Dubuque Fighting Saints forward Michael O’Leary has had his fair share of both highs and lows this season. The Halifax, NS native came into the season with high expectations surrounding his heavy two-game, but that don’t matter right now to the Fighting Saints center. Tonight O’Leary will be suiting up for Game 1 of the Clark Cup Final with a heavy heart to compliment his heavy game.
“My grandmother passed away right before the Top Prospects Game, that was really hard for me,” said O’Leary. “I was really close to her, and it happened very suddenly. I actually didn’t get a chance to see her before she passed. She believed in me, and she believed I was capable of reaching whatever dreams I want. Moving forward, this is all for her.”
O’Leary shined at the USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game despite learning of the sudden news. He scored four points for Team East including the game’s first goal. After the game, the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, ON requested his game-worn jersey, gloves, stick and puck to be displayed in the museum.
But this season hasn’t always been that magical for O’Leary. After being named a C-rated skater by NHL Central Scouting prior to the year, O’Leary was held off the score sheet during the entire month of November. Dealing with the life adjustment of moving to the United States, living and attending school in Dubuque, as well as finding a firm college commitment for next season were all pressing issues on the forward’s mind.
“It obviously wasn’t the start I wanted, and I actually got scratched,” said O’Leary. “That was the first time anything like that has ever happened to me, where I got sat down and had to miss time for a game. That was a wake up call to me – like ‘hey, come back down to earth, get everything in line. Just work hard. You have all the tools here and the support system around you, and you just have to put it to use. Keep playing. Be confident.’”
The following weekend, O’Leary scored six points in three games, including a game-winning goal against the conference rival Madison Capitols.
Since then, O’Leary, has been a major contributor to the Dubuque Fighting Saints team that features many high-end prospects, but doesn’t necessarily have a super star who receives credit for the team’s success.
“I think a big thing is we all look at each other as equal,” said O’Leary. “There’s not one or two guys that, just because they’ve been around longer or they score a little more, or even if they’re a young guy who’s supposed to get drafted high, we’re all held to the same standard.
“I think we all want to play for the guy beside us, which I know on a lot of teams isn’t the case. We’re very fortunate that we have that team this year.”
The team-first mentality helped O’Leary and the Fighting Saints not only reach the Clark Cup Playoffs, but upset the heavily favored Green Bay Gamblers in their first Eastern Conference series.
O’Leary continues to contribute to Dubuque’s playoff success with his tight-checking defense, but has also stepped up in a major way on the scoreboard. His seven points in nine games ranks fourth on the team, while his four goals are second most.
In a time when teams need their best players to step up, and the stage becomes much larger, O’Leary appears ready for the challenge. Winning a Clark Cup championship would make this year’s hard-fought season worth everything he has had to endure.
Before every game in the Clark Cup Final, O’Leary will take the time to write his grandmother’s name on his stick, just as he has since the USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game. Her name serves as a simple reminder as to why he continues to fight through one of the most challenging years of hockey he has ever encountered.
“It reminds me how fortunate I am to be here and be in the situation I’m in,” said O’Leary. “She helped me push through times I didn’t think I’d be able to push through. She’s a big motivator for me.”
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 14th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2015-16. A record 37 players were chosen in the 2015 NHL Draft and more than 375 players on team rosters last season committed to NCAA Division I schools, further establishing the USHL as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent.