It's almost silly how reputations are born. You have a couple of rocky years playing for a club with which you never quite gelled, and suddenly you're problematic, lacking talent and a threat to the stability of a locker room. This is exactly what happened to Shane O'Brien, the 28-year-old defenseman from Port Hope, Ontario. Despite solid years before signing with the Canucks, a few missteps on the ice, some poor decisions off of it, and a public clashing with the guys in charge have made it seem like the guy has been trouble his entire career. Here's the truth, though: O'Brien is a young, talented hockey player who had two tough years.
In 1999-2000, while playing for the hometown Port Hope Buzzards of the Quebec Major Junior League, Shane O'Brien put up 6 goals and 27 assists for 33 points in only 47 games. Although he was already making a name for himself as a tough player (110 PIM), he clearly had offensive skills, too. He went on to show his versatility in the Ontario Hockey League. In three seasons (Kingston Frontenacs and Toronto St. Michael's Majors) of play in the OHL, O'Brien put up 89 points in 190 games while logging 429 minutes in the box. Those minutes included 30 fights from which the defenseman gained recognition with his toughness and sense of loyalty to his teammates. To be sure, the young player lacked some discipline, something with which he would struggle later on in his career.
The combination of offensive and rugged skills was enough to make the Anaheim Mighty Ducks take notice; the club drafted him in 2003 (8th round, 250th overall) and sent him to their AHL affiliate in Cincinnati. His first year in the AHL was a modest one in regards to points (2g, 8a), but he solidified his reputation as a fighter with 15 bouts. The following season, however, saw his point production more than double (5g, 20a), and in 2005-2006, while playing for the Portland Pirates (also an AHL affiliate of the Mighty Ducks), his numbers jumped even higher (8g, 33a). His tendency for rough play, fighting and penalties didn't lessen, though, as he averaged 303 PIMs over those two years.
The Pirates made it into the Calder Cup playoffs, and O'Brien shined. He led all AHL defensemen in scoring with 22 points (6g, 16a) in only 19 games. His play gave the newly renamed Ducks the confidence to sign him to a one-year contract.
O'Brien made his NHL debut on October 6, 2006, against the Ducks' most hated rival, the Los Angeles Kings. Less than two weeks later, he scored his first NHL goal and recorded his first Gordie Howe Hat Trick in a game against the Detroit Red Wings. He scored on Dominik Hašek, gave an assist to Corey Perry, and fought Brad Norton in the Ducks 4-1 win over the Wings. O'Brien was named first star of the night.
He continued to play a solid, tough game - cementing his role as a stay-at-home, physical defenseman with a penchant for fighting - and posted another goal and 11 assists (with 122 PIMs) in 56 more games with Anaheim. At the trade deadline on February 24, 2007, the rookie (along with a third-round pick in 2007) was sent to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for prospect Gerald Coleman (G) and a first-round pick in 2007. The return on the deal speaks volumes of the value the two clubs placed on O'Brien.
He was ranked 5th in fighting in the NHL at the time of the trade; however, he toned down this aspect of his game as the Lightning did not rely on physical play as much as Anaheim did. After finishing the season with 2 assists in 18 games, Tampa Bay signed the sophomore to a two year, $2 million contract. In 2007-2008, O'Brien continued to show he was a reliable defenseman, good for both production and protection, by posting 4 goals and 17 assists in 77 games and ranking 5th on the team in ice time (both total and on the penalty kill).
Despite a respectable season on a last-placed team, the Lightning chose to trade O'Brien after only one game in the 2008-2009 season. It would be interesting to speculate what direction his career would have taken if he had been sent to another team or not traded at all. In retrospect, landing in Vancouver did nothing but hurt O'Brien's career. How much each party played in the drama will never be known, but what is clear is that the Canucks and Shane O'Brien were not made for each other.
In the two years he played for the Canucks, O'Brien was the subject of numerous high-profile incidents. November 3, 2009, he reached across the benches and poked Rangers' forward Sean Avery with his stick. That earned him a one-game suspension. On January 29, 2009, he received a $2,500 fine for taking part in an altercation with Joe Pavelski and Ryan Clowe of the San Jose Sharks after a January 20th game. In March, he was a healthy scratch for six days after reportedly being late to practice because of a long night of partying.
On April 24, 2010, O'Brien officially apologized to Wayne Simmonds, the LA Kings and the Vancouver fans and organization for an act he admitted was "probably a little immature and uncalled for." Fueled by the adrenaline of the fight he'd just had with Simmonds at the end of a 7-2 blow out win by the Canucks in the playoffs, O'Brien gestured to the crowds in the Staples Center, as if taunting them. No one, even his employers, were pleased. Of course, badmouthing the Vancouver organization by questioning his fit with the team and saying that GM Mike Gillis made it clear his only use was as a fighter made things that much worse. Although his apologies were genuine, they did not do much to improve his reputation. Saying that, when fighting, "sometimes you don't think before you act -- I'm pretty good at that. I've got to start thinking before I do stuff," certainly didn't win him any favors.
The two-year tumultuous relationship ended abruptly when Vancouver placed O'Brien on waivers on October 2, 2010. Frustrated and angry, O'Brien spoke out in the media, calling out Alain Vigneault specifically. He claimed Vigneault would publicly criticize O'Brien while overlooking the things other players were doing wrong. But what bothered him most was losing his spot in the NHL."I wasn't really looking forward to going to Manitoba very much. I was more upset about that than anything."
In a surprise move, the Nashville predators traded for O'Brien just a few days after he hit the waiver wire. O'Brien was excited about the move, hoping that the new environment would return him to the player he once was. It did just that. In the 2010-2011 season, he played a full 80 games, received no disciplinary action, kept his average penalty minutes to the lowest of his career, recorded 9 points, was a +1, and logged solid minutes.
The Predators decided not to re-sign O'Brien, and he became a free agent on July 1st. He had nothing but good things to say about the organization, however, specifically naming Barry Trotz as an important and valued part of his life the past season. "I have to thank him. He’s a class act. He treated me with nothing but respect the whole time. He treated me like a man, and he treated all his players with respect and he makes it fun to come to work every day. It was a fun year."
Many people questioned the Colorado Avalanche - as they did the Predators - when Shane O'Brien was signed to a one-year, $1.1 million contract on July 13, 2011. Just like the team before them, though, the Avs realized that you can't believe all you read in the media. O'Brien himself said, "The reputation I had in Vancouver was not entirely true, but that is the way things go sometimes, they get blown out of proportion." He wasn't the only one who felt that way, either. Ryan Porth of Red Light Hockey District insisted that, "The stuff that came out about him from Vancouver was media-driven. He’s a great/fun guy. Nothing but a class act in Nashville."
O'Brien's "new" reputation is showing him for what a lot of people truly believe he is: a hard-working professional who brings grit and skill to the ice, as well as laughter and life to a locker room. He's also proving to be more than just an enforcer. In his first three games with Colorado, he has logged the fourth most time on ice both in even strength and on the penalty kill. He's also seen some time on the power play. All of the added responsibility has been deserved; through camp, preseason and now the early regular season, the 6'3", 230 lb defenseman has been one of the highlights.
Like many players before him, O'Brien seems to be finding himself in Denver. Prior to signing here, he said, "I’m still young, I feel like I’m still getting into my prime. I think I can help anyone’s penalty kill, and I still think there’s room for more responsibility out there and maybe playing in more situations than I played in Nashville. I like to think of myself as a good team guy. I play hard every night, and I like to think I elevate my game come playoff time, so hopefully there’s a team out there that’s a good fit for me."
Well, Shane, it looks like that team just might be the Colorado Avalanche.