To legions of Edina, Minnesota and USA hockey players, coaches and fans, Robert John “Bob” O’Connor was known simply as “O’C,” a walking encyclopedia of hockey knowledge, strategy and techniques.
“He dedicated most of his life to the study of hockey,” said Mike DeVoe, president of the Edina Hockey Association, who was coached by O’Connor as a member of the Edina junior varsity team in the 1970s. “He went to Europe, went to Russia to study the Red Army team, their systems and practices. He was just a wealth of knowledge and a great teacher.”
O’Connor, part of the bedrock of the State of Hockey, died at his Edina home Nov. 12. He was 80.
Born and raised in Providence, R.I., O’Connor was one of nine children, said his son, Mike O’Connor. Hockey became an escape from hardship and tragedy — his mother died when he was 2, a twin brother drowned six years later and a sister died when he was still a boy.
“He was essentially brought up by his brothers and sisters,” Mike O’Connor said.
O’Connor attended LaSalle Academy in Providence, making all-state in hockey in 1953 and 1954, the year LaSalle won the state championship. He was voted the top player in Rhode Island that year. After serving in the Marine Corps, O’Connor attended Providence College, where he played with linemate Lou Lamoriello, the current general manager of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs. While at Providence, O’Connor met a young woman from Duluth who would become his wife. Bob and Alice O’Connor later moved to Edina, where he immersed himself in youth hockey.
From 1969-1978, his teams won state championships at the Midget, Peewee and Squirt levels. He also coached the Edina High School junior varsity for 25 years, posting a record of 423-48-22, and served as a varsity assistant. Over the decades, he ran camps and coached all-star teams and even had a hockey tournament at Edina’s Braemar Arena named after him.
“In our home growing up there was a framed quote that read, ‘We interrupt this marriage for the hockey season,’ ” Mike O’Connor said in delivering his father’s eulogy.
O’Connor worked with USA Hockey as an assistant coach for the 1984 and 1988 USA Olympic hockey teams and later as coach-in-chief. For the past 35 years, he was also a member of the USA Hockey Committee and was named director emeritus for the board of directors. He received the Builders Award, one of USA Hockey’s most prestigious honors, and was recognized in 1990 for his “selfless dedication to hockey at the grass roots level,” his son said.
O’Connor also donated money and materials to fill hockey libraries with instructional videos and other resources used by coaches, Mike O’Connor said. He later coached paralympic and junior national teams and worked as a professional scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres. In 2014, he was honored by the Minnesota Wild for lifetime achievement.
But it was his work with youth — and his distinctive Rhode Island accent — that stood out for many, DeVoe said. DeVoe even credits that accent with making O’Connor a better coach, saying it was so thick that his Minnesota players had to pay close attention to understand him.
In honor of O’Connor, more than 1,300 Edina youth hockey players will sport a green “OC” sticker on their helmets this season.
“More than anybody, he lived and breathed [hockey],” DeVoe said. “He touched more lives than anybody I have ever come across. He was a pretty special guy.”
In addition to his wife and son, O’Connor is survived by another son, Paul O’Connor, and several grandchildren. Services have been held.