Rob O’Gara is having the craziest summer of his life.
The Nesconset native got married Saturday in Maine — the same day he turned 26 years old — and, you know how people sometimes joke that life is short, and you should have dessert first? Well, O’Gara and his wife, Isabel, actually went on their honeymoon last month, weeks before the wedding. For a free agent hockey player, you kind of don’t want to be traipsing all over Europe in early July, when your agent is trying to negotiate a contract for you.
“Basically, everything happens on July 1st [when the free agent signing period begins],’’ O’Gara said in a telephone interview from his in-laws’ house in Wayland, Mass. “It is such a crazy day – hundreds of guys are signing — and it almost seems like everything goes silent after that.’’
O’Gara, a 6-4, 207-pound defenseman who spent last season with the Rangers’ Hartford Wolfpack farm team, finds himself in the unenviable position of being an unrestricted free agent who is coming off back surgery. He had first hurt his back in college, at Yale, but had been able to play without any problems until one day in early February, when his back started bothering him at a morning skate prior to a game against the Islanders’ Bridgeport Sound Tigers farm team. With pain shooting down his leg, O’Gara was shut down and underwent rehab for seven weeks. He returned for two games in late March, but quickly had a recurrence of his symptoms and ultimately had surgery April 12. He is still undergoing rehab, though he said that is going well and he’ll be ready for training camp.
The only thing is, he doesn’t know where he’ll be attending training camp.
He concedes it seems unlikely it will be with the Rangers, who have spent the last 18 months collecting as many young defensemen as they could as part of the organization’s rebuild strategy. This summer, the Rangers have brought in even more young defense prospects, including 21-year-old Jericho native Adam Fox, Russian Yegor Rykov, 22, and Finn Tarmo Reunanen, 21, who all will be in training camp, along with 21-year-old, second-year pros Libor Hajek and Ryan Lindgren. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, O’Gara has resigned himself to trying to find a better opportunity somewhere else.
“My goal is still to play in the NHL,’’ he said. “It’s not going to be money, or term [that decides the next stop]; it’s going to be trying to find a place where I’ve got the best opportunity to do that."
O’Gara, a stay-at-home defenseman with no goals, three assists in 33 career NHL games, has certainly pondered his hockey mortality as he enters his fourth professional season. The weekend before he got hurt, his parents had come to Hartford and they had happened to talk about how long he intended to play, and what is next after hockey. Days later, after his back tightened up at that morning skate, O’Gara found himself looking in the mirror and asking himself those questions again. He has an economics degree from Yale, after all. He should be able to find a job after his hockey career is over.
But he decided he doesn’t want that career to be over just yet.
“If I wasn’t enjoying it anymore, money or not, then I think I would look for something else,’’ he said. “But the thing is, there’s nothing better. Even over the summer, I just get into the gym and get on the ice. I love it. I can’t even picture something else.’’