© Photo courtesy of Sport in Augsburg
Sean O'Connor in action with the Augsburger Panther of the German Elite League.
It’s an image that Moose Jaw Warriors fans will remember well: Sean O’Connor jerseyless on the ice, shaggy hair dripping with sweat, his big grin spreading across his face.
The difference is that this isn’t a post-fight photo; it’s a celebration photo.
O’Connor is waving his undershirt like a towel after a big win. The fans in the background are taking pictures, smiling, laughing, pointing and applauding.
O’Connor is basking in their glow. He loves the fans and the fans love him. Hockey is fun again.
After eight years in the minors leagues in North America, the former Warriors captain is loving life in Augsburg, Germany where he is the captain of the Augsburger Panther of the German Elite League.
After thinking he might retire, he is now hoping to be able to extend his career.
Life — as it often does — may have other plans.
Two Friday’s ago O’Connor had a seizure in the Panther offices days after their season ended in the playoffs against the Kölner Haie.
It was O’Connor’s second seizure in nine months.
“I can’t explain it. It’s the worst feeling in the world not knowing what’s going on,” said O’Connor from his home in Scottsdale, Ariz. where he lives with his wife and runs a natural energy supplement business called MPower Energy Tabs.
He had his first seizure last summer at his parent’s house in Victoria the day after Game 7 the Stanley Cup finals. He was in the backyard with his brother Cal, himself a former Warriors, when he blacked out.
“I was out cold on my feet,” said O’Connor. Cal thought Sean was clowning around until he landed flat on his face. Doctors did tests and examined him and found nothing amiss. He was hoping it was a freak occurrence.
Since returning to Arizona, he has had multiple MRIs and Tuesday he had an electroencephalography (EEG) brain scan.
“I actually had an MRI about a month before the end of my season in Germany. Hopefully now we can see if there’s a difference with the MRIs I just had,” he said.
Inexplicable seizures would be worrisome enough for an otherwise healthy 30-year-old, but there’s something else that gnaws at O’Connor:
“I’ve had multiple concussions because of the role I played my whole life. So you wonder what role that has played in this,” said O’Connor.
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O’Connor brought a little bit of everything to the table in his Moose Jaw Warriors career. He was the captain, a fan favourite, an agitator, a goal scorer and a fighter.
The season after the Florida Panthers made him a third-round National Hockey League draft pick, O’Connor scored 34 goals, got into 20 fights and put up 192 penalty minutes.
Players coming from Vancouver Island don’t always have the easiest time getting noticed. When he went to his first Warriors training camp he heeded the advice of one of his minor coaches.
“My coaches told me I had to do something different to get noticed,” recalled O’Connor. “I had a coach tell me that on the first day I should go after the biggest guy in camp. It doesn’t matter if you get beat up, just show you’re not afraid.”
O’Connor, still 14 years old, impressed at rookie camp and got invited to main camp. He looked to make an impression. He fought physical defenceman Jordon Flodell who was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers later that same year.
“I think he felt so sorry for me he didn’t even throw a right hand,” said O’Connor. “When it ended I wanted to go to the bench and cry. I wanted to go to the penalty box and be alone. It was camp so I had to go back to the bench and then go right back out.”
The six-foot-three right winger grew into the role of pugilist though he never fully embraced it. He was more than willing to stand up for a teammate and answer the bell, but he never considered himself a heavyweight.
Still, he fought a heavyweight’s card. In 2000-01 he fought Derek Boogaard, Jim Vandermeer and Colton Orr twice.
“You know you’re going to have to fight Randy Ponte when the puck drops every time you play Brandon,” said O’Connor when thinking back to his junior days and how routine the pugilism became.
He fought Ponte three times in one season. That same year he tangled with David Kaczowka, Jeff Feniak and Ryan Jorde — a trio of players who were NHL draft picks for their physicality more than their skill.
When he looked to make the leap the NHL the process began again.
“Scouts and coaches have always told me that I have to find a role,” said O’Connor.
He concedes that he could have hit the gym, bulked up and had the size to handle the biggest and baddest pro hockey had to offer. He just didn’t want to. He had no desire to be one-dimensional and pigeonholed into a role he never wanted.
