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Jeff O’Neill isn’t afraid to wear his beloved Maple Leafs on his sleeve

When the Toronto Maple Leafs landed the first-round pick in this year’s NHL draft, Jeff O’Neill couldn’t contain his excitement until it was too late.

The video clip is only 24 seconds long, but it perfectly encapsulates why Jeff O'Neill is something of a sports media phenomenon.

On April 30, O'Neill was one of the analysts on TSN's draft lottery show when his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs won the right to pick emerging star Auston Matthews first over all in the NHL entry draft on June 24. The network did not have the rights to broadcast the draft lottery itself – it was carried by archrival Sportsnet – but TSN was airing live analysis following the draw.

A camera panned to O'Neill, 40, sitting by himself at the panel desk, staring intently at a television monitor. When NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly turned over the winning card showing the Maple Leafs logo, O'Neill jumped out of his seat, pumped his fist and shouted "Yeah!"

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As soon as the word is out of his mouth, the viewer can see O'Neill suddenly catch himself, remembering he is likely on camera. He immediately straightens his sports jacket, sits down and, in the funniest segment, forces himself to look nonchalant, like a detached, unbiased television professional. It's too late, of course – he has shown his true colours. And it is an absolutely classic moment befitting the O-Dog, the nickname O'Neill was given as an NHL rookie in 1995 with the Hartford Whalers.

O'Neill's unbridled homerism wasn't initially seen on TSN's broadcast. But host James Duthie and his producers knew what they had and were smart enough to run O-Dog's "Yeah!" replay with some amusing commentary, and then post it on social media where it was endlessly retweeted in the Twitterverse.

While O'Neill took flak from fans of other Canadian teams, the clip spoke loud and clear why he became so popular so quickly on TSN, as a guest on the radio shows, as a regular on the weekday Leafs Lunch, on evening television panels and finally as part of TSN 1050 Toronto's drive-time radio show, OverDrive, with Bryan Hayes and Jamie McLennan.

Despite the fact he played nine of his 11 NHL seasons with the Whalers and Carolina Hurricanes, and only two in Toronto, the key to O'Neill's success is that he is every bit the long-suffering, diehard Leafs fan, the guy who calls phone-in shows to vent about the team's long run of mediocrity. O'Neill grew up in King City, just north of Toronto, worshipping the blue-and-white. It was an attachment that persisted after he became a scoring star for Guelph in junior hockey (he was drafted fifth over all by the Whalers in 1994).

"Yeah, people around Canada were like, 'It's so unprofessional, how can a national broadcaster do that?'" O'Neill says of the reaction to his draft lottery histrionics.

"The only reason for that is I grew up a Leaf fan, I got to play for the Leafs and I cover the Leafs."

O'Neill makes no secret of his allegiance – just like that other famous Leafs fan, Don Cherry – and the fact that his broadcast persona is genuinely him resonates with the public. While there are lots of fans who rail at O'Neill on social media, many more love him, which is why he has climbed quickly through the TSN ranks over the past three years.

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"He is the voice of the working Joe," says McLennan, also an ex-NHLer. "O played [in the NHL] and he was a star, but he's like a fan. That's not an act. What you see is what you get. He doesn't care if you don't like his analysis. He's confident in his views, and he should be."

O'Neill is no ordinary homer, the kind who extols the local team no matter how low it sinks. Since he started appearing on TSN during the 2012-13 NHL lockout, O'Neill has never hesitated to rip the Leafs, whether it's for decades of management bungling or for the players refusing their customary stick salute to fans at Air Canada Centre after a win because they were angry about some criticism.

"I think my dad [Paul] gave me the best advice, which is kind of weird in broadcasting," O'Neill says in an interview. "He said 'You've got to talk to the guy sitting on his couch having a beer, because that's what normal people do. They don't want to hear someone … not telling the truth.'"

And the fact is that in the time since O'Neill started covering the Leafs on radio and regional television broadcasts, the team has not provided many positive things to talk about.

"Everybody says 'You're so hard on the Maple Leafs,'" O'Neill says. "I don't know what else I've [had] to deal with the last three or four years. It's been collapse after collapse. I don't know what the hell else any analyst is supposed to say."

Now that Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan has officially added Matthews to a list of more upbeat acquisitions that includes head coach Mike Babcock and general manager Lou Lamoriello, O'Neill thinks he might have cheerier news to discuss this fall. But he warns fans not to get too excited.

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"I know Shanny's a former teammate of mine, but he seems to have that magic touch," O'Neill says. "It seems all the right things happen. But fans have to understand just because these things happen now doesn't mean [a Stanley Cup is at hand]. … Mitch Marner has to score 30 goals, Matthews has to develop. A lot of things have to fall into place."

