Gavin O’Connell played just two games with the United States National Team Development Program during the 2021-22 season. But what occurred that weekend could be altering for both him and the Michigan State hockey program.
O’Connell, who has spent the last two seasons with the Waterloo Black Hawks in the USHL, was vouched for by his former assistant coach Chad Kolarik – a former NTDP player and current assistant coach for the Under-18 team.
The next thing O’Connell knew, it was New Year’s Eve 2021 and he had just picked up two assists in a 5-3 Waterloo win over the Des Moines Buccaneers. He quickly hopped in his car and drove three hours from Waterloo to his home in the Minneapolis - St. Paul suburbs. Then the next morning, O’Connell and his mom drove another 3-4 hours to Fargo, North Dakota where he would meet up and play for then-NTDP head coach Adam Nightingale. Two days later, they played one more exhibition at Minnesota, (O’Connell’s fifth game of the week having played three to begin the week with Waterloo) before O’Connell returned to Waterloo.
Just over one year later, O’Connell, 19, flipped his college commitment to play with Nightingale and the Spartans.
“When (MSU) reached out, it was pretty hard to say no,” O’Connell said. “Just what they got going on there, the atmosphere that they built and I know (what) Nightingale does is unreal.”
Michigan State’s recruiting momentum is soaring, with O’Connell’s March addition being just a piece of other NTDP freshmen on their way. The Spartans have been busy this month in the transfer portal too, receiving significant verbal commitments from UMass’ Reed Lebster, Miami (Ohio)’s Red Savage and Minnesota-Duluth’s Isaac Howard. More on him later.
However, O’Connell’s pledge to the Spartans wasn’t all that straight of a line.
His father, Mike, played hockey at St. Cloud State. When college hockey was on T.V. at O’Connell’s house in Wayzata, Minnesota, it was St. Cloud State being shown more often than not. O’Connell’s uncle played hockey at Minnesota too, connecting him to another program in the state.
St. Cloud State was a finalist, but he ultimately chose Minnesota-Duluth – a high-flying program not far removed from back-to-back national championships in 2018 and 2019.
“I'm just a big follow your heart guy and obviously Duluth, something kind of told me that I needed to be there at that time,” O’Connell said. “I was on top of the world when I felt like I committed there. I was super excited.”
O’Connell left for Waterloo in 2021. Just a few months prior, he was a junior at Wayzata High School where he was tied for second in the team in points and helped Wayzata advance to the semifinals of the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament.
In his first season with Waterloo, O’Connell recorded eight goals and 16 assists in 62 games. This season, he’s stepped it up with 17 goals and 21 assists with three weeks remaining in the USHL regular season. O’Connell said the identity of his game starts with his offensive skill set, while his defensive play has also improved with Waterloo.
While being there, O’Connell has grown close with teammates Owen Baker and Patrick Geary, two players who both committed and now signed to Michigan State. Baker, a forward from Howell, committed to MSU in August 2020 under former head coach Danton Cole, though he and the Spartans remained dedicated to each other through last year’s coaching change. Geary, a defenseman originally from New York, committed to MSU last summer.
Fast forward one year later when O’Connell went home for the holiday break this past December. That's when the forward started to reconsider his future at Duluth.
“When I feel off about something, I usually kind of follow my instincts and my gut and that was just kind of telling me that I needed to part ways with Duluth and find a different option that was gonna be better for me,” O’Connell said. “There was a lot of family talk and praying and all that stuff and we ended up figuring it all out. We're very happy and fortunate that it's all worked out the way it has.”
Michigan State was quick to reach out. O’Connell remembered his short stint with Nightingale at the NTDP.
“He has such a great hockey mind and just to be able to watch him coach and see how he deals with certain situations, it was just awesome to see,” O’Connell said. “And I think that the way they play at Michigan State and the way he coaches fits my style very well and that's something that I'm very excited about.”
Being friends with Baker and Geary certainly helped too.
“They've talked nothing but amazing (things) about Michigan State,” O’Connell said.
Then there’s Howard, who’s the same age as O’Connell, but already has a season of college hockey under his belt at Minnesota-Duluth. The NHL first-rounder entered the transfer portal following the conclusion of his freshman season and then verbally committed to Michigan State last week.
O’Connell said the two of them have known each other for a long time, playing with and against each other in the past. They were slated to team up together in Duluth, but O’Connell let Howard know that he de-committed from Minnesota-Duluth. Then in March, Howard officially entered the portal, but O’Connell said he didn’t think much of it. He didn’t talk to Howard until shortly before Howard announced his commitment to MSU.
Now, coincidence or not, they still get the chance to play with each other. It just happens to be in East Lansing instead.
“He was just kind of saying how we were destined to be teammates and it was pretty cool,” O’Connell said. “I'm really looking forward to playing with him as well.”
However, O’Connell has never been to East Lansing. Everything he knows has been seen online or is hearsay.
Regardless, he’s thrilled to be a part of an ascending program that won its first-ever Big Ten Tournament series and narrowly missed out on the NCAA Tournament.
“Obviously they put so much time and effort down there at the rink and it looks amazing,” O’Connell said of the Munn Ice Arena renovations. “I've only just heard how awesome the campus is and how fun it is, how great the community is.
“I’m very excited to come see it, but for now, I just gotta imagine.”