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American star Jack O’Leary joins Victoria Grizzlies’ den

Cleve Dheensaw / Times Colonist
APRIL 10, 2018 10:36 PM

You can’t buy a reputation. It must be earned.

The Victoria Grizzlies of the B.C. Hockey League have to be glad they have a good one.

It has netted them another prize recruit in forward Jack O’Leary. Committed to the Cornell Big Red of the Ivy League in the NCAA for 2019-20, O’Leary has chosen the Grizzlies as the team, and BCHL as the league, where he wants to skate next season.

“The BCHL fits my style as a smaller, skill guy with speed, who is more of a playmaker,” said the five-foot-seven, 165-pound American from the PAL Junior Islanders hockey organization on Long Island, New York.

“The Cornell coaches passed on the contact numbers of the Grizzlies coaches. And I’ve heard Victoria is a great city.”

Again, rep counts for everything in sports recruiting.

It doesn’t hurt that former Grizzlies goaltender Matthew Galajda, Hobey Baker top-10 nominee as NCAA player of the year, had an outstanding rookie season with the Big Red. Or that the Grizzlies have sent the likes of Jamie and Jordie Benn and Tyler Bozak on to the NHL; and that Alex Newhook from this season’s Grizzlies squad is ranked No. 2 by The Hockey News for the 2019 NHL draft.

“A lot of junior teams had communications with Jack and he had a lot of options in North America,” said Grizzlies GM and head coach Craig Didmon.

“He is highly skilled and we are glad he chose to use us, and the BCHL, as his development stage before the NCAA.”

With the likes of Matthew Phillips and Dante Hannoun of the WHL’s Royals, Victoria junior hockey is no stranger to the seam in the sport that is opening up for small but fast forwards.

“Hockey is definitely changing from a more grinding game to one where speed and skill are valued more,” said O’Leary, pointing to NHLers such as Johnny Gaudreau, Tyler Johnson and Conor Sheary.

“It doesn’t matter what your size is, as long as you can make plays.”

That is something O’Leary can clearly do, as attested by his 27 goals and 76 points for the PAL U-16 team in 2016-17, that had Cornell jump all over him in just Grade 11.

The dream is pro hockey, but with a safety chute.

“I’ll see where hockey takes me,” said O’Leary, 18, who graduates Grade 12 in June at St. Anthony’s High School on Long Island.

“I will also have an Ivy League education from Cornell to fall back on.”

O’Leary is on course to become the second NCAA varsity athlete in the family — older brother Mike O’Leary runs track at Providence. Jack O’Leary was also an all-rounder.

“I played lacrosse, which is probably the biggest sport on Long Island, and soccer, baseball and also ran track,” said Jack O’Leary.

You can’t teach natural athleticism: O’Leary didn’t even learn to skate until age 11 and only joined hockey at age 12.

“It’s my first time away from home but I’m really excited to be going to Victoria,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Grizzlies are also in the hot recruiting hunt for another blue-chip player in 17-year-old forward Jackson Niedermayer of Newport Beach, California, the son of former NHL Norris Trophy top-defenceman Scott Niedermayer.

“We would love to have him, but a lot of junior teams are sourcing him,” said Didmon, of the highly competitive recruiting race to land Niedermayer.