs. He was lost.
“Playing in the NHL you have to have a clear mind-space to begin with. But when you’re dealing with that ... look, I don’t make excuses. I would never want to say that Donny passing away put me in a position where I couldn’t succeed, because it was my job to overcome that. But I couldn’t do it. I still somehow scored 20 goals two years in a row (19 and 20). And now these guys can just mail it in and it seems like there are no consequences ... ”
O’Neill was at players meetings in the U.S. when the terrible news came down. You can see the pain is still vivid. You can hear the sadness in his voice when he talks about Donny.
“My phone was charging and my brother (Ryan) called me like 30 times and I called him back and I said, ‘What the hell do you want? Actually for once in my life, I’m busy.’ And he told me what happened, so I told (then-Hurricanes GM) Jim Rutherford that I had to go home to be with my family because I don’t want to be away from my mom and dad. So he was nice enough to do me that favour. So I got to do my dream job, which was playing for the Maple Leafs, but it was under extremely difficult circumstances.”
O’Neill pauses for a few seconds when talking about his older brother, and stares off into the distance. He remembers going to Donny’s games with his dad Paul when they were kids and afterwards, even though he might have scored five goals that evening and Donny none, his dad would tell him, the way Donny played — with his hard work in the corners and solid hits — that’s the way to play the game.
Jeff took that to heart.
When it’s suggested that guys like himself and Kessel are skill players who aren’t really expected to hit, O’Neill replied: “Who cares? I’m not talking about being an idiot. They always use the term, ‘Difficult to play against’. I’m sure when you go into the corner with Steven Stamkos or Drew Doughty, they’re a handful. You can’t just go in there and be like fishing around and you don’t come out with the puck ...
“Like Kessel?” he’s asked.
“Dude, that’s why he disappoints me so much,” O’Neill answered.
“Because I see Drew Doughty in the corners, I see Stamkos, I see Toews. Why doesn’t Phil do it?”
O’Neill said he will never personally criticize a player other than for a lack effort or bad attitude. He understands — despite the fame and money — being a professional athlete isn’t easy and fans don’t really understand what players go through. Players endure the same everyday problems as the general public but are expected to rise to the occasion every game, no excuses.
O’Neill has certainly had his share of off-ice problems and tragedies, most notably his brother’s passing and the miscarriage of a first child some years ago. On the side of his neck O’Neill has a tattoo which reads, ‘Son’ beside two angel wings. He understands that fans can’t know what may be throwing a player off his game.
“Sometimes only the player knows that. So my job is to just focus on the ice,” he said.
“I’m not an insider. My job is to watch hockey games and form opinions on what I see.”
O’Neill played 11 seasons in the NHL, scoring 237 goals with 496 points, all the while struggling with another burden, an almost debilitating fear of flying.
In 2001, he turned down an offer from GM Lanny McDonald to play for Team Canada at the world championship in Germany because of reluctance to get on an aircraft.
“If something happens with the plane, where’s the emergency landing when you’re somewhere over the ocean?” he said. “It scares the hell out of me. I had to say no to Lanny because I wasn’t flying over there. I’m like, ‘Lanny, I ain’t going.’ And he’s like, ‘Come on. I’ll sit with you and we’ll drink some beers on the plane.’ Imagine having to say no to Lanny McDonald? He didn’t rat me out, but the thought of flying overseas to me ... you would have to do the f---ing B.A. Baracus from The A-Team — club me over the back of the head and knock me out and shove me somewhere.”
Looking back, O’Neill believes his phobia detracted from his performance on at times.
“I could always handle the quick trips, but the idea of flying cross-country, being up in that thing for five hours, I would just be having major panic attacks,” he said.
“I would always be walking around the plane, going to the bathroom putting water on my face. I just couldn’t control my breathing. I had to play cards to take my mind off s--t, but the guys had no idea what was going on inside my head.
