Minnesota-Duluth’s Connolly born for the role he’s in

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories profiling some of the likely finalists for the 2012 Hobey Baker Award.

Mention Minnesota-Duluth forward Jack Connolly’s name to those who know him best and terms such as character, work ethic, leader, skilled and vision roll off their tongues with the ease and certainty of a Connolly pass reaching its intended target.

But above all, the most accurate characterization of the two-time (so far) All-American, and likely two-time Hobey Baker Award finalist as college hockey’s premier performer, is simply this: winner.

The most recent case in point was at the end of last season when Connolly scored the game-winning goal to beat Notre Dame in the national semifinals in helping to lead his hometown Bulldogs to their first Frozen Four title in St. Paul, Minn.

“I bought him a Bulldogs jersey when he was probably 5 years old,” Connolly’s father, Mark, said proudly. “And to now be captain of [his] hometown team and to be a member of the team’s first national championship ever, it’s been very surreal watching it happen.”

Though the title game stage may have been grander than ever, Connolly has spent nearly his entire hockey-playing life performing under the brightest of lights.

“I’ve been in those situations before,” said Connolly, who, from the time he was a peewee youth hockey player in Duluth, has made competing for championships an almost annual occurrence. “Obviously, there’s a little added pressure but it’s definitely a fun atmosphere to be in playing for a championship.”

“[Jack has] been very fortunate that, really at every level that he played, [his coaches] have let him be the player that he was becoming by having the puck on his stick all the time. Nobody ever asked him to dump and chase the puck or play a different style of hockey.”

— Mark Connolly, on his son, Jack

Winning championships runs in the family. Connolly’s only sibling, older brother Chris, won an NCAA title as a freshman at Boston University. Now in his second season captaining the Terriers, Chris Connolly, who, like his kid brother wears No. 12, scored the game’s first goal and assisted on the winner in BU’s 4-3 overtime win over Miami in the 2009 title game.

Despite the obvious propensity for success, it wasn’t necessarily a given early on that the Connolly brothers would take up the sport.

Baby steps

Established in 1963, the Duluth Amateur Hockey Association consists of 11 neighborhood rink associations with menacing names like Congdon, Portman, Woodland, Glen Avon, and Piedmont, where its youngest players still play their games outdoors up through the squirt age level.

Built into a steep hillside along the north shore of Lake Superior at the western most point of the Great Lakes, the port city of Duluth offers elevation changes exceeding 800 feet within its city limits. The fact that the Connollys cut their teeth playing for Duluth Heights offers a sense as to where in the local hockey topography they most often could be found.

But Connolly said his parents Mark and Judy Connolly were not active participants in athletics growing up and received a little outside influence in nudging their sons into hockey.

“Obviously, growing up in northern Minnesota, hockey was pretty popular and it was actually friends of my parents that kind of got us into the game,” said Connolly. “They taught me how to skate at about age 3 and I kind of took a liking to it and I wound up getting into hockey at age 4 and I loved every minute of it.”

It didn’t take long, however, for mom and dad to become hooked on the game for which their sons were developing a passion and they, too, became involved in the association.

“My dad actually grew to know quite a bit about the game,” said Connolly. “He coached a couple of my youth teams with a couple of his friends.”

Mark Connolly said his boys were true Minnesota rink rats in every sense of the term.

“Whether it was Christmas Eve, Christmas morning, or New Year’s Eve, they were outside skating all the time,” Mark Connolly said of his sons. “I think they could have been players 40 or 50 years ago because they just love to play hockey, even if it was just the two of them going down to an outdoor rink.”

Jack spent those countless hours outdoors honing the puck skills and rink sense for which he has since become famous, and his youth teams reaped the benefits.

Connolly’s teams qualified for state tournaments all four of his peewee and bantam years, winning the state title in his second year of peewees and finishing runner-up in his second year of bantams.

Jack’s father said much of credit for the success his sons have experienced at every level of play, but particularly at the youth level, has to be given to what he refers to as wonderful coaching, which he said taught them a love of playing the game.

“[Jack has] been very fortunate that, really at every level that he played, [his coaches] have let him be the player that he was becoming by having the puck on his stick all the time,” said Mark. “Nobody ever asked him to dump and chase the puck or play a different style of hockey.”

Putting Marshall on the map

When Connolly stepped on the ice for the first time as a sophomore for the aptly-named Hilltoppers of Duluth Marshall High School he embarked upon what he deems to be an especially unforgettable season.

“My sophomore year was a memorable year just because my brother was a senior and it was the first time that I had gotten actually to play with him on a team,” Connolly said of Chris. “Just going through that entire year with my brother on the team was definitely a special moment for me.”

The Connollys joined forces in 2004-05 to lead Marshall to its second state tournament appearance and a third-place finish in their one and only season together. Jack followed that up by leading the Hilltoppers to a runner-up finish as a junior, a feat he duplicated as a senior captain in 2006-07 when he registered 37 goals and 40 assists in 31 games.

“He is the most skilled hockey player I’ve coached at Marshall and just a great character person,” said Brendan Flaherty, who coached both Connollys at Marshall and remains at the helm of the Hilltoppers. “He was ahead of his time for a high school hockey player.”

The admiration between high school coach and his best player is mutual.

“[Flaherty] just kind of let me still have fun with the game and try to be creative and let me play to my strengths,” said Connolly.

Not only did Connolly find success on the ice in high school, he also captained Marshall’s boys soccer team, which advanced to the state tournament in his final season.

After the conclusion of his senior season of hockey, Connolly received an honor he had coveted almost as long as he had been playing the game. Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin extended him an offer to play at college hockey’s highest level just a few hundred feet closer to sea level from his home.

