Quinn Connally was 12 years old. In another week, he’d turn 13. Brown hair. Brown eyes. Big. Very big. Not yet 13, he already stood at 5-11 and weighed 140 pounds. He had enormous hands. He wore a size 12 shoe.
“Your basic All-American kid,” says his father, Stephen Connally. “He was a sports fanatic. He’d get up in the morning and watch SportsCenter. If I didn’t wake him up, he’d be mad. He’d recite you anybody’s statistics.”
But one sport stood head and shoulders above the rest.
“Hockey was the passion,” says Connally. “I had all sorts of puck marks and tennis ball marks all over the front of my house from him shooting and throwing. We’re on a small side street and before school, he’d go out and stickhandle every morning.”
All that ended on Dec. 4 when a puck struck Quinn in the back of the neck and ended a life that had seemingly just started.
There’s no making sense of this tragedy any more than sense can be made of those youngsters who die riding in automobiles or on bicycles. Sometimes horrible things happen to good people. And those horrible things become even more unbearable when their victims are young. We can wonder why, like the Biblical Job, and come up empty.
However, this much we know: Quinn Connally died doing what he loved the most.
“I brought him up to a rink when he was five,” says Stephen Connally, who played Division III hockey at the now-defunct Nathaniel Hawthorne College. “My thoughts then were that if he didn’t want to come back, that’s fine. That was a Saturday morning practice.
“Sunday morning at about 5:30, he was jumping on the bed, ‘When do we go [next]? When do we go?’ Unfortunately, they only met once a week then.
“I always told him, ‘The day you tell me that you don’t want to go to a practice is the day that we don’t have to go anymore.’ It was never an issue. Any time there was ice, we were there.”
Quinn soon learned to use his size to good advantage and in the early years acted as an offensive defenseman.
“He was a lot bigger and a lot stronger than a lot of the kids, so at that point he rushed the puck quite a bit,” says Connally. “But as he moved up the different levels, the speed of the game was something he had to start coping with.
“He was just starting to really grow into his body, so he was probably one of the slower kids on the ice. He had to think a lot to try to compensate for the speed. He [became] a stay-at-home defenseman.”
Two Detroit Red Wings were favorites. In a sad irony, one of them was Vladimir Konstantinov, who was nearly killed in a limousine accident after a Stanley Cup party three years ago. He remains in a wheelchair, still undergoing physical, mental and speech therapy.
The other favorite was Darren McCarty, because, according to Quinn, “he never stops working.”
Which was an approach Quinn had to adopt to his schoolwork. Stephen and Ann Connally had one significant rule for their son. Even though Quinn was dyslexic, he had to achieve at least a B average in school to play hockey.
“He struggled immensely with reading, but somehow he carried the B average,” says Stephen Connally. “We still don’t know how he did it because [in the seventh grade] he probably read at only about a fourth-grade level. He somehow had to figure out how to get the work done and he did.”
A year ago, Quinn’s hockey development took a broadside. His elite team, the Mass-Conn Braves — so named because its base in Springfield, Mass. draws players from both states — was coming off a trip to the Massachusetts state finals. After the tryouts, Quinn learned that he’d been cut.
The twice-a-week Braves practices at the Springfield Olympia had been long commutes — a two-and-a-half hour round trip from the Connally’s Cheshire home — as had been the two games on the weekend. But spending over 10 hours a week in travel time alone had been a price willingly paid for Quinn’s love of hockey.
“We were pretty much always the first ones to the rink,” says Connally. “As soon as I walked in the door [at home], the first question was, ‘When do we go? We’re late. We’re late.'”
Disappointed at not making the high-octane Braves, Quinn returned to town hockey in neighboring Pittsfield. What the move added in convenience, however, it subtracted in the level of play.
“This is nothing to knock the program in Pittsfield because they do have a pretty good program,” says Connally. “But Quinn decided about five weeks into the season that where he was wasn’t going to get him where he wanted to be. So he asked me to make some phone calls.”
