Sitting in his locker stall at the Brandon Ice Sports Forum on Thursday, Tampa Bay Lightning forward Brett Connolly again reiterated his desire to be an elite player in the National Hockey League.
Luckily for him, there was living proof of an exemplary model to follow sitting just a few feet away in Bolts teammate Steven Stamkos.
At least as of now, speaking in terms of on-ice ability, Connolly isn’t quite yet on the same level as Stamkos.
But off the ice?
Well, that’s a different story.
Over the summer, Connolly joined Stamkos and personal fitness fanatic Gary Roberts outside his home near Toronto to participate in summer workouts, which Connolly characterized as “intense.”
It seemed to pay off, however, as Connolly said he feels stronger, faster, more confident, and even added 12 pounds of pure muscle since the conclusion of last spring’s regular season.
“Last season was a rough one for me, so coming into this year, I knew I needed to make an impression,” Connolly said. “I felt like I needed to change a lot of things not just in my game, but off the ice like my eating and sleeping habits, so working with Stammer and Gary really helped me with what I need to do to take the next step in my game.”
What he needed was to be better defensively, accustomed to playing in all types of different situations, and ultimately, as perhaps a panacea to all of the above, more ice time.
His increase in minutes, in fact, came as a result of dire circumstances as the Lightning lineup continued to be plagued by injuries last season, but Connolly, 20, made the most of his opportunity.
Connolly put in hard work through the offseason and is eager to prove himself at camp.
He cited the 2012 World Junior Championships tournament in which he appeared for Team Canada as a “wake up call” in the sense that it served as a good reminder of “how to be a professional.”
Thus, upon his return to the Lightning following the tournament, Connolly began to take on more on-ice responsibilities, appeared to be more confident, skated better without the puck and even created more scoring opportunities near and around the net for his Lightning teammates.
His performance towards the end of the season, he said, served as a building block heading into this summer’s workouts with Stamkos and Roberts.
“I know the skill is there and I feel like I got better during the second half of the season and towards the end of the regular season, but I wanted more and wanted to make myself as prepared as possible heading into this year because I still feel like I have to prove myself,” Connolly added. “For me, Gary Roberts and Stammer were the right guys to help do that, so I felt like I needed to do those workouts, and I wanted to do them.”
On Thursday in Brandon, even Stamkos admitted he could already see a difference in Connolly’s game.
“He worked extremely hard all summer and showed the dedication that he wanted to get better,” Stamkos said. “I can tell how much quicker he is on the ice, how much faster and stronger. This is just the beginning for him, but he’s already taken that leap.”
And Connolly and Stamkos both, in fact, have Roberts to thank.
In 2009, Roberts invited Stamkos into his home gym in Uxbridge, Ontario to train and learn about nutrition in a one-on-one setting. Paired with fast-paced, high-intensity workouts that focused around nutrition, the idea was that proper training could help Stamkos, the No. 1 pick in the 2008 NHL Draft, build on his 46-point rookie season.
It’s safe to say it did, seeing that after his first summer of training with Roberts, Stamkos busted out 51 goals and 95 points to claim a share of the Rocket Richard Trophy, while finishing fifth in league scoring.
Now, however, it is Connolly who hopes to follow suit much in the same manner.
“It takes time,” Connolly said, “but for me, I just think putting the work in will go a long way.”
In some regard, it already has.