Minnesota Hockey Magazine

Bob O’Connor: More Than a Coach

Submitted photo.

30th annual tournament bearing his name is underway this weekend

Republished with permission from EdinaTourney.com

Intense, disciplined, focused, passionate, caring, dedicated, generous, and extremely knowledgeable were all words recently used by Steve Velner, a former Edina hockey player and junior varsity coach when asked to describe the type of coach Bob O’Connor was. The O’Connor resume is impressive, yet it is the man he is that has impacted thousands of hockey players.

Velner played for O’Connor in the early 1980’s and went on to coach with his mentor from 1987-1991. It was an experience that helped shape Velner as a player, coach and in life.

O’Connor coached youth hockey in Edina from 1969-1978 at almost every age level and won State Championships at the Midget, Peewee and Squirt levels. He went on to coach at the Junior Varsity team at Edina High School compiling an astounding 423-48-22 record over his 25-years behind the bench. O’Connor also served as an assistant varsity coach under Minnesota Coaches Association Hall of Fame members Willard Ikola and Bart Larson.

What made O’Connor stand apart from others was his extreme knowledge, ability to communicate it, and think outside of the box by adjusting when needed. As a coach O’Connor was viewed as an innovator and today with USA Hockey those same attributes hold true. When asked about O’Connor’s coaching and what aspects ring out for Velner, he suggested it was a singular focus to specific aspects of the game before they became trendy.

“O’C paid attention to “cycling” before most coaches even knew what it was. He was committed to “ quiet/dead” zones,” Velner explained. “He was focused on “offensive movement”. A relentless dedication to the fundamentals of the game. All coaches talked about it – O’C was passionately committed to developing it”

According to Velner O’Conner never had the final answers, he was always in search for more, never satisfied with what he knew, and challenged himself to learn and obtain more. “He was always trying to improve,” Velner said.

There was a way about O’Connor and his delivery of information and teaching that worked and held permanent in the minds of players he touched. He believed 100% in what he was teaching and demanded eye contact from players he addressed, not by asking for it, but by delivering it to his subjects and subsequently getting it in return. For young impressionable Midwestern hockey players, it was also the sharp east coast accent that brought even more credibility to O’Connor’s delivery.

He had a bevy of sayings, one-liners that stick with players of four-decades in Edina hockey that sticks with them today. Among some of them Velner pointed out are a few favorites.

“Ah, it’s the little things that make the big things happen.” “You have to keep your head on a swivel” (followed by a demonstration). “Point the toe the way you want it to go” “Knee up, foot over (when emphasizing cross-overs)” “The Buuutchah shaap is open”

The coach who had a skate sharpener in the stick room at Edina High School never hesitated to sharpen a player’s skate. He was never asked, never paid, and could have up to 40 pairs of skates waiting for him. He would sharpen them not for thank yous but because he cared.

“All the players knew how much O’C cared about them and cared about hockey,” Velner reflected. “O’C wanted them to be better people and better hockey players. All the kids knew that and all the kids did become better people and hockey players because of his influence.”

O’Connor was the Director of the Summer Hockey Camp for the Minnesota Institute of Hockey in the mid 1980’s. He also was active in USA Hockey and served as an assistant coach on the 1984 and 1988 US Olympic Hockey teams with Lou Vairo and Dave Peterson. For the past 36 years, O’Connor has been a member of the USA Hockey Committee and is Director Emeritus for the Board of Directors for USA Hockey. He also served as an assistant coach on the US World junior teams in 1991 and 1992.

From 1980-1994, O’Connor served as the Coach-in-Chief of USA Hockey’s Minnesota affiliate and as director of USA Hockey’s coaches section for ten years (1994-2004). He was also USA Hockey’s National Coach-n Chief for two years from 2004-2006.

O’C has generously donated funds to establish the USA Hockey International Resource Center that is home to the most extensive collection in the world of ice hockey resources.

On December 4th, 2014, O’Connor was honored with the USA Hockey Builders Award as part of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony and Dinner in Minneapolis, MN. He was recognized for his efforts in the coaching education program. The award is acknowledged by USA Hockey representatives as one of the highest honors in the program.

O’Connor was a professional scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs and worked with the Buffalo Sabers during their preseason training camp. His background is steeped in high level hockey yet his passion for the game was about teaching from the ground up, running the Edina pre-season Hockey School for all ages.

Bob attended LaSalle Academy in Providence, Rhode Island playing on the state championship team in 1954. He was All State in ’53 and ’54 and voted top player in Rhode Island in 1954. He was also on the New England Tournament of Champions in ’54.

O’Connor went on to attend Hebron Academy in Hebron, Maine from 1954-1955 and played on the Lake Placid Northwood All-Tournament team in 1955. After serving two years with the US Marine Corp, he attended Providence College where he played in the 1961 and 1962 ECAC NCAA tournament with line-mate Lou Lamoriello. In 2010, O’Connor was elected to the Hebron Academy of Athletic Hall of Fame.

According to Velner coach O’Connor knew the balance of hockey and life and said, “Most of us are trying to figure out what we want to do when we grow up. Bob O’Connor knew who he was and what he had to offer – a passion and knowledge for the game of hockey. He never wanted the limelight or to be ‘the guy’. He wanted to help develop youth, develop hockey players and give back to the game he loved.”

O’Connor got Velner involved in coaching and it was the lessons that O’Connor taught his kids that impacted Velner as his assistant coach. “I truly felt bad that the next generations of players were not going to be able to experience and learn from coach O’Connor,” Velner said. “There is no question he is one of the best kind. I don’t think I have ever met one of his players that didn’t have a memorable and learned experience playing for O’C. I have never heard anyone say they would trade that experience or that it wasn’t worthwhile.”

Velner’s heartfelt words have been echoed by numerous players O’Connor touched and has touched for decades. “I can speak for all kids who ever got a chance to play for O’C when I say, ‘Thanks for everything coach, I learned a ton and have a great memory of our time together.'”

This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of the Bob O’Connor Tournament. It is a weekend to celebrate a coach who has impacted so many players not only in Edina hockey but throughout USA Hockey.