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ex-Maple Leafs’ Icon Zach O’Brien Headed from Growlers to Slovakia

Many Toronto Maple Leafs fans outside of Newfoundland know Zach O’Brien. He’s an icon with the Newfoundland Growlers. What’s he up to now?

Perhaps the best NHL hockey player ever from Newfoundland was Michael Ryder. He was born and raised in Bonavista, Newfoundland, and honed his hockey skills in the province before playing in the National Hockey League (NHL). The Montreal Canadiens selected Ryder in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft; and, during his time with the Canadiens, he showcased his offensive talents and became a fan favorite.

Ryder later joined the Boston Bruins and was part of their Stanley Cup run in 2011. During his career, Ryder represented Newfoundland hockey proudly and inspired local players to pursue their own hockey dreams.

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One of Those Players from Newfoundland Was Zach O’Brien

Newfoundland has produced several good hockey players over the years. One such player was Zach O’Brien. He was born and raised in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and his journey from local rinks to professional leagues is a testament to his passion, skill, and determination. 

In my post, I’ll discuss O’Brien’s career and share how he’s moved from senior men’s hockey in his home province to becoming a Maple Leafs’ farmhand who’s now on his way to playing in Slovakia next season. 

[BTW, just wanted to say thank you to the Newfoundland Growlers YouTube page for the photo used in the feature image of this post.]

O’Brien’s Early Success in the QMJHL

O’Brien, who will be 31 years old this week, has a long history of playing hockey. His career gained momentum during his time in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). There he played for the Acadie-Bathurst Titan and later the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. 

O’Brien’s final season (2012-2013) was outstanding. He scored an impressive 129 points (with 50 goals and 79 assists) in just 68 games. His scoring prowess made him one of the top performers in the league and caught the attention of hockey scouts.

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O’Brien’s Professional Career

Although he had an impressive junior career, O’Brien was never drafted in the NHL Entry Draft. However, that setback didn’t stop him from playing professional hockey. O’Brien began an odyssey through various professional leagues, including the American Hockey League (AHL) and the ECHL.

O’Brien’s professional career included time with teams like the St. John’s IceCaps, Manchester Monarchs, Norfolk Admirals, Colorado Eagles, and (of course) the Newfoundland Growlers. He continued to show his scoring ability and versatility as a forward and consistently added to his team’s offense.

ECHL Championship and Legacy with the Growlers

One significant highlight of O’Brien’s professional career came in 2019. That season he led the Newfoundland Growlers, which Maple Leafs’ fans know is an ECHL team affiliated with the organization’s big club, to the Kelly Cup championship. O’Brien played exceptionally well during the playoffs and scored 16 goals and added 13 assists (for 29 points). That earned him the June M. Kelly Playoffs Most Valuable Player Award. 

He also played a crucial role in the Growlers’ successful inaugural season. In fact, his time with the team left a lasting impact on the franchise. That seems especially fulfilling given his almost iconic status in Newfoundland as a home-grown hockey player.

O’Brien Leaves the Growlers Holding Many Team Records

Over his four-year career with the Growlers, O’Brien became a franchise star. He currently holds numerous team records, including goals, assists, points, and games played. His offensive prowess and consistent production made him one of the ECHL’s most valuable players. 

O’Brien’s leadership and sportsmanship qualities were also recognized, as he won the ECHL’s Sportsmanship Award multiple times. He’s one of the good guys, which is why I chose to write this post about him.

O’Brien Is Continuing His Hockey Journey in Europe 

Just recently, O’Brien signed a contract with HC Slovan Bratislava of the Slovak Extraliga. It will be his third European stint in his professional career. He had previously played for two different teams in the DEL2 (the second-tier ice hockey league in Germany). 

O’Brien’s current opportunity will allow him to explore a new league and play on the international stage. While his departure from the Growlers leaves a void in the team’s lineup, O’Brien’s impact and contributions will be remembered by fans and teammates alike.

In Slovakia, he’ll be playing in Bratislava, the capital and largest city in the country. It’s well-known for its culture and is much less expensive than living in North America. From what I can find out, a Canadien player who plays in Slovakia is treated well and his housing expenses are taken care of by the team. He’ll earn up to about $65,000 USD playing there.

The Bottom Line

O’Brien’s hockey career in Newfoundland with the Growlers is almost iconic. He’s off to another experience internationally. However, his time will not be forgotten in Newfoundland.

His contributions to the Growlers’ ECHL championship and his all-around records with the team are a lasting legacy. O’Brien’s a role model for aspiring young athletes in his home province.

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  1. gf

    June 27, 2023 at 7:18 am

    Michael Ryder and Zach O’Brien should not be compared at all. Ryder kept moving his way up in leagues continuously until reaching and staying in the NHL 12 consecutive seasons!! O’Brien never made the NHL and has been juggled up and down between ECHL and AHL, about half and half because he had 3 early years in the AHL. After that, for the past 6, almost all ECHL which is 2 huge leagues lower. While the players try hard to where they get, these 2 are not in the same league at all and it’s an insult to compare Ryder this way. Ryder should be compared to other NHLers, not ECHLers! Are you purposely distorting facts to promote someone you know again?!

  2. TKS

    June 27, 2023 at 7:54 am

    This article appears misleading in making it out that O’Brien came from and always played for Newfoundland and the Growlers. He also played for the Ontario Reign, Manchester Monarchs, Chicago Wolves, Ravensburg Tower Stars (Germany Del-2 20 games), Wichita Thunder, Bakersfield Condors. There’s a big question about why it was a different team every year for so many years.

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