“If you had bad flight, during the game, you’re like ‘F---, I got to get on that f---ing plane.’ It’s horrible.”
When asked if he sought professional help, O’Neill shrugged and said all the reassurance and reasoning in the world wouldn’t have mattered.
“If somebody’s afraid of spiders, they’re afraid of spiders,” he said.
“You can’t just say this spider’s not going to hurt ya, because that’s not how the mind works. I hated it playing, it was a distraction, so I said when I’m done playing, I’m not flying anymore.”
And he doesn’t.
If he travels to Florida to spend vacation time with the family, he drives.
“I need a Madden Mobile,” he said, with a laugh.
“But I’d want mine to be a crappy old Winnebago.”
O’Neill remembers sitting in the back of the team bus after a loss to Philadelphia one night and saying to teammate Ron Francis (a player renowned for his solid work ethic and leadership skills) that he expected Francis to go into management when he retired. Francis replied that he expected O’Neill to go into broadcasting.
“And I said, ‘Not an ’effin chance,” said O’Neill. “But sure enough, he’s the general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes and I’m in the media.”
When O’Neill retired for good, all he wanted to do was live in south Florida, spend time with his family and play a lot of golf.
O’Neill attended the Hurricanes’ training camp in 2008 and appeared in three exhibition games, but decided again to hang up the skates.
“So Jim Rutherford called and said he was disappointed that I left, but he said, ‘You’re going to have to find something to do, because life’s long.’ Playing golf every day is fun, but after a couple of years it’s like, ‘What am I getting out of this? What am I doing?’ ”
After a while, O’Neill began doing some radio hits with then TSN-radio host James Cybulski (now with Sportsnet) and sitting in-studio with Jim Tatti for a couple of weeks.
“I know I was probably terrible, but after the two weeks was over, Jim said, ‘You’ve come a long way in two weeks’. I owe a lot to Cybulski and Tatti. It’s like playing with good centremen,” he said.
Prior to the 2013-14 NHL season, he was brought in to sit in with Hayes and McLennan on Leafs Lunch, and as Hayes said, a star was born.
“The biggest concern usually with former athletes coming to the media game is, are they willing to step on toes? Are they willing to step outside the box and have a really scathing opinion if need be?” said Hayes.
“It’s difficult to find guys like that — former players who are now absolutely willing to say whatever, willing to have fun, willing to take shots at other people and themselves, self-deprecating, the whole nine yards.”
Hayes said McLennan and O’Neill aren’t afraid to step on toes. O’Neill certainly proves that day after day.
“O’s a natural, O’s got the perfect voice on the show, he fits in beautifully with what Noodles and I were doing already, but now it’s totally taken a more positive turn and a bit of a different direction because of O’s personality and the stories. And he’s not shy,” Hayes added. “He’s got no filter and he’ll say whatever’s on his mind.”
It usually makes for great radio.
“We don’t take ourselves too seriously, we’re passionate about the game and we try to have a little fun,” added McLennan, a former NHL goalie who’s married to Leafs Lunch producer Steph Apolito.
“We’re three idiots in a basement, drinking beer (not on the air), telling stories, talking hockey.”
O’Neill tries to pattern his style after two former athletes-turned-outspoken broadcasters, golf’s Johnny Miller and the NBA’s Charles Barkley.
There’s a school of thought that O’Neill would be the perfect replacement for Don Cherry when Grapes eventually steps down from his Coach’s Corner role, though it’s certainly not something O’Neill has given much thought.
“No one will ever replace Cherry,” he said.
Still, they have a lot in common, most notably their candour, love of the game and the fact that they’re both unabashed Maple Leafs fans (though Cherry, of course, also loves in Boston Bruins).
For O’Neill, being a Leafs fan is something he doesn’t hide and doesn’t care if anyone finds that objectionable, like when some Leafs supporters went after George Stroumboulopoulos for his support of the Montreal Canadiens when Strombo was hired as the host of Hockey Night in Canada.
