As Doug O’Brien weighed his career options this summer, he found the prospect of a third straight season of hockey in Europe didn’t appeal to him.
At this point, the 27-year-old from St. John’s may not play anything more than a recreational pick-up game this season.
“I don’t know if I would say I’m retired,” O’Brien told the Telegram Thursday. “But at the moment, I’m taking a different path.”
Next month, the two-time Memorial Cup all-star and Tampa Bay Lightning 2003 sixth-round draft pick will begin firefighter training at the Safety and Emergency Response Training Centre in Stephenville.
“Hockey’s been my life since I moved away at 16. It wasn’t an overnight decision. I thought long and hard,” said O’Brien, who was named the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s top defenceman in 2003-04, his final season with the Gatineau Olympiques.
Growing up, a career in firefighting was never an option. O’Brien’s dream had always been to play pro hockey.
And while he appeared in 235 games in the American Hockey League, another 56 in the ECHL, and five with Tampa Bay in the 2005-06 2005-06 NHL season, O’Brien never gained the foothold in the North American pro ranks he so desired.
“It was a lifelong dream since I was a kid to play in the NHL and I did tha, “ he said.
“Not for as long as I would like to, but I got there.”
“I expected good things in the following year, but it didn’t work out the way I wanted.”
The Lightning dealt O’Brien, who had spent most of his first two pro seasons with their AHL affiliate, the Springfield Falcons, to the Anaheim Ducks in 2007.
The Ducks promptly reassigned him to the Portland Pirates and when Anaheim didn’t make a qualifying contract offer in the off-season, O’Brien signed to play in Finland before officially becoming an unrestricted free agent.
“At some point, you have to ask yourself if you want to grind it out in the AHL or find somewhere else to play,” he says.
“But if I had my time back, I probably wouldn’t have went to Europe so soon.”
Over the last few years, O’Brien has thought more and more about planning for a life after hockey.
“If you don’t make enough money in your career as a hockey player, you’re going to have to do something else when you’re done playing.
“I don’t know where I’ll end up after I finish this course or where it’ll put me, but hopefully something good will come from it.”
Even if O’Brien had decided to return to Europe, he wouldn’t have returned to the Czech elite league where he played the last two seasons — one with HC Plzen the other with the Sparta Prague.
Radim Rulik, O’Brien’s coach in Prague, was hired by the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) expansion team Lev Poprad and offered the defenceman a spot on the team.
“I guess he liked me well enough to offer me a contact, but I said ‘Thank you, but no, thank you.’”
O’Brien, who figures he still has plenty of game left in him, is interested in playing senior hockey this season, but is waiting to see how the senior landscape evolve this season before committing to any one team.
“I’d love to play, and I still want to play,” he says. “I have a lot of buddies who play back here, so I’m sure it’ll be a laugh.”