Growing up, he was a runt. He was much smaller than all the other forwards on his hockey teams and the smallest member of his family, too. According to his minor hockey coach, his skill set as a forward was average. By his own account, he was lazy and out of shape.
He is Andrew O’Brien: The pudgy, small, slow skater who told his doubters and detractors to shove it. The player who grew into a behemoth, found focus and discipline, and ended up with an NHL contract.
“I like proving people wrong,” said O’Brien, who in April signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Anaheim Ducks. “It’s something I’ve been doing my whole life.”
When he was 16, he was 5-foot-9 and playing forward with the midget AA Humber Valley Sharks in the Greater Toronto Hockey League. It was one of the rare times he says he questioned whether or not he wanted to pursue hockey. O’Brien’s fitness wasn’t where it needed to be and the idea of hitting the gym was met with indifference. His parents, John and Mary, told him he needed to get serious. They told him he needed to get his act together, but he was impatient and immature.
The next year, at the age of 17, he joined the Junior A Dixie Beehives in Mississauga, Ont. It was at Dixie that his coach and family friend, Louie Gialedakis, thought O’Brien might be better as a defenceman given his genes. Both O'Brien's parents are tall as is older sister, Jennifer, who played basketball at McGill.
Having no expectations and nothing to lose, O’Brien moved to the blue line.
He hated it.
“He moved me (back) up to forward, because I wasn’t very good,” said O’Brien. “So I split time between the two positions.”
Barely six-foot and new to the blue line, no team in the Ontario Hockey League gave him a second thought during their annual draft. He secured an invite to a summer camp with the Owen Sound Attack, but no opportunity materialized. Shortly after, he was working out a camp in his native Oakville, Ont., when his then-agent told him about an opening with the Chicoutimi Sagueneens of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
He was thrilled at the opportunity, but needed help finding Chicoutimi on a map.
“I went on the computer and said, ‘Oh, my god, where is this place?’"
A few weeks later O’Brien and his father were on the road to the Saguenay region, some two hours north of Quebec City. For O’Brien, who had grown up in the Toronto suburbs, there was significant culture shock.
“The first thing I remember seeing was a sign in a store that said, ‘We Speak English,’" said O’Brien with a laugh. “That’s when I knew I was in a pretty French place. Everything was in French and I just thought, ‘What am I doing here?’"
He didn’t know a word of French. For the first three months he said he could barely understand what was going on since the coaches gave almost all of their instruction en Français. Thankfully, he was billeted with teammate Alexandre Roy, who was bilingual and helped deal with the language barrier.
He earned a spot on the team, though most of it was spent either as a healthy scratch or shifting between forward and defence. He wasn’t sure if he’d be back for another year in the QMJHL, but the team made some moves that opened the door for his return as a full-time defenceman.
That summer, the boost O’Brien had been waiting for finally started to take effect.
“My dad kept telling me, ‘Don’t worry. You’re going to grow.’ At points it was frustrating, but the time came. I waited a little longer than everybody else.”
Cracking the six-foot mark, with a second season of junior hockey on the horizon, O’Brien, then 18, got serious about his fitness. Over the summer he hit the gym to work out every day. His second season in Chicoutimi he blossomed as a defenceman. He found more points and more of a mean streak.
“I wanted to prove everybody wrong,” says O’Brien, who is now fluent in French. “I had a good season and I was happy with myself.”
Things were looking up, he and some friends – OHLers Sean Monahan, Joel Wigel and David Broll – had decided to go to the 2011 NHL draft in Pittsburgh with their parents. He was contacted by some NHL teams, but having been passed over in his first year of eligibility, O’Brien wasn’t expecting much.
In the fourth round, with the 108th pick, the Anaheim Ducks announced the defenceman from Chicoutimi was their pick. Broll was the first in the group to realize what had happened. He jumped up, punched his friend in arm and yelled: “That’s you!”
O’Brien was in shock.
“I stood up and I blacked out,” he said. “In those 15 minutes I have no idea what happened, but it was exciting.”
At their draft table moments before the selection, the Ducks had been debating between taking O’Brien and another player who was a smaller forward. Given that they had selected Kevin Roy, a 5-foot-10 forward, earlier in the round, the Ducks decided to go with the now big, athletic defenceman.
“We took Andrew because he brought something that we hadn’t drafted at that point in that particular draft,” explained Martin Madden, Anaheim’s director of amateur scouting. “But also we don’t really have that (big, punishing defenceman) in the system. Plus in his interview, he came off as a really dedicated and motivated kid and that clinched his selection at that point.”
It’s not surprising that O’Brien made an impression during his interview with the NHL club. When he speaks, it’s with clarity and confidence. In secondary school at St. Matthew’s in Oakville, he won awards for public speaking and would regularly talk at prep rallies.
“He’s confident, but it’s not cockiness,” said Madden. “It’s a confidence based in reality. He knows how long it might take him (to make the NHL). I think the road he’s already taken is a good example for him. He knows it’s not easy and he knows the roadblocks and he has the fortitude to keep working towards his goal.”
Today, O’Brien is a hulking, fit 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds. Standing next to him, it’s laughable to believe anyone could have called him small or chubby. It’s a testament to the work he’s put in – the hours in the gym and watching what he eats – off the ice.
Rouyn-Noranda Huskies head coach and GM Andre Tourigny definitely saw the improvement when he was looking for a big, physical defenceman who could log time on their second-unit power play. He went to see O’Brien play in the 2011-12 playoffs with Chicoutimi and liked what he saw – a good skater who was using that big frame as a physical presence. He made a deal with the Sagueneens to bring O’Brien to the Huskies for the 2012-13 season.
“He had all the tools and that’s the most important thing,” said Tourigny, who was recently hired as an assistant coach with the NHL's Colorado Avalanche. “He works hard. You talk about his physical conditioning and he improved a lot during the last four years. He got the opportunity and he made the best of it.”
When asked about how far O’Brien has come in hockey given his shaky start, Tourigny laughed.
“He was almost playing house league,” said the coach. “He was really a late bloomer.”
Without hockey, O’Brien admits he would have been lost. It’s the only thing he’s ever thought about doing, even when people told him he wasn't good enough. He knows there are many other kids playing hockey who have been told the same thing – that they are too small, too slow, or don’t have the talent.
“Don’t give up. It’s as simple as that. If you have a dream, go after it. If you work hard enough things will go your way – there’s not much to say – because it’s what I did.”