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 Brantford Bulldogs

Reflecting with a Record Breaking Rookie - Jake O'Brien Wins Rookie of the Year

April 19, 2024 - Ontario Hockey League (OHL)
Brantford Bulldogs News Release

Despite being just 16 years old, Jake O'Brien, the product of Toronto, ON had remarkable success in his first year in the OHL, earning the Emms Family Award as Ontario Hockey League Rookie of the Year. O'Brien shone in his first season, playing 61 games and recording 64 points (13-51-64), setting new Bulldogs rookie records for assists & points. Following a season in which he led all OHL rookies in points, assists, power-play goals, power-play assists & points-per-game, we had a chance to catchup with the OHL Rookie of the Year to talk about his transition to major junior hockey and his incredible opening season.

O'Brien, selected 8th overall in the 2023 OHL Priority Selection draft from the Toronto Jr. Canadiens U16 AAA program, where he served as captain, leading the JRC's to the GTHL & OHL Cup Championships while leading the OHL Cup in scoring, brought a wealth of skill and character to the Bulldogs but was faced with moving from home and adjusting to a new community. When asked about navigating his first season, O'Brien remarked, "it was good, billeting in a new home for the first time obviously has been a pretty hard transition but the family has been incredible and the guys have been nice and everything, and it's been a smooth transition.".

His standout performance as the leading scorer in the OHL Cup underscores his significant contribution to the Bulldogs' offensive strategy in his rookie season in the OHL. When asked about his opinion on if the OHL Cup helped aided his preparation for OHL play. O'Brien expressed "I would say so a little bit. It was the best competition there was in that age group." He emphasized the value of competition available in that tournament, recognizing it as the top talent within his age group.

Heading into the 2023 OHL Priority Selection Draft, coming off his post-season success, O'Brien knew his name was likely to be called early but wasn't taking anything for granted. Reflecting on being drafted, O'Brien expressed his excitement emphasizing, "I looked forward to that moment my whole life watching it growing up,". On being selected by the Bulldogs O'Brien remarked. "Watching the Oshawa Generals, because I lived in Whitby, ON, I knew how successful the Bulldogs have been and what kind of team they have, it was just a great organization to be picked by, I was really happy to be a Bulldog from the start."

Jake O'Brien's impact on the Bulldogs this season was remarkable from the very beginning. What truly sets O'Brien apart is his intelligence as a playmaker on the ice. O'Brien's ability to locate his teammates all over the ice while seemingly manipulating time & space with the puck on his stick changed the tempo of so many Bulldogs games on the season. His record setting and league leading 51 assists standing as testament to his special playmaking skills. When asked what has been working for him O'Brien responded "(being a) playmaker has been working this season more than a guy that scores goals and that's what I've been trying to play like." "More of a pass-first guy than a shot-first guy," said O'Brien.

On February 28th, 2024, the Bulldogs faced off against the Niagara IceDogs in St. Catharines, with Jake O'Brien poised to break the franchise rookie point record previously held by Arthur Kaliyev. O'Brien entered the game, tied for the record (the tying point an incredible assist on home ice), and wasted no time making his mark. At 4:35 into the first frame, O'Brien was able to battle it over the goal line to score his 10th of the season and 49th point breaking Kaliyev's franchise record and taking "King Arthur's" throne in the Bulldogs history books. Reflecting on the incredible achievement, O'Brien expressed his gratitude for surpassing Kaliyev's milestone, acknowledging Kaliyev's excellence as an NHL player and his own aspirations for success. "It meant a lot to me especially with-it being Arthur Kaliyev's too," O'Brien noted. "He's a great NHL player and scored 50 goals eventually in the OHL. So, it means a lot to me to be able to surpass a player like that in my rookie season, it's really an honour to be in Bulldogs history as a rookie with guys like Kaliyev, Morrison & Winterton and to have that record is something very special.".

O'Brien's stellar performances didn't go unnoticed at the league level through the season, as he was also named OHL Rookie of the Month for December. This recognition served as validation for O'Brien's success in his debut year for the Bulldogs, affirming his progress and setting the tone for the remainder of the season. When questioned about its significance, O'Brien emphasized that it meant a lot to him. He reflected that "it kind of showed me what I have done in that month and showed me that I was in the right direction for the rest of the season off of kind of getting off to a slow start too.".

Prior to being named OHL rookie of the Month for December, O'Brien began hitting his stride on the scoresheet. He delivered an impressive three-point performance on December 28th against the Oshawa Generals in a 5-4 victory, followed by another stellar three-point showing on December 31st against the Erie Otters. He initially began on the wing for the Bulldogs at the start of the season but has since transitioned to centre and thrived in that role. Although it being his first year, O'Brien acknowledged the challenges going up against older & more experienced players every game. However, when looking on his move to the middle of the ice, O'Brien expressed, "I feel like I got a feel for it with faceoffs and everything with more opportunity there. Obviously, it's very hard to win faceoffs against older guys but I feel like I've been getting better with that and getting a feel for center more than I did with wing."

During his first season with the Bulldogs in the OHL, O'Brien has received significant support from his teammates. Despite facing a rocky start through the first few weeks, the Bulldogs stuck to their system, which included elevating the gifted rookie, putting him in spots to learn from the veteran core. Captain Lawson Sherk played a pivotal role in being a leader in steering the team through its early obstacles. O'Brien emphasized how Sherk's leadership as captain made such a difference in the locker room when the Bulldogs were experiencing early troubles. Sherk reflected on his experience, sharing the mentality that drove the Bulldogs in 2022 to the OHL Championship. O'Brien remarked on how "he's also an over ager in the league and he's been in the league for a while and has won a Championship, so he definitely stepped up in a big way.". Internalizing Sherk's experience really helped O'Brien drive himself forward as the season went along

Additionally, when asking O'Brien if any teammates played a particularly influential role in guiding him through his first year, O'Brien credited his billet brother's Florian Xhekaj and Nick Lardis. Both Xhekaj and Lardis have a couple years of experience playing in the OHL and it has been rubbing off on the younger O'Brien.

Not only does he have support from Bulldogs teammates, but he also has family ties within the sport of hockey. The son of former Team Canada star Amy Turek, in both ice and inline hockey, Jake also got to put on the maple leaf sweater, for the 2023 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge just like his mother did, accomplishing one of the rarest Hockey Canada family doubles. Not only was his mom an elite hockey player she was named MVP for the Wilfred Laurier Women's hockey team twice and was inducted into Wilfred Laurier Sports Hall of Fame in 2003. Jake's dad, Dan O'Brien, also played collegiate & pro hockey himself with Clarkson University & the Nashville Nights. In asking O'Brien how it felt putting on the maple leaf knowing his mom has also done it, he remarked it as a surreal experience. "Growing up watching her, I was just really happy with it, and I was lucky enough to get picked and now for the rest of my life have that connection with my mom that we both got to represent Canada.".

O'Brien's impact extends beyond the ice, as he was named as the East Division Academic Player of the Month for January and excelled in the Community being a fixture at events and school visits, showing his commitment to being a positive influence both on and off the ice.

The Brantford Bulldogs are so extremely proud of what Jake O'Brien has already accomplished in his first season and in being named the Emms Family Award winner as OHL Rookie of the Year and look forward to what comes next in his very bright career!

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