Sure, he’s already played a total of 97 regular season and playoff games for the Bulldogs this year. That figure is five more than the total number he played in three seasons at Cornell. But at least hockey is played on ice, so O’Byrne knows where to go to cool off. There was no such escape from the unlikely hockey weather O’Byrne battled in his downtown Hamilton apartment last week.
“Oh my God, it’s steaming up here,” O’Byrne said. “It’s 85 degrees out. I haven’t ever played hockey this time of year. I come into my room, put the fan on, turn the AC on, that’s about it.”
O’Byrne, a third-round pick by Montreal in the 2003 Entry Draft, falls short of eliciting any sympathy for a couple reasons. First, the reason he’s playing into the summer months is that his Bulldogs are pulling off one of the most surprising runs in recent Calder Cup history. Secondly, O’Byrne himself is a primary reason for the possible shocker.
Beat a string of increasingly improving opponents and then try to beat the heat. Sounds like a fair tradeoff for O’Byrne, who hasn’t missed a game this season.
“It hasn’t been about hitting a wall. It’s about peaks and valleys,” said O’Byrne, 22. “Maybe you don’t have the best weekend ever. Then you re-group, get after it again. One of my goals this year was to play every game, get in the lineup, establish myself. It’s part luck and it’s part being in good shape.”
And part a boatload of potential realized before our very eyes. The 6-foot-5, 228-pound O’Byrne is a boulder-sized chunk of a Bulldogs’ defense that’s willed the team toward the finals. O’Byrne helped lock down the Chicago Wolves, whom Hamilton eliminated in five games of the Western Conference finals. The Wolves’ offense was the best in the AHL, but O’Byrne’s work against the top line of Jason Krog, Brett Sterling and Darren Haydar helped limit Chicago to four goals combined in Games 2, 3 and 4.
“They’ve given me a great opportunity. They’ve thrown me out there against those top lines,” O’Byrne said. “It’s both a challenge and sometimes it’s a little intimidating. All you can do is contain those guys. We’ve just stayed in position and kept the game simple. You know the playoffs are going to have ups and downs. All you can do is roll with the punches.”
O’Byrne has usually squared off against the opposition’s top trio most of the season, but he’s saved his best work for the brightest spotlight. After recording a minus-seven during the regular season, he was a plus-eight through the first 16 playoff games.
He was goal-less during the regular season (to go along with 12 assists), but potted the game-winner in a first-round series-clinching win vs. Rochester. He also picked up an assist on the overtime goal by Eric Manlow that sent Manitoba packing in round two.
“For these youngsters, this is part of their development, to play in these pressure situations. He’s handled it very well,” said Hamilton assistant coach Ron Wilson. “I’m not afraid to put him in any situation, and he responds. He’s going to play in Montreal someday, and it’s not that far down the road.”
But before we speculate on where O’Byrne is going, it helps to understand where he’s been. The Big Red is in many ways a collegiate mirror image of Hamilton. Cornell harvests big, mobile blueliners like corn and tries to make its defensive zone as fun to enter as a field of barbed wire.
“I’ve always been a defensive defenseman. When I came to Cornell, I had no idea how to play defense,” O’Byrne said. “It’s a great program, as a defenseman. You learn how to play forwards the right way. It makes the transition (to pros) a lot easier.”
So does a nasty attitude that’s backed up by a silo-sized frame. Looks can be deceiving in hockey. In O’Byrne, though, the Bulldogs got every inch of what they saw.
“He likes to punish guys. He’s got a mean streak in him,” Wilson said.
“You have to realize what kind of player you are,” O’Byrne said. “It’s something I’ve always enjoyed. You have to leave an impression on the ice out there. You have to make things happen. It’s something that defines me.”
That alone might have been enough in another era of the sport, but these days defensemen the size of O’Byrne who can’t skate get defined as dinosaurs. Those issues were quickly quelled for Wilson when he saw how frequently his prospect beat his man down the wall and then slammed shut the skating lane.
It was some strong play by O’Byrne against the Wolves during the regular season that convinced Wilson he could keep up with their jetsetters in the playoffs.
“It (not being fast enough) is always something you think about,” O’Byrne said. “But I’ve always been confident in my skating. I knew I had it in me.”
Plus, as it turns out, a whole lot more. Enough to help keep the Bulldogs on skates and indoors at a time when others might prefer some rollerblades and a jaunt through the park.
“The body is sore. There’s lots of ice going around,” O’Byrne said. “I’ll tell you, I’ve gotten this far. I’ve got room for one Calder Cup finals. I definitely have enough energy for that. The sun is out. Everybody wants to win then.”