SALEM — When former Salem State University President James T. Amsler hired Lynn native William O’Neill as the school’s new men’s hockey coach in 1981, Amsler took a chance on a 25-year-old fresh out of college and eager for a new opportunity.
Fast forward to 2019 and O’Neill, now in his 38th season at Salem State, is one of the winningest coaches in Division III history. O’Neill earned his 600th career victory with a 5-4 win over Fitchburg State Tuesday night at Loring Arena. He stands third among all active Division III coaches in wins and is just the 13th coach all-time to reach 600 career victories.
“I’m just so thankful for the opportunity to coach at Salem State,” O’Neill said. “I feel blessed to be able to stay in the game as long as I have. In putting it in perspective, it wouldn’t have been possible without the support of my wife and family, my peers in hockey and the support of the Salem State administration.
“Salem State’s one of the builders of college hockey as we know it in Boston and New England,” O’Neill said. “They took a big chance with a young college guy like me. I’m just so thankful that they did.”
O’Neill lived on Maple Street in Lynn during his youth before moving to Danvers. He attended St. John’s Prep, where he played his high school hockey and graduated in 1974. O’Neill played Division I college hockey at Boston University and started his coaching career shortly after graduating in 1979. He coached alongside the late Bo Tierney at Bishop Fenwick for one season and at Norwich University, where he earned his master’s degree, with Toot Cahoon. In 1981, O’Neill landed at Salem State where he succeeded Mike Gilligan.
He still carries a vivid recollection of his time in Lynn.
“I went to St. Pius,” O’Neill said. “I still remember the old hockey memories of the gathering of the Saturday morning group at the old Lynn Arena on Boston Street. Ben Foote was the hockey coach at English. He would have his clinic on Saturday morning. Players from all over the North Shore would go. You didn’t even know him, you’d just go to the clinic trying to get better and loving the game of hockey. As you got older and older and continued in hockey you’d realize most of those kids were going to the clinic and it was pretty cool. Lifelong memories and lifelong friendships.”
O’Neill has coached the Vikings to a pair of NCAA Division III Final Four appearances (1992, 1994), and numerous Massachusetts State College Athletic Conference (MASCAC) championships.
The relationships he’s built with his players, O’Neill said, are what he’s enjoyed the most during his tenure with the Vikings.
“I love that I’ve had so many great players,” O’Neill said. “The relationships with the players, they’re good people, good citizens. You’re talking about an opportunity where you start in October and it builds every day until the end. When it ends it comes to a screeching halt in that last playoff game. It’s something that’s a daily progression. The players are a big part of it. Being with the players, the staff. Your assistant coaches that you’re working with and the relationships you have with your staff, the support you get from the athletic administration. It’s a win-win.”
The Vikings finished the regular season at 8-16-1. Salem State earned the No. 6 seed in the MASCAC Tournament and travels to UMass Dartmouth Saturday night (6:30) for the quarterfinal round of the tournament. The Vikings went 1-2 against UMass Dartmouth during the regular season, including a 3-1 win on the road back on Dec. 8.
“We’ve got quite a rivalry going (with UMass Dartmouth),” O’Neill said. “These games always bring the best in both teams. It’ll be hard-fought and emotional. The team that can get its goaltending going and the team that can get it going on special teams will have the best chance of a good outcome.
“We’re looking forward to the MASCAC Tournament. We’re looking forward to Saturday and playing the best we can play. We’re thankful for our local fans that come to our games, follow our team and are involved with our players. We appreciate that, it’s always great.”