by Aaron Cheris | AHL On The Beat Archive
In the middle of his first season in the Russian KHL, Jim O’Brien fell ill with an abscess growing on his tonsils.
When he needed emergency surgery to fix the problem last season, he had a career-altering decision to make: Stay in Russia, get the surgery there, and return to finish the season; or go back to North America and hope for the best.
“At the end of the day, I just wasn’t comfortable getting it done in Russia,” O’Brien said of the surgery. “I just wasn’t comfortable going to all Russian-speaking hospitals where I wouldn’t communicate with anybody.”
So O’Brien came back to America, had the surgery, lost 30 pounds after not eating solid food for two weeks, and then found another job.
Just after Christmas, O’Brien signed with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins — but was immediately claimed off AHL waivers by the Hershey Bears.
After playing the rest of the season with Hershey, O’Brien signed a one-year, two-way contract with the New Jersey Devils in July.
Now in Albany, O’Brien is excited to have another chance to prove himself in a new organization.
“I was a free agent. It was just the way it worked out with my agent and with the organization here. I’m happy to be here,” O’Brien said.
Adjusting to a new team has been a challenge for O’Brien, but he has gone through this before.
“Jim is the type of player that should be able to play with anybody and make the guys around him better because of his intelligence and his ability to play both sides of the puck,” Devils head coach Rick Kowalsky said.
Since being drafted 29th overall by the Ottawa Senators in 2007, O’Brien has played in over 300 AHL games, including a memorable Calder Cup championship with the Binghamton Senators in 2011.
O’Brien has also had a taste of NHL action as well, playing in 63 games for Ottawa from 2010-13. In those games, he registered eight goals and four assists.
The experience is a welcome addition to a young Albany Devils group that is trying to develop an identity.
“His leadership is huge. He’s an experience guy; he’s a veteran guy,” Kowalsky said. “I really liked him when he was in Binghamton. His experience of winning a Calder Cup and some of the places he’s played can certainly help us with the young group we have.”
Kowalsky isn’t the only one who is high on O’Brien, who sets high expectations for himself.
“I just try to be a 200-foot player. Every night I’m wanting to score. I’m wanting to put the puck in the net,” O’Brien said. “At the same time, I’m a player that, if I’m scored on, I take it personally where I don’t want to give anything up.”
For now, O’Brien and the Devils will worry about winning. Last weekend, the Devils opened their home schedule with victories over Portland and Binghamton. This weekend, the Devils have three crucial home games that they’d like to win to keep that winning streak going.
“Every day, we should be working to be better because you either go out there and you’re going to get better or you’re going to get worse,” O’Brien said. “As long as we keep working, we’ll be fine.”