A Yale University graduate who won the Calder Cup with the Manchester Monarchs and made 22 appearances for the New Jersey Devils, O’Neill came to the KHL with a string of accolades to his name—including the AHL’s MVP and top scorer in 2015. In pursuit of a lifelong dream to spend time overseas, O’Neill joined Jokerit in 2016 and has since emerged as a force on a roster that boasts several reigning IIHF World Champions. A U.S. Olympian who notched a goal at the 2018 Winter Games, the 31-year-old forward leads scoring for Jokerit this season as they vie for a coveted playoff spot.
I caught up with Brian O’Neill between trips to the sauna (preferably a daily occurrence) and a few definitive clashes with Western Conference rivals. We discussed everything from his adjustment to KHL ice to the flashy World Championship parties that took place all over Finland. Spoiler alert: Mr. Helsinki has not gotten any invites, but perhaps exposure of that oversight will restore justice.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): You moved to Helsinki three years ago. Back then, what did your friends and family make of your decision to join the KHL?
Brian O’Neill (BO): I don’t think anyone was concerned, but they were curious about the decision. My Mom was probably the only one who had some questions or a few doubts. Everyone was pretty supportive and knew that I had always wanted to go overseas. Getting to play in a great league like the KHL and also live in Helsinki, Finland—it was an opportunity that you couldn’t pass up. I think people were more happy for me than concerned.
GK: Have they come to visit you in Finland?
BO: My whole family came out last year and my little brother came out the year before—so everyone in my family has seen the city, and they really enjoy Helsinki. It was the first time in Europe for all of them, so I’m sure it was a bucket list item. They even ended up buying a sauna at the end of the trip!
GK: Hold on…they were so inspired by the Finnish sauna culture that they installed one at home?
BO: There are these pretty cool portable infrared saunas. They are easy to assemble, not too expensive, and you can put it pretty much anywhere that has an outlet. I don’t know if they use it as much as they say they use it, but they for sure liked that part of the experience.
GK: In reading the North American scouting reports about you, quickness was always mentioned as one of your strengths. How has your game evolved since transitioning to Olympic-sized ice in Helsinki?
BO: I’ve become a better skater over the last three years because you need to rely on it more. You have the puck more too, so I’ve become a better stickhandler slash better with the puck in general. The European and Finnish [hockey] culture stresses upon skating and stickhandling more so than in North America, so I definitely think that has had a positive impact.
I struggled a lot my first ten to fifteen games producing. It felt like I was getting chances, but nothing was really happening when I got on the ice. That was probably the only really tough stretch in my tenure here in the KHL. Definitely a transition.
GK: What changes most when you’re on the road?
BO: Usually, I think it’s mindset. If I’m playing at home on a thirty-meter-wide rink, you might turn down a few more shots. You know you’re probably going to be facing more of a trap the whole night, so it’s probably more defensive when we’re playing at home. When you’re playing on the road against a team that’s on NHL-sized ice, you have to adopt a shoot-first mentality, and dump the puck in a few more times than you normally would.
GK: The North American game conditions players to make decisions at lighting speed. Does that help or hurt you on the larger sheets?
BO: I think sometimes you get tricked into thinking that just because you have the puck and you’re stickhandling in the offensive zone, that you’ve had a quality chance or you’re dominating the play.
The guys who have a lot of results in this league, they seem to get to the net a lot more. You think it would be easier because you have the puck, but the Russian teams are so good at protecting the net that the Olympic ice surface actually works the other way. It’s a lot more defensive than NHL style.
I still haven’t figured it out completely, but I enjoy playing in both rinks. In the [smaller] arenas, for sure things happen quicker—but then again, you get way more chances. If you create a turnover in an NHL-sized rink, it’s probably going to lead to a scoring chance. If you create a turnover in an Olympic-sized rink, you might be too far from the net to make anything happen immediately.
GK: It goes without saying that Finland has had a ton of success on the international stage at both the junior and senior levels. They’re the reigning IIHF World Champions. As someone who is playing under a Finnish coach and alongside Finnish teammates, how would you explain their strength?