The other major part of O'Neill's success as a broadcaster is his sense of humour and his willingness to make himself the butt of his own jokes. Most of his on-air stories poke fun at himself, such as the time he was picked for the all-star game as one of the NHL's top-scoring wingers. He took a bunch of his buddies from King City along to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where the game was played.

"My buddies are beer-drinkers, and they said they were going to put their drinks on my [hotel] bill," O'Neill says. "I just laughed it off. I went to check out of my hotel and the lady prints my bill and the pages started flopping out on the floor, making a pile.

"All I could read was Bud Light, Bud Light. My hotel bill was at least $3,400 worth of booze from my friends. That was two and a half days. I had to foot the bill. It was kind of funny back then; you're making $3.5-million a year, you don't really care what comes out on your bill. That they had the balls to actually do it, I thought was impressive."

It is difficult to imagine other broadcasters telling this sort of story about themselves regularly, but O'Neill has no filter for what comes out of his mouth, which is also part of his appeal.

"I don't think you can take yourself too seriously," O'Neill says. "In my life, I find myself doing idiotic things all the time. If you can bring those stories to the air, it makes you real, like a normal person, as opposed to a broadcaster who has this perfect life and never does anything dumb. That's just not me."

Nor is it McLennan, aka Noodles, or Hayes, which is why the trio made Leafs Lunch TSN 1050's most successful show. It was the only one in the station's lineup that challenged and occasionally edged powerful rival Sportsnet The Fan 590 in the radio ratings. When management shook up the TSN radio lineup in February, O'Neill, Hayes and McLennan were moved to the prime time 4-7-p.m. slot, and the show was rechristened OverDrive.

Unlike the competition on The Fan, Prime Time Sports with Bob McCown, the undisputed ratings champion on Toronto sports radio, Hayes, Noodles and the O-Dog, as they are known, don't generally engage in serious discussions of the big sports issues of the day. They come across as knowledgeable but low-brow sports guys chewing things over in a sports bar with the listener as the fourth person at the table.

While Hayes can tell stories on himself as well, he is the cool broadcaster who keeps things on track amid the kibitzing of O'Neill and McLennan, able to match O'Neill with funny stories from his days as a backup NHL goaltender. This is necessary because another of O'Neill's endearing traits is his mind occasionally wanders from the topic at hand, and he is liable to pop up with some observation from left field.

"The best part of the show is the spontaneity," Hayes says. "It's genuine. We're very close off the air, which helps. That translates [to the listeners]. As a result, we're pretty comfortable with each other, we're not afraid to take runs at each other."

O'Neill also has a generous streak that's every bit as wide as his funny bone. He is known, for example, to stop at a fast-food outlet on his way to the TSN studio and buy enough food to feed every under-paid intern in the newsroom.

"He'll call me and say, 'You're from Edmonton, right? How close is that to Fort McMurray? We've got to donate some money,'" McLennan says.

There is a serious undercurrent to O'Neill's character, though. While in some respects he leads a charmed life, it is not without tragedy and regret.

The reason O'Neill was traded to the Maple Leafs in the summer of 2005 was his need to be close to his family in the wake of his oldest brother Donny's death in a traffic accident. The youngest of three boys, Jeff was close to Donny and his loss was shattering. He admits it played a role in what turned out to be a too-brief two-season run with the Leafs, when he scored 19 and 20 goals before retiring in the fall of 2008 after a brief comeback attempt with the Hurricanes.

O'Neill, now divorced, is father to three young girls. Before they arrived, he lost his first child, a son, to a miscarriage. "He's really family-oriented; his family is really close," McLennan says. "He's got these deep-seated roots he'll never leave."

The regret comes from O'Neill's belief that if he had listened to his older brothers Donny and Ryan a little more, and cut down on the good times and trained harder, he would have more to show for his NHL career. Blessed with a quick, hard shot and a willingness to battle his way into the tough scoring areas, he did have a nice run of four seasons when he scored 25, 41, 31 and 30 goals for the Hurricanes. And he played well in 2002, when the team made it to the Stanley Cup final before losing in five games to the Detroit Red Wings. But the overall sense is that, with his talent, he could have achieved much more.

"There's nothing worse in life than having regrets," O'Neill says. "When I look back on it, I'm sure the one thing my brother [Donny] would have wanted me to do was get my ass in the best shape of my life and be the best hockey player I could be and stretch it out for five or six more years."

