Hockey has created plenty of opportunities for Sault Ste. Marie’s Candon O’Neill.
The 16-year-old defenceman is in the midst of making the jump from U18 hockey to junior hockey with the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League’s Soo Thunderbirds.
Having already been drafted by the Ontario Hockey League’s Saginaw Spirit, the Grade 11 student recently announced his decision to accept a verbal commitment from Lake Superior State University to one day play Division 1 NCAA men's hockey.
O’Neill said a campus visit and a meeting with the Laker coaching staff, including head coach Damon Whitten, helped sell the potential of playing U.S. collegiate hockey.
“They were the ones that really sold the program to me,” O’Neill said. “I just fell in love with the campus and everything the program had to offer. I can see myself as a Laker and fitting into their systems as a player.”
O’Neill added that his parents are also proud Lake State alumni. “Some of their best memories were from going there and I’m just looking to make some of those for myself,” he said.
O’Neill verbally committed to Lake State earlier this season in an announcement held following a recent Thunderbirds practice at the John Rhodes Community Centre. Common in American college sports, a verbal commitment comes prior to an athlete signing a National Letter of Intent (NLI) and officially being offered a scholarship.
Simply put, it means Lake State and O'Neill see the same thing in the not-too-distant future: a talented blue-liner from Sault, Ontario lacing up his skates across the river in Sault, Michigan.
What kind of defenceman will Lake State get in O’Neill?
“I describe myself as a playmaker,” he said. “I’m a pass-first defenceman. I’m always looking to make that extra pass. Sometimes I'm guilty of if I have an open shot, I try to make that one extra pass. But I just love setting up my teammates.”
In his first full season of junior hockey in 2023-24, O’Neill said getting into games last winter as an affiliate player with the Thunderbirds has given him some added confidence.
“Skating with guys that have played in the NOJ before and OHL guys during the summer really helped my confidence,” O’Neill said. “It just showed me that I’m good enough to be able to compete with these guys and really just gave me the confidence coming into this year. I went to Saginaw training camp and got to see what that was like for a little bit. Everything just led to me building my confidence.”
With at least two seasons before he officially makes the jump to college hockey, O’Neill said improving his game will be his top priority in the meantime.
“Every aspect of my game could be improved,” he said. “Everyday is about getting one per cent better, putting my all out there.”
O’Neill also spoke of “becoming a stronger, faster and more mobile defenceman.”
“If I can incorporate more of that offensive element, I feel like I can be beneficial to Lake State and hopefully I can play a big role,” he added.
Prior to deciding to attend Lake State, O’Neill did get a taste of the OHL while in camp with the Spirit — an experience he said was hugely beneficial.
“They’re all physical," he said of the players at camp. "They just want to be hockey players and show what they’ve got. The pace of play was the biggest thing for sure that I noticed. Every decision has to be so quick. Someone is always on you. There’s not much time and space and as the levels progress, that’s what I’m going to have to expect.”
While he hasn’t officially decided on a major yet, O’Neill said kinesiology and fire science are two potential programs he would be interested in.