Brett Connolly is moving forward, but he will not forget where he has been.
Connolly, the Lightning’s first pick in last month’s draft, feels strong after a difficult year and takes a fresh prospective with him as he continues his journey toward a spot in the NHL.
Lightning fans are getting their initial chance to see his many talents in person at development camp this week and Connolly is determined to make a good first impression.
“I’m not just coming here to go through the motions,” said Connolly, picked sixth overall June 25. “I want to work hard and impress people. I’m definitely looking forward to showing people that I am healthy and I can play.”
Connolly, 18, has spent countless hours the past year talking about his health.
After scoring 30 goals for the hometown Prince George Cougars in the Western Hockey League as a 16-year old in 2008-09, the 6-foot-2, 181-pound right wing was limited to 16 games last season with injuries to both hips. Questions and more questions. Scrutiny came from every angle. The ups and downs were difficult, but Connolly tried to take lessons from the experience.
“I battled a lot of adversity last year,” Connolly said. “If something like that does happen, I’ll know how to handle it.”
Being in Prince George, B.C., a city of a little over 70,000, some 300 miles north of Vancouver, helped him cope.
Connolly said he also learned to be patient with himself and take care of his body better. He worked on his flexibility through therapy and is paying much more attention to stretching properly as he continues to grow and mature physically.
“It’s going to be part of my daily routine forever,” Connolly said. “It’s something I have to do, I am doing.”
Connolly said the injuries are behind him. The Lightning are confident, too.
The future is bright, but Connolly knows he has to work for everything. He has to get better, smarter, stronger, sharper.
Work ethic is ingrained in the Connolly family. Brett’s father Pat grew up in Newfoundland as the youngest of nine children, including seven boys.
“The money wasn’t there for the family and he had to work harder than a lot of kids do to get schooling and a degree,” Brett said. “He worked very hard to get where he is today, and that does rub off.”
Pat and his wife Dawn, a nurse, moved the family to Vancouver, then to Port Hardy on Vancouver Island where Brett grew up. They then settled in Prince George about eight years ago, where Pat works for the city.
Within the last few months, Pat and Dawn saw their youngest son Joshua, 15, a defenseman, picked by the Kamloops Blazers in the third round (61st) of the WHL bantam draft and Brett pull the Lightning jersey over his head at the NHL entry draft in Los Angeles, June 25.
“It’s a life’s journey of sacrifices and hard work, early mornings at the rink,” Brett said. “To finally achieve that goal, it’s awesome.”
Lightning prospect Dana Tyrell had a close-up look at why Connolly was picked so high.
Tyrell, 19 at the time, played on the same line as Connolly full strength and on the power play with Prince George in 2008-09.
“Brett was always ahead of players his age in maturity,” Tyrell said. “On the ice, he had the confidence. I think he’ll be one step ahead of guys his age his whole life.”
Tyrell said Connolly has a good sense or humor off the ice and is very focused. On the ice, he is versatile.
“He’s not the thickest guy, but he definitely likes to get his nose dirty,” Tyrell said. “He’s an NHL-type player. I think everybody will be happy with him. If he has an open shot, he’ll score. He can put the puck in from anywhere.”
Connolly gained a lot from the short time with Tyrell.
“We had instant chemistry,” Connolly said. “He kept me under his wing and was a great mentor for me.”
That 30-goal, 30-assist season caught everyone’s eyes. The Lightning did not look away when Connolly’s injury-plagued year started in the summer of 2009 at the Ivan Hlinka Under-18 international tournament in the Czech Republic. He hurt his right hip flexor and tried to play through it. As he over compensated, he injured his left hip.
Darryl Plandowski, the Lightning’s head amateur scout, said Connolly’s injuries were muscular and not structural. MRIs taken have shown everything is fine and he looked strong on his skates Saturday.
Without the injury concerns, many experts think Connolly could have been in the discussion to go first, second or third overall. The Lightning could not let his talent go by at No. 6.
“Tampa was the team that seemed the most interested,” Connolly said. “I got a good vibe from [GM] Steve [Yzerman] and the whole staff. I’m thrilled to finally be here and couldn’t ask for anything more.”
The Lightning will be patient with Connolly. But Plandowski sees big things in the future.
“We’re hoping he will be a high-end offensive guy,” Plandowski said. “That’s where his game is, on the top two lines scoring goals with Stammer and the other group of young players we have.
“He’s going to be big enough to be a power forward and he skates well. He’s not afraid. He goes to the areas you need to get to in order to score goals.”
Connolly said he is here to learn this week.
He is already enjoying it.
“This is the first step to get to the big team,” Connolly said. “It was cool to be out there with all the guys.”