Mike O’Brien was one of only two England-trained players (his fellow Hall of Famer Johnny Oxley was the other) to appear in more than a handful of games for Brighton Tigers during the Canadian dominated National League of the 1950s. The cheery forward with soft hands helped the Bengals to the league title in 1957-58 and the 1958 Autumn Cup.
Initially a centreman with a right-hand shot, he later switched to the wing. But wherever the coach put him, his nifty stickhandling and goal potting ability brought him huge success. Combined with his good looks and a steady stream of jokes and anecdotes he was popular with team-mates and fans alike.
Most of his 394 appearances in the black and gold were in the National League era, and his 212 goals are the third highest all-time, behind only Bobby Lee and Lorne Trottier, making him the team’s most prolific non-Canadian goal scorer.
O’B was only three when he and his family moved to Brighton. His lifelong love of the game began with him playing roller hockey on the disused paddling pool above the town’s famous Aquarium. He honed his skills at the Sports Stadium, joining the junior Tiger Cubs at 13 and going on to play with the intermediate Sussex side, where he quickly topped the league scoring.
His professional career kicked off in December 1951 with his most productive campaign coming in 1954-55 when he scored 62 points (38 goals) in 62 games. Memorably, at the end of the 1959-60 season his game-winning goal against Paisley Pirates took Brighton into the final of the league playoffs, which the Tigers went on to win.
After the National League collapsed, Mike stayed on in Brighton, amassing 182 points (97 goals) over two seasons as the Tigers picked up several cups. His performances persuaded the voters to name him to the second All-Star team in 1961 62.
With the GB selectors overlooking his birth place in the Irish Republic, he was capped 15 times for Britain, scoring ten goals, including seven in five games in the 1952 World Championships when GB finished tenth in the world.
After the Sports Stadium was demolished, Mike briefly joined Wembley Lions before returning in spring 1971 with the amateur Sussex Senators. As captain, he led the Brighton-based squad to two successive Southern League titles, despite the team having to play all their games on the road. This performance earned him another All-Star berth in 1971-72. He took over as coach in their third and final year. A class above most of his young opponents, O’B racked up 19 goals and 58 points in two seasons, 1971-73.
“When I was playing the Tigers were bigger than the [Brighton & Hove] Albion,” he recalled. “People would start queuing at 2 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game on a Thursday evening. I had a great time playing and never thought of the fame.”
Brighton was by no means his only ice hockey home. He played 44 games with the second tier Southampton Vikings spread over six seasons, and also turned out for Nottingham Panthers and Altrincham Aces, as well as playing and coaching in Switzerland.
Michael Oliver O’Brien was born in Ennis, County Clare, Ireland on 10 July 1933 and died on 12 February 2021 in Hove, Sussex. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009.