The first game in a new league can be intimidating for a young player. This may have been the case for Kyle Connor
when he suited up for the NCAA’s University of Michigan in early October.
His performance didn’t show it.
The Winnipeg Jets 17th overall selection in the 2015 NHL Draft scored twice and added an assist in a win over Mercyhurst. Those three points were the most by a Michigan freshman since 2001. He followed that up by scoring the game-winning goal the very next night.
Four points in two games gave Connor recognition as the first star in the Big 10 conference’s weekly awards.
“It was a big honour. For me coming into my first week, there were a lot of nerves,” said the 18-year-old forward. “Once the puck dropped, and the game started to get going, it was just playing hockey again. It was a fun weekend.”
Connor is used to putting points on the board. In 2014-2015 with the Youngstown Phantoms of the USHL, he potted 34 goals and 80 points in 56 games. That broke the record of 74 points, set the previous year by... Kyle Connor.
“I think the USHL definitely prepared me for this league,” said Connor. “Every night is a tough game in the USHL and you have to bring it every night. It’s the exact same thing here in the NCAA.”
He gives credit to Michigan’s head coach, Red Berenson, for helping him stay calm before the opening game of his NCAA career. Berenson has been with the Michigan program for over 30 years.
“He just said play your game. Use your speed, that’s one of your best assets and work hard out there,” Connor said. “Just pay attention to detail and you’ll be fine.”
But Connor doesn’t want to settle for “fine.” He’s taking advantage of everything at his disposal on campus. The team practices daily, and lifts weights twice a week. Since his classes don’t start until 10 a.m. on Tuesday mornings, he takes advantage of some extra ice time, bright and early on those days.
It’s that type of work ethic that produces the game Winnipeg Jets General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff saw live last season.
“I had the fortune of being able to see him play a couple times myself. He’s a big guy, sees the ice very well; can do a lot of things with the puck, and make plays,” said Cheveldayoff. “(He) can drive down the wall and score some goals, but he’s got great speed. The tempo of his game is at a high level… The way he plays the game with his speed and his skill set, is going to fit in nicely with us.”
After selecting Connor at the NHL Draft, Cheveldayoff said that like most young players, Connor will need to grow into his body before reaching the NHL. Connor hasn’t wasted any time working on just that.
“For me what’s helping a lot is the weight program. We have access to it pretty much every single day. I get in the weight room and try to put on extra weight and just get stronger,” said Connor, who is listed at 6’1”, 175 lbs. “On the ice I’m working on shooting the puck, the defensive zone, and paying attention to detail.”
The other half of playing in the NCAA is fulfilling academic requirements. Connor is taking classes in sports culture, English, and communications, with a goal of pursuing further education in sports management.
“It’s been going good. There is a lot of help here if you need it from the academic side,” said Connor of the services offered to athletes and students. “If you’re struggling with any classes, there’s a lot of resources. It’s been great. On the ice, some great facilities here, so there is a lot of opportunity to grow as a player.”
If Connor needs inspiration, he said he only has to look at former Michigan athletes, and current Winnipeg Jets, Jacob Trouba and Andrew Copp.
“(Copp) was the captain here last year. He left a big impact on the program,” said Connor. “Trouba as well. They’re both huge players here.”
Later on in the NCAA’s Big 10 conference schedule, Connor will face off with another Jets prospect and 2015 draft pick, Mason Appleton, who plays for Michigan State.
“I think all those guys from the draft, I got pretty close to them at the first camp. I try to keep in touch with all of them,” said Connor. “For me, I try to focus on what we’re doing here and take a look at what they accomplish as well.”