Connally hooked up with Graham Gal, who ran the Team UMass program at Quinn’s age level. Team UMass played at a level comparable to the Mass-Conn Braves or the Springfield Jr. Pics. Gal added Quinn as an alternate, returning the boy to elite-level hockey even if just for practices and two or three games.
“He was a good kid,” says Gal. “I liked him. When he got a chance to play, he played all out.”
After a season of dues-paying practices with Team UMass, Quinn got his wish and made this year’s Mass-Conn Braves team.
“He was bouncing off the walls,” says Connally. “Bouncing off the walls. We went down to the meeting and he got a [Braves] coat. You just couldn’t wipe the smile off his face.”
Having experienced little game action over the past year, Quinn got off to a slow start.
“He wasn’t in as good shape as some of the guys and he wasn’t as fast as some of the guys, so he got a little discouraged at the beginning,” says Connally. “But the team, the Pee Wee Major team, just brought him in and made him part of the gang. He was really starting to pick up.”
Over the Thanksgiving weekend, the Braves played six games in three days and won the Springfield Pics Fall Classic Tournament. The outlook appeared promising.
Although Ann Connally performed some of the two-and-a-half hour round-trip commutes to practice, it was Stephen Connally who drove Quinn to practice on the night of Dec. 4.
“I saw the whole thing,” says Connally and the sense of pain in his voice becomes even more pronounced. “They were doing two-on-twos. The puck came over to the guy he was covering and Quinn went down to block the shot. He was laying on the ice and something happened — he rolled or something — and caught it in the back of the head [just below the helmet.]”
The puck instantly crushed the two carotid arteries that supply blood to the brain. Had Quinn not rolled and instead caught it in front in the throat, the injury might well have been severe, but not fatal. There are emergency procedures for a crushed trachea that do not exist for similarly damaged carotid arteries.
The injury would not have been prevented by any of the throat guards that are currently available and once sustained was irreversible.
“We were told by the neurosurgeons that if it had happened in the hospital lobby, they couldn’t have done anything,” says Connally. “They called it a devastating injury. There was really nothing [they could do.]
“[When the puck hit Quinn,] he was knocked out completely. He never moved. He never screamed out. He never grabbed for anything. He was just out immediately.”
It was every parent’s nightmare.
So hauntingly, cruelly improbable.
“Who would think that a shot at a Pee Wee level could kill a kid?” says Gal.
But also so heartbreakingly real. So devastating.
“The outpouring from the hockey community has been just unbelievable, completely unbelievable,” says Connally. “We still get letters and cards every day from different organizations. Their support has been tremendous. That has helped me a lot.”
The family donated Quinn’s organs so that his death would at least be the source of someone else’s life.
“It was definitely the right decision,” says Connally. “There’s no question about it. He was a very strong young man with very vital organs. He never had any disease or anything like that.
“There’s always going to be a recipient. Something like only 60 percent of people donate organs in this country. I just read an article that was out of the Boston Globe [that said that] Scandinavia is almost at 100 percent as far as donations go with people in that situation.
“Sixty percent is not good enough. Another five or 10 percent and there are going to be that many more people [that might live.]”
The Connallys have one other child, an 11-year-old daughter, Tessa, who was a regular at Quinn’s games. This year, she’ll pay tribute to him during a couple Mass-Conn Braves contests.
“She’s going to sit on the bench with a helmet on and wear his jersey,” says Connally. He then adds, “She’ll yell at the guys.”
One can only hope that the Connallys will find a source of strength in their need to be there for Tessa. If there is any justice, the pain they feel at the loss of Quinn will be recompensed in some measure by great joy from Tessa.
“Oh we will,” says Stephen Connally. “She’s going to keep us honest.”
Even so, it’s an ongoing struggle.
“We’re trying to cope with about 15 minutes a day,” says Connally. “It just comes in big waves of emotion. Any little thing that you see, all of a sudden reminds you of something. The last this or the last that.
“Just 15 minutes at a time. That’s about all you can do.”
Stephen and Ann Connally have established a fund for kids who need financial help to play hockey. Donations may be sent to the Quinn Connally Memorial Fund, Fleet Bank, 1 Monarch Place, Springfield, MA, and should include Reference Number: MAEHB05068.