O’Neill tells a story about how once he was doing some TV in Montreal with That’s Hockey host Gino Reda and apparently O’Neill’s Leafs’ bias shone through.
“Gino pulled me aside after and he goes, ‘You’re on a national broadcast, you probably shouldn’t say you’re a fan of the team,’ ” said O’Neill. “And I’m thinking to myself, ‘I don’t give a f---. I don’t care who knows.”
His voice rising, he certainly didn’t care if anyone in the pub knew.
“Playing for the Leafs was a dream. A dream,” he said. “I mean look at my hat. I wear this hat everywhere. It’s my favourite hat.”
O’Neill admitted that even when he played for the Hurricanes and the Hartford Whalers (he was drafted by the Whalers in 1994, the fifth overall pick), he still followed his hometown team.
“I always got the NHL Package for one reason, to watch the Toronto Maple Leafs play hockey because I did when I was a kid,” he said.
“And even when we were out of the playoffs, I’d come back (to Toronto) and almost be a fan. It was weird. To play in the league and be cheering for another team ... I was in the same league as them. I competed against them but I wanted to see them do well because I lived here my whole life.
“So when you try to find a job out of hockey, you have to find something you’re passionate about and I was passionate about the Toronto Maple Leafs.”
Which is why, he said, he gets angry when players dog it or go through the motions, as some Leafs seem to be doing right now.
“I can remember being in Copps Coliseum (in 2005) the first time I actually got to put the Leafs jersey on and I was almost in tears,” he said.
“It’s emotional,” O’Neill added, taking a moment to compose himself. “Because you’ve watched it your whole life. I said to all the guys (at Copps), ‘How does it look?’ It’s pretty good.
“At the end of the day, I want to the Leafs to do well, I want them all to have success,” he continued. “But if they go out there and f---ing embarrass themselves like they are right now, I have to talk about it. I just find it embarrassing to see, because I talk to all the alumni and whether it’s Bruce Boudreau, who’s the coach in Anaheim, he still watches the Leafs. They all watch. Ron Wilson said the other day, ‘I watch every game’ (though Wilson also said he “hates” the Leafs). I know Doug Gilmour watches the games, I know Wendel Clark does, because he’s at the games.
“Everybody wants to see them do well, and when they don’t and they’re doing things that is against what all those guys stand for, they’re disappointed.”
Another Leafs player who has disappointed O’Neill at times this season is 24-year-old Nazem Kadri, a talented but inconsistent young centre who was suspended three games by the club recently for behavioural issues and for missing a practice.
Kadri talks a good game about providing leadership and consistency, but doesn’t always walk the walk.
Earlier this season, Kadri compared his talents to New York Islanders star John Tavares (though to be fair he also said he wanted to ratchet up his work ethic to someday be as good as his old London Knights teammate). Like many Leafs fans, O’Neill wants Kadri to do less talking and more rising to the occasion.
“Nazem Kadri thinks he’s a John Tavares type? Well, if you really want to do that, call (Tavares) and say, ‘I want to hang out with you all summer and I’ll shadow ya because I want to see what you do to make you that good,’ ” said O’Neill.
“Why don’t you do that? You can’t just say that I’m that guy. Because you’re not. But if you want to be that guy, get your agent to call (Tavares’) agent and say ‘I want to train with you and if I can’t train with you then I’ll train with the guy that you train with.’ That’s what you have to do — and if you don’t do that, you can just f---ing go through the motions and be whatever you are.”
If O’Neill does have a filter, he rarely uses it and not surprisingly he has taken heat over some of his on-air comments and tweets.
Once he tweeted a picture of his twin cats, who he named Daniel and Henrik after the Sedin twins and was attacked by Canucks fans who thought he was inferring that the Sedins were pussies. O’Neill said it was nothing of the sort. He named them Daniel and Henrik because they’re twins.
