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Liam O’Brien was angry. Rimouski Océanic had just traded him to Rouyn-Noranda in the middle of the 2011-12 QMJHL season. Instead of playing on the eastern edge of Québec, closer to his family and friends in Halifax, Nova Scotia, he was headed to the farthest west city in the Q, just across the border from Ontario.
“I am sure I let a few f-bombs fly,” he later wrote in a one-off journal entry for Sportsnet.
O’Brien was hoping to be traded somewhere closer to home, maybe even Halifax. Instead, he boarded a small prop plane on a cold, dark and snowy night, headed for an outpost that was not so attractive to kids from The Maritimes.
André Tourigny had arrived in Rouyn-Noranda nearly a decade earlier, tasked with turning the 96-percent French speaking city into an attractive destination for English-speaking Canadian kids. It wasn’t that Tourigny had a preference for English speaking players. He was born in Nicolet, Quebec, and he didn’t speak English at the time. He just wanted to build the best team possible, and he knew that meant being open to all possibilities.
“I remember the exact moment when Obi arrived, but I remember the impact he had on our team even more,” Tourigny said. “Obi has been a pro since back then when he was 17 years old. He was the kind of a guy you had to tell, ‘Hey, you need to get off the ice.’
“He was not staying on the ice to impress us. He was staying on the ice to work on really specific things; really focused on certain details. It was not about shooting pucks. We talked to him about working on his balance and he was relentless about it. He’s still working on it, making sure he improves his balance and his hands, his touches, all of it. He’s a great example for everybody for how you approach the game.”
Tourigny only coached O’Brien for a year and a half before leaving to take an assistant coaching position with the Colorado Avalanche, but that experience helps explain why, when the opportunity arose to bring O’Brien aboard the rebuilding Coyotes almost another decade later, Tourigny offered GM Bill Armstrong a glowing reference.
It also helps explain how a player whom some analysts view as a 13th or 14th NHL forward at best, has carved out a permanent home on the Coyotes’ fourth line.
“When you’re with a team every day, there’s a lot of things that happen behind the curtain that people don’t see,” Tourigny said. “If you work in a business, sometimes there’s people who get a promotion and everybody on the outside is wondering, ‘Why is that?’ But the people on the inside know why.
“When the wrong guy gets the promotion, it creates a bad culture in your organization and it creates problems. I don’t know if it’s a strength of mine or if it’s a weakness, but that culture part is important for me. When your commitment and your effort — physically and mentally — is that good, that is really important to me. You will get a second, third and fourth chance under my command for sure because I think that sends a message to everybody. Skill will probably get you more ice time, but the kind of people you want on your team is important as well.”
So what does O’Brien bring to the table other than that flowing mane and that glorious beard? To outsiders, the obvious answers are his willingness to fight and his energy.
“I just want my teammates to feel safe,” O’Brien said. “I want them to feel like if something happens out there, Obi has their back.
“Obviously, you have to chip in offensively and the game is changing so I’ve got to continue to work on things in my game to be able to play in this league and to play at this level. But my role is to be an ultimate team guy, and to stick up for my teammates. It’s to lift guys up in the room, go out there and bring emotion to the game and bring passion.”
O’Brien has filled those roles this season. He has two goals, five points, a plus-3 rating and a team-high 36 penalty minutes despite an average ice time of 10:08 that is the lowest among the Coyotes’ regular skaters. He has also formed a surprisingly effective line with Jack McBain and Alex Kerfoot.
“We play similar games and we’re pretty simple so it’s easy to read off each other,” McBain said. “He’s a smart player, too, so he’s easy to play with. We’ve just had success doing basic things and going to the net hard.”
There is a trust factor when Tourigny puts O’Brien on the ice that extends well beyond their longstanding relationship.
“His structure is textbook and so is his urgency in the game and the way he thinks the game,” Tourigny said. “He knows what to do and when to do it. There’s some limitations on the skill side, but not on the brain and the heart.”
When O’Brien arrived in Rouyn-Noranda all those years ago, he thought it was the worst thing that had ever happened to him. He figured he’d see his parents far less and he had heard that Tourigny was a task master. He worried that his new situation would mirror his previous one, in which a poor relationship with Rimouski’s new coach may have led to his trade, despite a lot of extra work he was doing with assistant coach Donald Dufresne, with whom he developed a great relationship.
“Instead, it ended up being probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “The people that I was surrounded by up there were incredible, from my billet family to the coaching staff, to ownership and teammates. I remember being a little bit nervous for that first meeting with André Tourigny because my coach previous to that was a little bit over the top in my opinion and I think he took it too far. André was hard but honest, and he got the best out of you. He was able to get the best out of me.
“I’d run through a brick wall for him. I think we have a really good player-coach relationship now where there’s not many times he has to tell me something. I already know when something needs to be done, or when I’m maybe not playing at the level that he wants me to play at. We kind of just have that sort of connection. It’s special.”
Tourigny praises a number of O’Brien’s qualities, but the traits he keeps coming back to are O’Brien’s intelligence and maturity.
“If you meet his family, it’s no surprise,” Tourigny said. “They’re smart people. They’re good people. They’re good-hearted people and there’s no BS in their lives. People may think Obi’s all over the place — a little crazy — because of the role he has, but he’s really calm. He’s composed, collected, and he always has a good perspective on things.”
O’Brien even has an outlet for that perspective. The one-off he wrote for Sportnet was not an anomaly. He likes to write. English class was always his favorite class as a kid, he took a creative-writing course through Acadia University, and the art form has remained a passion throughout his career.
“My grandfather [Peter O’Brien] has passed away now, but when I was growing up, after every game, he would write a poem about the game and he would send it to me,” O’Brien said. “He was a journalist. He loved to write and I think I kind of got that from him.
“I wrote a lot more when I was younger, but I still write to this day. Creative writing, poetry, and I tried to write songs.”
Music is another passion in the O’Brien family; one that Liam says helps strengthen the bonds with his siblings, Callum, Rowan and Kate.
“Me and my brothers send each other a new song every couple of days,” he said.
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O’Brien, 29, is only under contract through the end of the season, but he is currently on pace for career highs in games, goals, assists, points. It’s too soon to say what his future holds, but there’s one guy who will be in his corner when talks begin on a new contract.
“If I go back and look at all the players I have coached, if someone had asked, ‘Okay, which two or three guys will play in the NHL,’ I’m not sure Liam would have been a top pick,” Tourigny said. “[Nikita] Kucherov would have been guaranteed No. 1, but Liam was the guy who moved ahead of a lot of other guys.
“I’m a big believer that you can achieve your dream if you’re willing to put in the effort and the time. I’m not saying everything is possible, but you can achieve a lot and I think he is one of the examples. His determination and his character are unbelievable. That’s why he’s here.”
Top photo of Liam O’Brien via Getty Images
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