Teen plants hockey roots in the South

It takes a certain amount of intestinal fortitude, not to mention a willingness to spend long periods of time in your vehicle and loads of cash, to be a hockey family in the South.

But it is perhaps an illustration of the evolution of the game in the Nashville area that there are actually families moving into the community to get better access to youth hockey.

We happened to cross paths with 14-year-old Aaron O’Neill in Atlanta at a tournament featuring top youth players from around the country held at the Atlanta Thrashers’ old practice facility in Duluth, Ga.

O’Neill’s team of young teens born in 1997 fared extremely well, advancing to the final before losing 5-0 to a team from Arizona ranked in the top 20 in the nation.

The Thunder AAA Hockey program draws players from throughout the South but has centers in Atlanta, Huntsville, Ala., and Nashville. On many weekends, the players at the various levels will travel to one of the three centers for practices and/or tournaments.

Aaron, the older of two children born to Patrick and Jennifer O’Neill, grew up in Aiken, S.C. The family had a big cement deck on which he and his father would play hockey. He saw some Augusta Lynx minor pro hockey games and learned to skate when he was 4 years old.

Initially the family would drive half an hour to Augusta to skate and then as Aaron got older an hour to Columbia, S.C. As Aaron’s skills began to improve, he and some of his teammates from the Augusta area began playing with the Thunder program. Often that would mean six-hour drives to Nashville on the weekends. Or a relatively short three-hour trek to Atlanta.

Aaron, who will turn 15 in May and plays center, is also a top young pitcher. In fact, during a game in South Carolina one night, O’Neill hurried him off the mound so they could make the trip to Atlanta for hockey tryouts.

“People were like, where’s he going?” Pat O’Neill recalled.

Almost two years ago, the family moved to Nashville, where many of the players were located and where there was also high school hockey to play.

They weren’t the only ones, as teammate Dakota Davis and his family also made a similar move.

O’Neill, a 30-year educator and high school coach in football among other sports, took a job with a company that helps set up surgical centers, while Jennifer got a job as a health care provider.

“If the question is, did you move for your son to play hockey, the answer is probably yes,” O’Neill said.

Were the family’s friends surprised?

They understood Aaron’s affection for the game (if not the game itself). “But they were also surprised because I was pretty ingrained in the community in Aiken,” O’Neill said.

The move has paid dividends as O’Neill, along with some of his teammates, has drawn the attention of USA Hockey officials.

Last summer, O’Neill tried out for one of the USA Hockey development camps in Rochester, N.Y., that brought together 150 to 180 of the top kids in Aaron’s age group. He didn’t look out of place and his name has been bandied about by scouts with the United States Hockey League.

“If he wasn’t having some success I don’t see us doing this because it’s a huge commitment,” O’Neill said.

“I tell my friends I have a $1,500 a month habit. It’s called hockey.”

Although he was shut out in the championship game, Aaron collected five points in each of the two games the Thunder won the previous day at the tournament.

Aaron also plays high school hockey in Nashville and said he’s been impressed with the interest in the game shown since he and his family made the move to Tennessee.

“There’s tons of little kids starting to play and they want to be like the older kids,” he said.

As for where the game might take him, the straight-A student said he is trying to keep his options open.

“Just keep working and working,” he said.