“That was a gross misunderstanding,” he said. “I never called them a bunch of pussies. My thing is, I’ll call you a pussy if I find out you are one, but I don’t know the Sedins. But one thing they’re not, you don’t have all that success if you’re a pussy. They’re competitive sons of bitches, and they’ll go in there and make plays and dig for the puck and they’re good players. I would never personally attack somebody if I don’t know them.”
On the other hand, he named his dog Pavel Brendl after his old Hurricanes’ teammate.
Why Pavel Brendl?
Because the dog is really lazy, said O’Neill with a laugh.
Last season, O’Neill said on the air that the Winnipeg Jets should lock up their rising stars to long-term contracts because nobody wants to sign or play in Winnipeg. He took heat from Jets fans, though he isn’t backing down.
“There’s a standard thing in the NHL, there’s a cold-weather tax and ... ”
After a pause, O’Neill is asked if he means certain Canadian teams like the Jets have to overpay for top players?
“Yeah, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg. And if people don’t understand that, they’re f---ing nuts,” he said.
“If you’re sitting on your dock in the summertime and you’re an unrestricted free agent and somebody calls you with an offer, and it’s in Calgary, but then you get another offer from Chicago and you get to go play with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, what are you going to f---ing do? It’s pretty simple.
“I really believe in Winnipeg, they know they have to draft and develop their own players and make them Winnipeg Jets. And if they get a Jonathan Toews-type player in Winnipeg, you know what, somebody might be on his dock and say ‘Yeah, I’ll go there. Because I get to play with them.’ ”
O’Neill was not impressed when a recent poll suggested many NHLers would list Toronto as a place they wouldn’t want to play, though he understands how under current circumstances that would be possible.
“For me, Toronto is No.1 to go to,” he said. “But the way the team is right now, how could anybody sit on their dock and say, ‘Yeah, I want to go be part of that?’ Would a P.K. Subban or Steven Stamkos (both GTA natives) say, ‘Yeah, right now I want to go there?’ Maybe in a few years when the Leafs are building in the right direction, a Toronto kid would say, ‘I’ll do it.’ ”
As for the club’s rebuild, O’Neill said they have to start drafting better, and build a Stanley Cup contender the proper way.
“The one big thing lacking in this organization for so long is drafting and developing,” he said. “If you go through the draft list of this organization, you f---ing throw up. Not only the players they did pick, but some of the guys that got picked after them turned out to be (great).”
Sitting inside the pub, sipping a light beer, O’Neill looks towards the bar and spots Brian Secord, a former star centre with the Belleville Bulls, eating a sandwich. They joke around and O’Neill talks the dude up.
He clearly enjoys interacting with people, even though he pretends to enjoy playing the curmudgeon just as much or more.
Hayes remembers a couple of weeks ago when they attended a Leafs game and O’Neill was swarmed.
O’Neill said he gets recognized more now because of his TV and radio work than he did as a player.
“O-Dog’s a bigger-than-life personality,” said Hayes.
“You can’t miss O. And O’s a people person. He loves meeting and talking to people and he’ll go out of his way to say hi.”
True enough said O’Neill. But to an extent.
“I have one rule in my life, if I don’t know you, I don’t give a f--- about what you think about what I do,” he said.
“Because all I care about is my family, my job, and my kids, and if you’re some random stranger that wants to send a thing out on Twitter, I’ll just block it because I don’t give a f---. I don’t even know you. On the other hand, I have fun with regular people around town and if you want to sit down and have a beer and talk about the Maple Leafs, I’ll talk for f---ing hours — if you’re a good person. But if you want to be an a------, I’ll walk out the door, because I don’t give a s---. If I don’t know ya, I don’t care.”
Hayes doesn’t quite believe that.
He says O’Neill is exactly who he comes across as on the radio, just a regular guy, passionate about his family, hockey and their show.
A man of the people.
“I love the guy. He’s unbelievable,” said Hayes.
“He’s been a Godsend for me. Both of them have.”