BO: With Sweden and Finland in particular, they’re so well-trained from a very young age. Now they’re focusing on individual skills, as Russia has for a while. Everyone that’s coming up the ranks, even if we have an 18 or 19 year old kid that’s practicing with us from the junior team, they shoot the puck really well and skate well. I think that’s very standard for a Finnish or Swedish-born hockey player that’s been developed. I haven’t spent too much time with the younger kids in terms of seeing exactly what they’re doing, but it seems like they skate a lot better than the rest of the world. Per capita, look at all the NHL superstars that have come out of Finland and Sweden over the years.
GK: Is the World Championship celebration still going strong in your locker room?
BO: [Laughs] They had their fun, and now we’re trying to humble them a bit! It has opened up an avenue for more chirping—we give them a hard time here and there when it’s mentioned. But all three of those guys are extremely important players for us, and they’re just good guys. I think everyone is genuinely, genuinely happy for them, and for Finland as a whole.
GK: Instagram tells me that Veli-Matti Savinainen & co. were getting invited to some pretty swanky parties…
BO: Those three got invited to the President’s house in Finland, which is one of the ultimate honors to have as a Finnish citizen. Good for them! I heard it was a great party, but unfortunately I haven’t attended any of those World Championship reunions. Maybe someday.
GK: Don’t they call you “Mr. Helsinki?” Surely this was a mistake…
BO: Yeah, I guess Mr. Helsinki doesn’t get those invites!
GK: So what does Mr. Helsinki do in his free time, then?
BO: I knew what a sauna was and had been in one maybe 10-15 times before I came to Europe. Now I crave it, and am disappointed if I don’t go on a daily basis. I think it has helped me as an athlete for sure, and definitely there are some mental benefits too. The physical ones have been studied and everyone can attest to those, but mentally you feel better during these winters. They’re so dark—it’s tough to get through sometimes. Going to the sauna after practice or after a game definitely helps to brighten the mood, and it’s something I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.
GK: Any cultural differences that have required adjustment?
BO: I’ve learned to be more comfortable with silence. If I was in an elevator and there were two Finns with me, I would do anything to avoid the awkward silence. But now, I’m getting better at just letting the silence happen. Not to say I don’t love talking, which I do—but it’s something that I probably could get used to more of. [The Finns] are actually taking small-talk classes to enhance their social skills too…so I think it’s a give-and-take. I can learn a little from them, and they can learn a little from the North American culture.
GK: That’s so interesting - it must translate on the ice too.
BO: It’s probably very similar to the Russian culture or the Russian players. North Americans definitely talk more than Europeans in general, which I think our coaches [at Jokerit] are focusing on—something that the Finns need to work on. Talking a little more, communicating better makes everything easier on the ice. But the guys that have played in North America talk just as much, if not more than the [import players].
GK: Jokerit is sitting pretty firmly in playoff position right now, but the season did not start out that way. Was there any moment that categorized your turnaround?
BO: We beat CSKA in Moscow. In my opinion, they’ve been the top team or second-best every year since I’ve been in the league. Beating a team like that at home will definitely give you confidence, and our record has been pretty good since we beat them. We had a shaky start to the year, but if you can win there—you can win anywhere.
GK: Is there any moment that sticks out in your KHL career as the most memorable, for better or for worse?
BO: I didn’t score in my first fifteen games, so that was a trying moment! Five or six games after that though, I had a hat trick in the old Red Army rink. That was pretty cool given their history, and how great of a franchise that was.
GK: You were a member of the U.S. Olympic Team in 2018, and even scored at the Winter Games. How did you get the news that you had been named to the squad?
BO: I knew that I was being considered among the U.S. players in Europe. You never really know what route they were going to take, and there was only one tryout tournament — the Deutschland Cup in November 2017. I was optimistic that I would be on that team, but even if you get on, you’re still hesitant [because] there was always the possibility that the NHL could still go. I never really let my mind get to that point.
I got a call from the late Jim Johannson, who was a great, great guy. I was at a team charity event at a casino, and it was just surreal. It took a while for it to sink in, but it was a day I will never forget. It was a couple of weeks before Christmas and a pretty special moment for me.
GK: I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to march in the Opening Ceremony.
BO: The Opening Ceremony is amazing, but it happens in ten minutes tops. You wait, then you walk through quick, and it’s over. It is a huge event, but for our part, we waited for 15 minutes, walked around, and that was it. But seeing the other high-level athletes who had trained for so many years was cool. We always called ourselves the "backdoor Olympians”—we almost felt bad for being there sometimes!
