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Frei column, Updated: Logan O’Connor’s a better NHL than college player

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Logan O'Connor Avs

This seems almost hard to believe now.

For 21 consecutive games in the last half of the 2015-16 season  at the University of Denver, Pioneers coach Jim Montgomery made freshman winger Logan O’Connor a healthy scratch.

It was a testing experience for O’Connor.

He was part of a highly touted Pioneers freshman class that also included forwards Troy Terry, Jarid Lukosevicius, Dylan Gambrell and Colin Staub; plus defensemen Blake Hillman and Sean Mostrom.

Born in Texas, but raised in Calgary, O’Connor forced himself to take stock.

I asked him about the experience on the Avalanche’s Zoom call after Friday’s practice at Ball Arena.

“It was definitely a dream obviously at that point to get here,” O’Connor said. “But it was hard to see at that time, just based on where I was at in the lineup, being out of the lineup for [21] games straight, it definitely was hard to see beyond that and you’re sort of getting frustrated.

“But when that was going on, I just tried to stick to my identity, play to the details and be a really good teammate. I think that’s the biggest thing, is help those around you. Thinking of where I’ve come from there, it’s definitely pretty crazy to think about. But I think a lot of it goes towards hard work and just playing to my game and constantly trying to improve day in and day out.”

In other words, he didn’t spend that hockey down time gorging on hot dogs at Mustard’s Last Stand, adjacent to DU.

By the next season — 2016-17 — O’Connor was an integral part of the Pioneers’ Frozen Four championship team as a sophomore. He had another solid, if unspectacular, season as a junior before he was named the Pioneers’ captain for 2018-19. But he attended the Avalanche’s 2018 development camp as an undrafted free agent and instead of returning for his senior year, signed with Colorado.

O’Connor is a better pro than his college career — ultimately, 16 goals and 27 assists in 108 games — could have foretold.

It happens.

That’s due to both late blooming and the suitability of his game for, first, the AHL — he played 104 game with the Eagles — and now the NHL with the Avalanche.

At age 25, he has become much more than an organization forward, more than a guy who can be summoned from Loveland to capably fill in during injury sieges … and then be sent back.

He’s entrenched.

O’Connor has five goals and seven assists in 27 games for the Avalanche this season, proving himself to be versatile and able to step in on the top two lines when needed.

He also has played a key role on the penalty kill and averages 15:19 of ice time.

Coach Jared Bednar jumps on every opportunity to praise him, and even Bednar’s tone can seem to include a bit of surprise.

As in: “Who’da thought?”

Two other members of that Pioneer freshman class are in the NHL — Gambrell with Ottawa and Terry with Anaheim. Terry, in fact, will be back in his hometown Sunday when the Ducks face the Avalanche in a 1 p.m. matinee at Ball Arena.

My Q&A with Troy Terry

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O’Connor is one of only four Avs (joining Erik Johnson, Darren Helm and Tyson Jost) who have played in all 27 games this season. He was on the COVID-protocol list this week after testing positive, but because of the Avs’ holiday break and postponements, he didn’t miss any games and was back on the ice for practice Thursday.

“I feel pretty good,” O’Connor said on the Zoom call Friday. “I tried to do what I could to stay in somewhat shape over that break. Obviously not ideal. I had a headache for about two days and that’s about the extent of my symptoms, so it was pretty mild. Just common cold-type symptoms for me.”

I asked him how close he was to full-strength.

“I think I’m already there conditioning-wise,” he said. “Two good, solid practices have definitely helped. That’ll be three skates going into the game, that’s huge to get under your belt, get the touch back, get the lungs back a little bit. I definitely feel good and with one more practice (Saturday), I should be ready to roll.”

O’Connor noted that his game so far this season has “been pretty solid. . . The big thing is starting to capitalize a little more on my chances, that’s what I have to focus on in the New Year here. I feel as though I get a decent amount of opportunities but need to sort of put them in the back of the net. Hopefully that will help the team have more success.”

When they’re able to play.

UPDATE: O’Connor had the game-winning goal in the 4-2 victory over the Ducks Sunday, breaking a 2-2 tie with 1:11 left in regulation.

For the Ducks, Terry had an assist on the Sam Carrick first-period goal that opened the scoring. He now has 18 goals and 13 assists in 34 games for the Ducks.

The opportunity to ask engage in conversation rather than single questions is even more limited after the return of Zoom calls as availabilities. On Sunday, I followed up from the other day by asking O’Connor about whether playing against Terry now is just another matchup or whether there’s a bond there.

“We were roommates freshman year,” O’Connor said. “He saw me going through some things when I was in and out of the lineup. I saw him have a lot of success as a player. We come back every summer to DU to work out, skate together, golf together. We spend a lot of time together. It’s pretty cool going against guys that you played with for that many years and especially when you’re in the same class. We always root for each other except when we play each other. There’s always a rivalry there, but when he plays other teams, you want to see him have success.”

Who wins the golf games?

“I’d like to think I do,” O’Connor said. “But he’s coming. His game’s getting better.”

LOGAN O’CONNOR

Age: 25

In two seasons with the Sioux Falls Stampede of the USHL, had19 goals and 27 assists in 117 games.

In three seasons at DU, had 16 goals and 27 assists in 108 games.

It two seasons with the AHL Colorado Eagles, had 31 goals and 36 assists in 104 games.

In parts of four seasons with the Avalanche, has 10 goals and 15 assists in 70 games.  

Terry Frei (terry@terryfrei.com) is a Denver-based author and journalist. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times in peer voting — four times in Colorado and three times in Oregon. His seven books include the novels “Olympic Affair” and “The Witch’s Season.” Among his five non-fiction works are “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming,” “Third Down and a War to Go,” “March 1939: Before the Madness,” and “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age.” He also collaborated with Adrian Dater on “Save By Roy,” was a long-time vice president of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and has covered the hockey Rockies, Avalanche and the NHL at-large. His web site is www.terryfrei.com and his bio is available at www.terryfrei.com/bio.html

His Colorado Hockey Now column archive can be accessed here

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Joshua Canfield

Great write-up Terry. I’ve really liked O’Connor since he was initially called up by the Avs. Some games, he looked like he was the hardest working forward out there, always on the puck with tremendous drive. I think it’s a testament to his character and type of player he is when coach Bednar slots him in on the 1st line when Nathan MacKinnon is out. I also believe that LOC can be a role model for the younger players out there. The players who, in Junior or College, who believe they will get drafted in a late round (if at… Read more »

Ricardo

Happy New Year. A real Horatio Alger story in Hockey. You young folks will have to look that one up. I really enjoy watching LOC play. He is always hustling and plays a smart game.

John Mauss

Great article, Terry. You quantified what we all had observed and did it in a very interesting story.

ricoflashback

Love LOC’s game. High energy. Physical. Brings it every night. Logan should do an “Energizer Bunny” commercial. Leaves it all out on the ice.

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