Being traded to the Leafs was still a dream come true, but while he was a respectable 20-goal scorer over two seasons, O'Neill says the constant wrestling with his grief proved to be too much.

"To be honest, I couldn't regain my focus enough to just get it back on track," he says. "You lose track of things, your fitness goes a little bit and ultimately you're out of the league."

Adding to O'Neill's problems was a career-long fear of flying. It was so bad he would often find himself worrying about the flight home during the third period of a game. Despite all of the obstacles, O'Neill thinks he should have fought them off.

"That stuff happened in my personal life," he says, "and I hate myself looking back saying I didn't give myself the best opportunity for my dream job, which was to play for the Leafs.

"Oh, for sure [it was a lot to deal with], but at the end of the day you've got to be mentally tough and deal with that. If you don't, then you've got to look back and say I didn't. That's where the regrets come from."

And it is where his criticism of players such as ex-Leaf Phil Kessel, who are perceived to be slackers, comes from. While fans on social media will tell O'Neill he is a hypocrite for knocking players who do not work hard every game, he rightly counters that that is not the point. All he is doing is trying to save that player from the same mistakes he made.

"I don't want [Kessel] to wake up one day and say 'You know what, I wish I had been in better shape,'" O'Neill says. "Maybe someone like that doesn't think about his legacy or what people are going to think about him when he's done."

Paul Maurice, O'Neill's coach with both Carolina and Toronto, thinks he is too hard on himself about his hockey career.

"The year we went to the [Cup] final, in the first two rounds he was good. But when we played Toronto and Detroit, if Ron Francis wasn't our best player, Jeff was," Maurice says. "When the games got intense and on the line, Jeff played his best hockey.

"Jeff was a guy you wanted more from because of his talent, but he was still a good player."

The one thing that O'Neill was best at, Maurice says, was keeping the team loose: "He was absolutely the one-liner king on the bench."

O'Neill says his humour, which usually was a zinger delivered at a teammate's expense, came from a desire to simply deal with the pressure of playing in the best hockey league in the world.

"That was my way – have fun, make guys laugh and loosen up the stress," he says. "Back when I played, you could say things to people and nobody's feelings would get hurt. You would laugh it off. Nowadays, I'm not too sure how that would fly because everybody's so sensitive."

When his hockey career ended, there was no immediate pressure on O'Neill to find a job. Like most star players in the past 20 years, he had made enough money to last the rest of his life.

"For a couple years, I played golf every day," O'Neill says. "I thought that was what pro hockey players did when they retired. But I realized after having kids, you kind of lose your sense of purpose."

O'Neill moved back to Toronto and found that career opportunities were not jumping at him, although he admits he is hardly the poster boy for career-planning. Then broadcasting fell into his lap by accident.

During the 2012-13 NHL lockout, O'Neill became a prominent and outspoken presence on Twitter. James Cybulski, then the afternoon-show host for TSN 1050, noticed O'Neill's tweets, many of them funny, and invited him on his show a few times.

O'Neill proved to be an entertaining guest and his appearances on TSN increased to the point where he was on both radio and television. Everyone he works with says the quick rise was powered by a razor-sharp mind behind the self-deprecating front.

"Jeff has incredible media instincts," says Mark Milliere, TSN's senior vice-president of production. "He's a natural communicator who comes off [as a regular guy]. He positions himself that way. It comes back to his instincts."

O'Neill is behind most of the regular comedy bits that are used on OverDrive, such as the Wrangler 40-30 Grit Grinder, a three-star award each day that goes to those who are not fancy (the 40-30 reference is to a 40-inch waist and 30-inch inseam) but accomplish something. Then there's the Gerry's Percentages segment: It sprang from an O'Neill story about hearing NHL commissioner Gary Bettman calling for Detroit captain Steve Yzerman to come get the Stanley Cup when the Wings beat O'Neill's Hurricanes. O'Neill, who mimicks Bettman's voice, likes to call the commish "Gerry."

Now that he is doing both radio and television, O'Neill does not have much time for any leisure activities, at least during the hockey season. He watches hockey games on the three televisions in his living room, hits the TSN studio around 2:30 p.m. to get ready for the radio show and then heads to another studio for his television panel work, which often ends around midnight.

"The best advice I got was from [fellow broadcaster] Ray Ferraro when I took the job: 'You've got to try to figure out the Minnesota Wild and know them as good as the Maple Leafs,'" O'Neill says. "That's what I try to do. It's a fun job. [TSN radio morning man] Dave Naylor summed it up best. He says, 'Jeff, you'd probably be doing it anyway, right?'

"Probably so."

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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