|Brett Connolly: The 'C' will stand for Captain Consistent. (Photo courtesy DubNation)|
By GREGG DRINNAN
In his role as a head coach, Dean Clark has stood behind a bench for 778 regular-season WHL games.
Yes, he has seen some good players seated in front of him. . . . Pavel Brendl, Jordin Tootoo, Ryan Craig, Brad Moran, Matt Kinch, Brad Stuart . . .
Brett Connolly, he says, is among the best of them.
“When he wants to play, he’s right there,” says Clark, who is in his second season as head coach of the Prince George Cougars.
Connolly, 18, is aware of the “when he wants to be” and is working to change it.
“I’m trying to be more consistent,” he says. “I put it on myself to play well every night and to put in a good showing every night. I’ve tried to prepare better for games and get ready a little better.”
It shows, too, as he has put up 16 points in the season’s first 10 games.
But — and let’s be honest here — we have to cut the guy some slack, at least this early in the season.
After all, a year ago Connolly was a troubled hockey player. Coming off a season in which he was named the CHL’s top rookie and preparing for his draft year, Connolly suffered a hip injury while playing for Canada at a tournament in Europe. In the end, he would play in only 16 games last season. Yes, he put up 19 points, including 10 goals, in those games, but he just wasn’t the same player.
Hockey players, like all athletes, are nothing if not creatures of habit, especially in season. Practise, play, practice, play. Take away that routine and they are easily frustrated.
“It was tough,” Connolly says. “I spent a lot of time at the rink just because I missed it. There wasn’t really much I could do. There was a lot of sitting around and waiting, a bunch of physio and all that.
“I tried to be at the rink as much as I could and be with the guys. When they were practising I’d be at the rink all the time. I tried to get them to let me go on most of the road trips but it was hard. I missed being around the guys, for sure.”
Making things that much harder is that he is from Prince George. Yes, the hometown kid was the best player on the local team. His face, then, is recognizable . . . everyone knows Brett Connolly.
“Yeah, it was . . . it was tough,” he says. “Playing in Prince George and living in Prince George, people want the team to do well. It was (hard on me). There was a lot of pressure for me to come back and try to help the team and try to get some wins. It was a hard year. Everywhere I went, people were asking.
“It was tough, for sure.”
The Cougars, of course, suffered through an abysmal season, finishing with the poorest record in all of the 60-team CHL.
Things began to turn around for Connolly at the NHL draft in Los Angeles. Months of doubt came to an end when Steve Yzerman, in one of his first decisions as the new general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, used the sixth pick of the first round to select Connolly.
“Sitting at the draft, I was kind of . . . I wasn’t hoping . . . but I knew it would be cool if I did get picked by him,” says the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Connolly. “When I was younger I grew up watching him play and I admired the way he played. To be his first pick is pretty cool.
“He’s a really good mentor for me and has been really good to me since I’ve been there. It was a great feeling, for sure.”
There has been comfort, too, in the fact that left-winger Dana Tyrell is with the Lightning. He and Connolly were linemates two seasons ago, before Tyrell went down with a knee injury. Connolly finished with 60 points, 30 of them goals, in 65 games. Tyrell, who suffered a knee injury while playing with Canada’s national junior team, totalled 40 points in just 30 games.
“We grew a close bond in Prince George,” Connolly says. “We picked it right up (in training camp) where it left off. We keep in touch probably once a week. He’ll fire me the odd text here and there.”
These days, the hip problems are “100 per cent” behind him, he says, adding that “it’s a good thing that it is behind me.”
He just makes sure that he is “loose and stretched” before going on the ice for practices or games.
And now, as the Cougars’ captain, his focus all is on team.
“There’s a lot of responsibility having that,” he says of wearing the ‘C’ on his jersey. “For me, I know I can’t take nights off. Guys on our team are looking up to me. When I’m playing the way Clark wants us to play then they’ll follow. For me, I just have to lead by example and play hard every night.”
While the season is early, there are signs that approach is paying off.
The Cougars posted a 5-2 victory over the visiting Prince Albert Raiders on Friday night and then went into Kamloops the next night and whipped the Blazers, 8-1, with Connolly scoring twice and adding an assist. That was the Cougars’ fifth victory of the season. This is a team that finished 2009-10 with a 12-56-1-3 record — that’s right, it lost 60 games — and didn’t get its fifth victory until Dec. 4 in Game No. 28.
Not only that, but the Cougars just came off a Central Division swing in which they went 2-1-1-0. And the victory in Kamloops improved their road record to 4-2-1-0. Last season, they finished 4-28-1-3 away from home.
“We have guys who played here last season and they know what we went through,” Connolly says. “The guys we just got have been a big help. Guys are more desperate this season. They want to have (more success) and it’s showing with how we’re playing.
“Guys are playing desperate hockey and they want to win and they’ll do anything for each other.”
Connolly added that the Cougars have made some “key acquisitions in the last couple of weeks,” guys like defenceman Sena Acolatse and centre Charles Inglis, both of whom were acquired from the Saskatoon Blades, and left-winger Taylor Stefishen, who fell out of the sky after being dropped from the Ohio State Buckeyes’ roster. And let’s not forget defenceman Martin Marincin, the Slovakian whose NHL rights belong to the Edmonton Oilers and who seems to get better each time out.
For Connolly, Stefishen, who has seven points, six of them assists, in six games, has been especially important. They are linemates — with veteran James Dobrowolski in the middle.
“Getting a guy like Stefishen has been good for me,” Connolly says. “He’s a player I’ve needed. He’s gritty. He’s fast. He can pass the puck. He’s been a great help since he’s been here.
“We lucked out, for sure. It was good that we didn’t trade his rights in the last few years.”
Just like they’re lucky that Connolly’s problems, hopefully, all are behind him.
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