- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2014

In order to facilitate travel for the 66 players invited to training camp in mid-September, Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz gave his team services department a general outline of when specific players would be departing Arlington.

There’s much to coordinate. Though some would be making the trip to Hershey, a two-and-a-half-hour drive under the best of conditions, a good number of those players would be returned to their junior teams in scattershot Canadian cities, and some, even, would be heading back overseas.

Liam O’Brien, Trotz said, “was on an early list.”

A 20-year-old who had spent four seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, O’Brien was even traded to another team in May. He had twice been bypassed in the NHL Entry Draft and twice been returned from a tryout with the Pittsburgh Penguins, only to find himself receiving a third tryout, this time with the Capitals, when development camp opened in July.

Whatever date Trotz had targeted for O’Brien’s potential departure — perhaps after the first week, when 17 players were shipped out — soon came and went. The next wave then went, and then the next wave, and on Tuesday, when the Capitals needed to finalize their initial 23-man roster, O’Brien was still around.

And on Thursday night, there he was, on the ice at Verizon Center, the Capitals‘ fourth-line left wing against the visiting Montreal Canadiens.

“Honestly, sometimes, I’m just like, I don’t know how I’m here, but I worked hard for it, and I know I’ve earned it,” O’Brien said following the Capitals‘ morning skate. “I just want to keep working hard and just try to stay here.”

O’Brien was one of two players making their NHL debuts on Thursday, the other being center Andre Burakovsky. But while O’Brien emerged from virtual obscurity to claim a spot on the roster, Burakovsky came with a much more highly regarded pedigree — a first-round draft pick in 2013 whose future within the organization is considered very bright.

He showed that early Thursday, scoring his first goal 6:43 into the Capitals‘ 2-1 shootout loss. He was the 13th Capitals player to score his first career goal in his first game, and he was the first player to do so since Alex Ovechkin on Oct. 5, 2005.

The Capitals held an open competition for the second-line center role throughout training camp, and Burakovsky beat out a number of teammates, including Marcus Johansson and Evgeny Kuznetsov, for that role.

A left wing by nature, Burakovsky didn’t start centering a line until this past summer, when he started doing so at the Capitals‘ development camp. When he returned to his native Sweden for a little over a month, he continued to play the position, and during the preseason, he was on the ice exclusively as a center and was a top-six forward in four of the six games he played.

The relatively quick transition came as a surprise even to Burakovsky, who didn’t know that it would take but a few months to adjust and play the position at a passable level.

“I just wanted to get a couple games and take it from there, but not this soon,” Burakovsky said. “But I’m real happy with my preseason, my camp and stuff, and that’s probably why I’m here today.”

Both Burakovsky and O’Brien admitted to having a sleepless night Wednesday into Thursday, knowing that they were about to begin a day they had dreamed of since they were younger.

Their excitement, they believed, paled in comparison to that of their parents, all of whom were at Verizon Center. Robert and Pernilla Burakovsky flew in from Sweden, while Shawn and Susan O’Brien made the jaunt south from Halifax, Nova Scotia.

“This is a pretty special moment — not only for them personally, but for their families and all of the people who made the sacrifices for them to be in a position where they’re good players,” Trotz said. “Someone had to take them to the rink early in the mornings. All the travel, all the expenses, all those things that parents have to do to get their young people to play the game that they love, so I think it’s a special moment for both families and for the players.”

O’Brien, who spent five years living in Montreal as a child, did not grow up a fan of any particular team, including the Canadiens. But considering the circumstance, he spent 10 minutes Thursday morning telling his story to Francophone reporters, breaking out the French he had polished during his time staying with host families while playing for his junior teams.

Though it seemed apparent he had at least played himself into a roster spot in Hershey, he didn’t sign a standard two-way, three-year, entry-level contract with the Capitals until Monday.

“Before that, I had no idea that I’d be on the opening roster,” O’Brien said. “I thought maybe there was a chance because of injuries, but when I found out two days ago, it was a complete surprise.”

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