“I didn’t want to be a fighter. I’m willing to stand up for teammates, but I want to be a hockey player who can fight,” said O’Connor.
“Trying to find a way on a team I ended up in that role and I had to fight heavyweights. I’ve had a lot of injuries.”
Before the start of the 2003-04 NHL season, O’Connor felt his breakthrough with Florida might be coming soon.
“I had a great camp and (Mike) Keenan was happy with the way I was playing and said ‘you’ll be brought up with us soon’ and then I dislocated my shoulder,” said O’Connor.
O’Connor, a member of the American Hockey League’s San Antonio Rampage, injured the shoulder in a fight with Cam Severson from Cincinnati Mighty Ducks early in the season.
Keenan resigned as head coach after 15 games and O’Connor played 28 games in the AHL as the injury plagued him all season.
“Once you get a reputation for having injuries, that doesn’t help you get chances either,” said O’Connor. “I got sent to the coast.”
He played 15 more games in the AHL over the six more seasons spent mostly in the ECHL. He played with some other former Warriors in Las Vegas. He played a season at home in Victoria, but never got close to the NHL again.
“Once money gets involved everything changes and there’s so much politics in the minors,” said O’Connor. “I had a coach tell me that I was too old to make it to the NHL. I was 23. I felt like I was just starting and he was telling me it was over.”
O’Connor says he isn’t trying to make excuses for not making it to the NHL, but he wasn’t enjoying the game as much as he had been and decided he needed a change.
With a mother from Berlin, O’Connor qualifies as a domestic player in Germany. In 2010 he decided to make the jump overseas.
“No one ever really wants to give up the dream of making it to the NHL,” said O’Connor who, nonetheless, has no regrets.
“Playing in Germany is night and day different. I’m enjoying it. This is the best year of pro hockey I’ve played.”
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His love for playing in Germany may be because it reminds him so much of his time in Moose Jaw.
He’s a captain, a goal-scorer and yes a fighter. But it’s not his only role. Not by a long shot. He may have put up 140 penalty minutes this season, but he also scored 12 goals and had 23 points in 50 games. That was good for seventh on the team.
He did that despite re-injuring his shoulder against Munich on Dec. 28 and playing through the injury. He is slated to have off-season shoulder surgery. He said right now his head feels good and it is his shoulder that is bothering him.
There’s a lot less fighting in the German league compared to the ECHL. The level of hockey is pretty good too.
He is playing with former Regina Pat Chad Bassen who likes to remind O’Connor “what an idiot” he was in their junior days. He laughs easily when asked about his battles with the Pats on those early 2000s teams. He speaks fondly of Moose Jaw and said he was hoping to get back to catch a playoff game before his health took a turn.
“All of the best times I’ve had in the game came in junior. It’s different when it starts to come down to money,” said O’Connor. “Now when I look back on it, it was such fun hockey.”
He is back to having fun in this new chapter of his career and he’s making decent money while doing it.
He loves the interaction with the fans and the Augsburg fans love him back. Opposing fans hate him. All is right in the world.
A Munich newspaper called him “Mister Evil” this season. The Augsburg fans affectionately call him a hooligan.
“I’ve always enjoyed interacting with the fans and the crowds in Germany are amazing,” said O’Connor. There are plenty of photos on his facebook fan page and the Panther web site to more than back that claim.
He has 5,000 likes on his facebook fan page. While most of them are German fans, he said he has reconnected with a lot of people from his time in Moose Jaw thanks to social media.
O’Connor likened those old Warriors teams to the “Bad News Bears”. He feels that Augsburg is a similar band of scrappy underdogs. While he has offers to possibly join a bigger team, he feels staying somewhere he is happy is the most important thing at this stage of his career.
“The last few years I’ve thought ‘this is probably my last year’, but after this season I want to play for five more years maybe,” said O’Connor.
He has received contract offers of approximately $100,000 tax free. Players in the German league typically also get free use of an apartment and a car — usually a BMW or an Audi.
“I get a chance to play and live a good lifestyle,” he said.
Which is really all he has ever wanted. He’s playing the game on his terms and loving his time in the game.
One look at the faces of the Augsburg fans watching him show that his love of the game is infectious.