Still at the ripe age of 19, Brett Connolly’s memories of collecting hockey cards as a kid are as clear as the panels of glass surrounding the ice rinks from where he would stand and watch his favorite players perform.
As a kid growing up in Campbell River, British Columbia, he idolized NHL greats Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman, now his general manager with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“Guys like that, and Mario Lemieux, they were the cream of the crop,” Connolly said. “It was always fun to open up a pack of cards and see if you got your favorite player.”
On Monday, while attending the NHL Players’ Association’s Rookie Showcase with fellow Lightning prospect Carter Ashton, Connolly didn’t hesitate to peel back the packaging to find another memorable card to add to his collection: his own.
For many, it was the start of what looks to be a special year for some of the NHL’s top up and coming hopefuls.
Twenty-seven promising prospects gathered earlier this week in Toronto for the NHLPA’s annual marquee event, a two-day function that sees them pose for photos used on Panini and Upper Deck trading cards and allows them to autograph other merchandise that will be sold during their rookie season. The young players also had the unique opportunity to don their official NHL team uniforms for the first time in shots that will be used for upcoming trading card and memorabilia launches.
“Overall it was a really cool experience,” Connolly added. “It was a little weird seeing my own trading card at first, but to have one that indicates your first year as a pro is definitely a great feeling and it’s something I will never forget.”
Joining Connolly and Ashton at the symposium were other highly-touted prospects belonging to the other 29 NHL clubs, including some projected to be the top young players in the world. Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, selected by the Oilers with the first overall selection at this past summer’s draft, along with the five players chosen behind him were all invited, as were a handful of other blue-chip prospects who might be ready to make the leap to the NHL this year including Montreal’s Aaron Palushaj and Detroit defenseman Brendan Smith.
“It was a fun way to get accustomed to what NHL life is like,” Ashton said. “To go through the motions of the photo shoots and signing autographs was a little different than what I’m used to, but it was a neat first experience.”
While there was plenty to fill an entire day’s schedule, and even more to do once the event wrapped up on Tuesday – the prospects will now move on to rookie tournaments and training camps with their NHL teams – the trip wasn’t all about business.
On Monday, the prospects scrimmaged against one another in a friendly contest using only half a sheet of ice before players had an exclusive opportunity to sit down with EA Sports for a private, one-on-one sneak peek at the “NHL 12” video game, which features Tampa Bay star forward Steven Stamkos on the front cover. From there, in what seemed like a brief and rare shift away from hockey, the players attended a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and hometown Blue Jays at Rogers Centre.
Although just beginning to emerge onto the local sports scene, Connolly and Ashton were no strangers among other local Tampa sports personalities. Both had the pleasure of posing for pictures with Rays skipper Joe Maddon and also got to meet many of the Rays’ players. The pair also enjoyed taking a tour of the visiting clubhouse and watching the team take pre-game batting practice before catching all nine innings from their seats. Afterwards, Maddon personally gave the pair of Bolts prospects their own Rays baseball caps to have as commemorative keepsakes of their visit.
“Ash and I enjoyed ourselves,” Connolly said. “We’ve had a busy summer together and I think we both can’t wait to get down to Tampa for training camp. We’re looking forward to it.”