GK: Regardless of how you got there, it’s a title that you’ll never lose.
BO: Now I still explain to people, “Hey…just to let you know…if the NHL could go, I wouldn’t even be close to being on that team!” [Laughs] But maybe in twenty years, I’ll stop explaining that part.
GK: The image of the KHL in America is often driven by expats who come back. Have you witnessed differences in perception versus reality?
BO: Every time someone asks me that question…I’ve never had one negative experience in Russia. I know I live in Helsinki, but I spend 100-110 days in Russia, and Moscow is one of my favorite cities in the entire world. Saint Petersburg is awesome. There are other really good cities — Kazan, Ufa, Yekaterinburg. There are so many places that I think people, if they really let go of those biases, would enjoy. I’ve had only positive experiences, and some people are really surprised when they hear that. They only hear the worst, and some of the worst is exaggerated completely. Maybe there’s a little theatrics added to a lot of those stories, but I’ve always told people—if you get a chance to play in the KHL, definitely do it. There’s a lot of great places to play and it’s a unique opportunity.
GK: Speaking of which, a few other Yale alums have come to the league.
BO: Yeah, Andrew Miller is at Kunlun Red Star. Ray Giroux went to Yale and played for Saint Petersburg and Kazan a long time ago. He had a lot of success in the league.
Miller and I were really close in college and are still really close. I saw him when I was in Beijing. We used to live together for summer training, and I don’t know if we ever thought we’d end up meeting in China playing in a KHL game. I guess anything can happen in hockey!
GK: You’ve played in the NHL, won the AHL, scored in the Olympics. What will define success to you at the end of your KHL career?
BO: Jokerit and [General Manager] Jari Kurri have been so good to me that having a really long playoff run and hopefully winning a championship here would definitely be a huge highlight and goal of mine personally and for the Jokerit organization. In 2014-2015, we won in Manchester in the AHL and that’s been my favorite year to-date in hockey. So hopefully getting a chance to do that again would be icing on the cake for my experience overseas thus far.
GK: And when you go on that long playoff run, what are the must-sees for fans who visit Helsinki to root for you?
BO: There’s Löyly sauna on the Baltic Sea where you go into the sauna for a bit and then jump into the water. It’s probably really cold depending on what time of year it is, but then you go back to the fireplace overlooking the Baltic and have a long drink…which is basically a Mike’s Hard Lemonade.
GK: I was not expecting that comparison! What other elements of Finnish cuisine have you picked up?
BO: There are some Finnish foods like reindeer. All of the imports get together and try to cook a meal that incorporates those unique Finnish foods. It’s hard to get good reindeer, but a couple of years ago we got it…we enjoyed that. It’s really low in fat, so if you don’t cook it right, it’s a little dicey.
GK: Brian, if you eat all the reindeer…how will the rest of us get our Christmas presents?
BO: That is true. Very good point.
GK: We have about 20+ games left in the regular season. What’s the priority for Jokerit?
BO: The challenge we’ve had over my tenure at Jokerit is that we start off really, really well, and then hit a wall right before Christmas. We limp into the playoffs not playing great hockey. I think this year it has been a blessing that we had some injuries at the beginning to key players—we’re still missing Nicklas Jensen—but we battled through the tough start. We’ve slowly gotten better, which is important.
Obviously we will go through other peaks and valleys, but if we can continue to get better and play good hockey going into the playoffs, that will put us in a unique position that we haven’t had in the past. We’ve never been playing our best hockey in late February, which is extremely important.
GK: Has any opponent surprised you this season?
BO: I think just the parity in general. The KHL as a whole is going in the right direction. If you look at the scoring, I don’t know if it’s down—but there are no easy games. And that’s not to say that there were easy games in my first or second year here, but now, every game is pretty close. It’s a testament to how good the league is. The last place teams in both conferences have a chance of beating the first place teams.
GK: Last question, and I ask this to everyone. What keeps you entertained on the KHL long-hauls?
BO: I don’t play cards, and if I’m really intrigued by a Netflix series, I’ll watch that. Usually I don’t read on the plane, but I’m a huge podcast guy: Joe Rogan, Ben Greenfield, No Laying Up—which is a golf podcast. Some of our trips are pretty crazy, but usually it’s just an hour and a half to Moscow. For me, the podcasts just make the time go by.