By Cleve Dheensaw
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2008
VICTORIA, British Columbia – With his punishing style, and long golden locks tumbling out from under his helmet, Sean O’Connor left an unmistakable imprint as one of the opposition ECHL players Victoria Salmon Kings fans loved to ride.
The six-foot-three, 220-pound Racquet Club of Victoria product took fiendish delight in bedeviling his hometown pro hockey team as he scored nine goals and collected 14 points in his last 12 games against the Salmon Kings.
But those heckles will turn to cheers when the Florida Panthers’ 2000 third-round draft pick suits up this season for the Salmon Kings. It will be O’Connor’s first time playing for an Island team since junior and his 1988-89 season with the Victoria Salsa of the BCHL before he jumped to the major-junior WHL to captain the Moose Jaw Warriors.
“I’m really excited. It’s great to come back home and hopefully be part of something big,” said O’Connor, who led the ECHL Phoenix RoadRunners in goals last season with 27.
By all accounts, the former Oak Bay High rugby standout had a good NHL training camp recently with the Tampa Bay Lightning but got caught in the numbers crunch with the Lightning’s AHL affiliate in Norfolk, Va. The Lightning wanted to send him to their ECHL affiliate in Augusta, Ga., but O’Connor didn’t fancy the home of the Masters. As a free agent, he had his pick of ECHL teams.
Late last week, that old Victoria hockey network started churning into action.
“There is always a background story to any free-agent signing in pro hockey and [Grizzlies/Salsa BCHL head coach and former NHLer] Geoff Courtnall got things moving on this,” said Mark Morrison, head coach and GM of the Vancouver Canucks-affiliate Salmon Kings.
“Sean has played against us for years and always done well against us, so it’s good to finally have him on our side with the fish [logo] on his jersey,” added Morrison. “He has grit, toughness and can score.”
O’Connor takes the third of the Salmon Kings’ four allowable veteran positions (players with 260 or more games of pro hockey experience) after the defending ECHL goals champion Wes Goldie and AHL veteran defenceman Tim Wedderburn.
O’Connor owns a home in Phoenix and over the summer married wife Brooke, who is from the desert city. Yet returning to U.S. Airways Center to play for the RoadRunners, who missed the ECHL Kelly Cup playoffs last season, is not something O’Connor considered.
“I would rather be with a winning team like Victoria than the leading goal scorer on a team that missed the playoffs,” said O’Connor. “I wanted to be part of something fun and Victoria is a great organization and I think we will do some damage.”
Ironically, O’Connor and the Salmon Kings open the season at U.S. Airways Center next week with three games against the RoadRunners. But it’s a new, yet familiar, group of fans he looks to please now.
“Victoria fans are so knowledgeable about hockey and I’m really looking forward to playing for them,” he said.
It also didn’t hurt during the decision process that among those fans will be many family members and also friends he has known since childhood.
“Now I can also go out and watch all my good buddies play rugby for JBAA.”
The first player O’Connor greeted yesterday when walking into his first Salmon Kings training camp session was Matt Kelly. The two got into a haymaker of a fight late last season when the Salmon Kings were playing in Phoenix.
“There are no hard feelings . . . we were just doing our jobs,” smiled Kelly.
Meanwhile, training camp is expected to bulge when the Manitoba Moose of the AHL send between six to eight players to the Salmon Kings today. Those players will be part of a formal scrimmage tomorrow at 2 p.m.