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From NCAA to NHL: Logan O’Connor parlaying his DU Pioneers experience into pro success

O’Connor is proof that hard work and effort are all that’s required to chase a dream

Edmonton Oilers v Colorado Avalanche
“The Colorado Kid”: O’Connor celebrates his first NHL goal on Nov. 27 against the Edmonton Oilers at Pepsi Center. In doing so, he became the first player to score a goal for each of the DU Pioneers, Colorado Eagles and Colorado Avalanche.
Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images

As the saying goes, people tend to be the product of their environment.

For Colorado Avalanche forward Logan O’Connor, he’d tell you that’s the case, too.

An alumnus of the University of Denver, O’Connor spent three seasons with the Pioneers, including being a key contributor to the National Championship winning team of the 2017 season. He parlayed his hard-nosed work ethic on the ice and in the dressing room into what would have been the DU captaincy for the 2018-19 Pioneers season. However, as it turned out, that hard work earned O’Connor a much bigger opportunity.

He caught the eye of the local NHL team here in Denver and received an opportunity to attend the Avs development camp that summer as an undrafted college free agent. He impressed the Avalanche brass so much so that he earned himself an entry-level contract following his showing at the offseason camp.

Since then, O’Connor has largely played well for the organization, spending most of his development so far in the American Hockey League with the Colorado Eagles, where he tallied 19 goals and 42 points in his first professional season. He earned some call-ups to the NHL for his efforts and skated in five games for the Avalanche last season. This year - thanks to a number of injuries - he’s already earned two NHL call-ups in the first two months of the campaign, and is still skating with the Avalanche heading into December.

Now he has become the first player to ever score a goal for each of the DU Pioneers, Colorado Eagles and Colorado Avalanche.

Indeed, it’s been quite the under-dog story thus far for the 23-year-old local product. He attributes much of his success to his upbringing, so to speak, at the University of Denver.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that if I didn’t go to DU I wouldn’t be in the situation I’m in now,” O’Connor said after the Eagles game on Nov. 16, coincidentally two days before he was called up to play for the Avalanche. “They do a great job of developing players and people through Jim Montgomery, who is now obviously in the NHL with Dallas, and David Carle, who has done a great job there as the head coach and Tavis MacMillan — they do a great job shaping people and players.”

DU versus Colorado College at Magness Arena Photo by John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty Images

I spoke with several of O’Connor’s former DU teammates and coaches, who all pegged the 23-year-old as one of the hardest workers they’ve ever shared a locker room with. The Avs rookie feels the same way about his former team.

“You play against great players everyday there, it’s one of the best programs in the country year-in and year-out,” he said. “Playing against those great players daily makes everyone else better around you.”

MacMillan, whom O’Connor said was one of his biggest benefactors while playing at Denver, has been watching “OC” play for quite sometime now. While MacMillan was also a first-year coach and a “freshman,” so to speak, when O’Connor joined the university as a frosh in 2015, he said he’d had his eyes on O’Connor for some time. He was doing NHL scouting for the Winnipeg Jets at the time, where he often saw O’Connor play while he was suiting up for the Sioux Falls Stampede of the USHL. He’s always been impressed with Logan’s demeanor, even if the cards were stacked against him in the early parts of his collegiate career.

“As a player, you know, it’s funny we were just talking about this,” MacMillan began. “Logan was a healthy scratch I think 21 out of the last 22 games his freshman year. I think the only game he played in at the end of the year was the third-place game at Xcel (Energy Center) in the NCHC playoffs when we rested a whole bunch of guys...he just had a hard time getting in the lineup.”

Despite being the odd-man out, so to speak, O’Connor didn’t let that halt his hopes. He kept working hard at reaching his goal, and his efforts didn’t go unnoticed.

“But every practice he was unbelievable,” MacMillan continued. “He practiced so hard; he competed so hard; he had such a good attitude and he made our team better everyday in practice, and that was a pretty good team. The next year, he had a pretty good summer and he continued to grow. It was a tough year for him, but that adversity that he went through that year helped propel him into his sophomore and junior years. And he just kept getting better.”

The following season, O’Connor became one of only six players on DU’s roster to play in all 44 games, which culminated into a National Championship for Denver.

“His work ethic and preparation in practices and his detail was so good,” MacMillan added. “His freshman year, he was his toughest critic; he was hard on himself. He demanded a lot of himself, probably more than we did actually. That’s kind of how he conducts his business and that’s what’s pushed him and propelled him to the success that he’s had.”

O’Connor says he draws his inspiration from Brandan Gallagher, his favorite NHL player, because “he beat the odds to become an impact pro after being doubted early in his career.”

Sound familiar? It’s a similar trajectory that O’Connor is currently riding. From a freshman healthy scratch, to the hard-working, impact player that helped his team to a NCAA national championship, it’s fair to draw comparisons in O’Connor’s game to the oft-dismissed Gallagher, who’s listed at just 5-foot-9. He’s now the alternate captain of the Montreal Canadiens. It just goes to show that hard work beats talent much of the time.

COLORADO EAGLES AHL HOCKEY Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

His former DU teammates have always recognized Logan’s relentless, hard-nosed efforts. Without being prompted, each one of his DU pals commented on his work ethic.

“He’s one of the hardest-working guys,” said senior forward Liam Finlay, who too shared in the National Championship glory with O’Connor. “It’s kind of the cliche to say that, but when he was here, man, he was just nonstop, stayed on the ice late. He wasn’t the most skilled guy, he wasn’t even on our power play. Then all the sudden, he moves up to the next level and he’s doing all those things. He’s scoring more goals now and it just goes to show how he improves his game.”

A freshman for the Pioneers during O’Connor’s final year at DU, junior defenseman Griffin Mendel always appreciated his old teammate’s willingness to take others under his wing.

“I got to play with him my freshman year. He was always the hardest-working guy coming to the rink everyday,” he told me. “His speed is exceptional. It’s hard to stop him when he starts going wide. Off the ice he was always involved with everybody, always wanted to hangout with everybody. He never left anybody out. He was always an easy guy to hangout with, his door was always open.”

One of the closer friendships on the team was with O’Connor and current senior defenseman Michael Davies, who predicts OC’s workhorse mentality will make him an NHL product for years to come.

“He was one of my good buddies so it kind of sucked when he left early, but I was super happy for him. He’s probably one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around so it really didn’t surprise me when he got the chance to leave early,” said Davies. “He’s doing good stuff there. He’s going to be a long-time professional player, if you ask me, [because] the way he plays. He’s a great guy and I had a great time playing with him here. Hopefully he keeps doing what he’s doing over there.”

“Fastest skater I’ve ever played with, it’s unbelievable — his stride and how quickly he gets up and down the ice,” added senior captain Ian Mitchell. “He’s the hardest working guy and one of the best penalty-killers. I’m sure he’ll be in the NHL soon enough, I’d say.”

In fact, he’s already been called up a number of times in the early months of the NHL season. And on Nov. 27, just his ninth career NHL game, he scored his first goal at Pepsi Center. It was all too fitting that it happened in Denver, a city where he spent much of his time grinding away with the Pios hoping to one day reach the NHL.

While his talents speak for itself, it’s really O’Connor’s work ethic that stands out the most. His Gallagher-esque spirit and lion-hearted efforts day-in and day-out are what will make him an NHL mainstay one day. Perhaps we’re seeing it all unfold now.

“He’s a great kid. When you get into this business of coaching, it’s because you want to be around kids like Logan,” MacMillan finished. “That’s what makes it so fulfilling.”