As he waits, like everyone else, for the world to reopen from the coronavirus shutdown, Rob O’Gara has had plenty of time to think about his future in professional hockey. And the 26-year-old Nesconset native has come to the conclusion that whenever professional sports restarts, he wants to be a part of it.
“I want to give it at least one more kick at the can, so to speak,’’ said O’Gara, currently a member of the Springfield Thunderbirds of the American Hockey League. “And even though this [the pause because of COVID-19] isn’t ideal for anyone, I think if I can find that opportunity and go right from the start, I think I can prove myself and kind of establish myself again. And hopefully play a few more years.’’
A year ago, after finishing an injury-plagued season with the Rangers’ AHL team, the Hartford Wolf Pack, O’Gara was a free agent. He still aspired to play in the NHL (he’d played the final 22 games of the season for the Rangers at the end of 2017-18). But coming off back surgery that had ended his season in Hartford prematurely, he signed a one-year, $75,000 deal in August with the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage, the top affiliate of the defending Stanley Cup champion Blues. St. Louis,.though, had some young prospects who needed to play at San Antonio, and, after his back had a flare-up at the start of the season, O’Gara didn’t play much.
Eventually, he asked for a trade and was shipped to Springfield, where he played regularly and well. In 20 games for Springfield, the 6-4, 214-pound defenseman had three goals, three assists and a plus-4 rating before another injury, this time a separated shoulder, interrupted his season. He worked hard to return and made it back in six weeks, significantly ahead of schedule. He was cleared to play on March 12, the day the AHL followed the NHL in halting its schedule because of the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, O’Gara has been at his wife’s family’s house in Massachusetts, trying to stay active and in shape in case the league resumes play.
With an Economics degree from Yale, where he played college hockey, O’Gara could always get “a real job.’’ But he knows if he can stay healthy, he can still play. And because his wife, a management consultant, works mostly from home, he has the freedom to go almost anywhere to play.
For now, he is setting aside the NHL and focusing on proving himself as a solid AHL player. Though primarily a developmental league to get young prospects ready for the NHL, most AHL teams see value in having veteran pros on their roster who help the team win, while also helping school the young prospects. Those types of veterans can make a good living, earning $200,000 to $300,000 per year, or more.
“To say I’m going to make a team out of [an NHL training] camp, or be the first call-up, or anything like that right now, I think, is unrealistic,’’ he said. “But, let’s say, if the AHL comes back normal next year, I can get on a roster, I can play consistently, [and] I think I have what it takes to be that guy — be a solid guy that I could play in the AHL another, who knows, 2-5 years plus, God willing, and make a better living. Make a little more each year. That would be ideal.’’