This is someone who spent his childhood in Prince George, B.C., where it was so cold in the winter that his backyard outdoor rink used to freeze over in what seemed like seconds.
“[Where] I grew up, it was so cold -- kind of like the winter we had in Boston last winter -- that [my dad] could flood [the rink], and five minutes later, it would be [frozen],” Connolly said during BostonBruins.com’s #BearTracks visit to Toronto, where he makes his offseason home.
But when Connolly was a kid, he didn’t consider the cold to be a bad thing. In fact, the colder, the better. The longer it stayed cold, the longer the backyard rink could flourish, and the more time he could spend out on the ice with his buddies.
“Growing up in Canada, obviously, everybody loves hockey so much, and it’s kind of a religion and culture,” Connolly said. “It’s kind of what everybody does.
“Every winter, my dad would make [that] rink in our backyard, and he would be out there every morning, shoveling it off and flooding it. It was a lot of hard work for him to do that, and me and my brother would spend hours and hours out there playing.”
That rink is where Connolly’s NHL dreams were born.
“When you’re younger, you’re watching and you’re dreaming,” he said. “When you look back, that’s kind of when hockey is a lot of fun. For me, I played because I loved the game and it kind of got me to where I am today. So there’s a lot of good childhood memories there.”
The ritual was the same every winter. As soon as it got cold enough, the plastic would go down in the backyard, and the boards – “I didn’t have big boards; just little, tiny boards,” Connolly said – would go up.
And from there on in, Connolly would practice, practice, practice. The backyard is where the former first-round draft pick honed his craft, and it is what helped him evolve into the NHL player he is today.
Sometimes -- when he thinks back on being a young kid shooting a puck in his backyard – it is hard to believe how far he has come.
“When you’re a kid, you just kind of do what you love,” Connolly said. “Me and my little brother would be out there all the time playing on the backyard rink and kind of just envisioning, you know, moments. You watch the NHL all the time, and you kind of dream when you’re a kid.
“I never would’ve thought that I would’ve made it to the NHL; I just loved the game and kept playing right up until Junior, and I was drafted playing Junior, and then, you know, we have a couple good seasons, and then you think, well, OK, maybe this is possible.
“But you really just do it because you love to play.”
Now, look at where he is. Now, Connolly is a Boston Bruin. He is hoping to be a key component of an Original Six team that plans on making life difficult for the rest of the Eastern Conference in 2015-16.
Back then, Connolly was a kid who idolized Rick Nash. Now, he’s someone who regularly laces up the skates against Nash on the ice.
“When he was in Columbus, I was kind of going into Junior,” Connolly recalled. “He was a guy who was scoring a lot of goals, and a guy that I liked watching and admired the way he played.”
Aside from his NHL idols, Connolly is grateful for the coaches that helped him become the player he is today, dating all the way back to the coaches he had in pee-wee and Bantam. They helped him long ago, but they played a big part in molding him into the fast, skilled player he has become.
“There were a couple guys that I still keep in contact with today who coached when I was younger and pushed me to be a better player and a better person,” he said. “[They] pushed me to work hard, and just would always work with me and believe in what I can do, and knew that I had a talent.”
As Connolly talked to BostonBruins.com in a park hidden behind a school in downtown Toronto, a couple of young hockey fans who were kicking around a soccer ball on an adjoining field slowly approached. They began listening to what Connolly had to say. Eventually, they asked him for a picture, and then kicked around a soccer ball with him for a while.
Connolly used to be one of those kids. During summers, he even used to be a soccer player, just like them. Now, he is somebody those kids look up to, and that is not something he takes for granted.
He vividly remembers what it was like to be one of those kids, and now, he is intent on making those kids proud.
“For me, I just played the game; I loved the game,” he said. “I was always practicing. I was always working on things, and I was always playing, and I think my advice would just be: Any time you have a chance to go and get better and play with your buddies when you’re younger, those are the fun times.
“Those are kind of the times when you can improve on things, and I would just say whenever you get a chance to play, just go play.”