Despite his dream of playing for the Bulldogs coming to fruition, his jubilance was tempered to a degree when his thoughts turned toward his primary influences as a player.

A critical role model

Chris Connolly graduated from Marshall and left Duluth to chase his own dream of playing Division I hockey by playing for the Fargo-Moorhead Jets of the NAHL. After 37 goals and 135 points in 118 games over two seasons for the Jets, the elder Connolly brother was seemingly no closer to realizing his goal.

“[Chris] was ready to actually just go and maybe play D-III somewhere or just go to school,” said Connolly, who, according to Sandelin’s plan, was set to spend two years in the USHL with the Sioux Falls Stampede, which had drafted him in the first round (No. 7 overall) in the USHL entry draft.

But Jack said the Omaha Lancers caught wind that Chris was contemplating returning to juniors for a third season and selected him in the USHL draft.

“He went out to Omaha and had a great year for them and right off the bat he wound up getting a scholarship to Boston University,” said Connolly. “Just to see the adversity that he’s gone through and how hard he’s worked to get to where he is right now, I definitely admire that and he’s been a big influence on my hockey career.”

Despite his tremendous skill set, questions about his size followed the 5-foot-8 Jack Connolly wherever he went, constantly leaving him something to prove. Even his most ardent supporters were realistic about it.

“We felt he was a Division I hockey player for sure but would have to pay his dues and get a break because of his size,” said Flaherty. “He actually had tremendous success at Sioux Falls in his year of juniors and it was at that time that everyone started to truly believe.”

Tremendous success indeed. Connolly’s 72 points (26-46–72) in his lone USHL season was cause for Sandelin to accelerate his timetable for Connolly’s arrival on UMD’s campus by a year.

“I think I grew as a hockey player a lot in that year of hockey and it helped me a lot to come into college and be ready,” Connolly said of his USHL experience. “I feel like that year was definitely big for me, not only as a hockey player but as a person, just to kind of get away from home for a little bit.”

Big man on campus

Over the course of the past four seasons, in addition to the All-American and Hobey Baker finalist honors previously mentioned, Jack Connolly has played in every game his team has played (163), heads into the WCHA Final Five on pace for 200 career points (64-129–193), became the first three-time All-WCHA first team selection in Bulldogs history, eclipsed the 50-point mark in both his junior (59) and senior (56 and counting) seasons and was recently named WCHA player of the year for 2011-12.

That list of achievement has established Connolly as a genuine UMD icon to be included among the likes of Bill Watson, Tom Kurvers, Chris Marinucci, Junior Lessard and Brett Hull. The undeniable reality of it is quite humbling to the one-time chair-hugging skater out of Duluth Heights.

“It’s a historic program with a lot of history, a lot of tradition and some of the players who have come through UMD have been phenomenal,” said Connolly. “There’s some big names that have played at this program and to have my name mentioned with that group of people is incredible.”

But Connolly was able to accomplish what none of the others could in raising a national championship banner in UMD’s home arena.

Despite all of the accolades, however, Jack’s teammates insist his demeanor has remained constant throughout his four years.

“He’s the same funny guy that came in freshman year that he is now,” said fellow senior Travis Oleksuk. “His head is still the same size it was in his freshman year. Personally, he hasn’t changed at all.”

Now entering his final weeks as a Bulldogs player, Connolly will leave a legacy of excellence in his wake as an athlete, a student and a person, a legacy that may never be duplicated.

“He’s a first-class person and I think his hockey skills speak for themselves,” said Oleksuk. “Everyone knows how good he is when he’s on the ice and, besides that, he’s a great teammate and a great person.”

Connolly’s contributions to his team and his community have him as one of 10 finalists for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS (Celebrating Loyalty and Achievement for Staying in School) Award. The award celebrates the loyalty of seniors that honor a four-year commitment to their university and recognizes them for their accomplishments in their sport and their community while remaining in school.

On the award’s website, Sandelin said Connolly, “is the ultimate ‘character kid’ — the kind of person you’d love your son to grow up to be like. You just never hear anyone say a bad thing about him.”

And the winner is …

When the top 10 Hobey Baker Award candidates for 2012 are announced on Thursday, Jack Connolly’s name will assuredly be among them, and he seems likely to be one of the three remaining finalists revealed on March 29.

At that point the result will be anyone’s guess but a certain Minnesota high school coach leaves no doubt who would receive his vote and why.

“I felt [Jack] helped lead his team to a national title last year and the other [potential] finalists can’t say that,” said Flaherty. “Jack has had success at every level he’s played.

“UMD’s going to incur a huge loss when they lose Jack Connolly.”

While the prestige of the Hobey Baker Award is anything but lost on Mark Connolly and he believes his son to be a very deserving candidate, he said he thinks Jack struggles with the individual attention within the concept of a team sport.

“I think he’s flattered and honored that his name would even be considered amongst prospective front-runners,” said Mark. “But, at the same time, he knows it’s a team sport and he knows that he’s been fortunate to play in a good program for a good coaching staff and fortunate to play with a lot of good hockey players, too.”

As true as that statement is, Connolly willingly admitted that winning college hockey’s highest individual honor would be special.

“If the [Hobey Baker Award] were to fall in my hands, it would be unbelievable; it would pretty much be a dream come true,” said Jack. “I’d probably have to take a step back and just kind of put it in perspective and just got to realize what and accomplishment it would be.

“I would definitely have a ‘pat on the back’ moment for sure.”

As Connolly reflected on his college career, he spoke only of the blessings the experience has provided him.

“I decided on a great program with a great coaching staff and they’ve given me every opportunity to succeed,” Connolly said. “I’ve had great teammates and great guys to be around every single day so I think the whole experience has been unbelievable for me and it’s definitely a little sad to see it coming to an end here soon.”

Spoken like a winner.