WINNIPEG - Winnipeg Jets left wing Kyle Connor could be forgiven for thinking once he left the University of Michigan after his freshman year, his classwork would be over.
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But Connor, 20, found he had so much more to learn. Perhaps the most significant lesson was there is little time to relax as a professional hockey player.
"I'd say that on the ice, you have to prove yourself every day," Connor said after the conclusion of Jets development camp in June. "You have to come in every day, including practices, and you can't really take days off. It's definitely a full-time job.
"Off the ice, that was one of the biggest adjustments for me. Coming from college, I had so much time. Your day is kind of planned out at college. Now, you're at the rink three or four hours then you go home and it's … whatever. What you have to do is find the routine that works for you. About halfway through the year, I got to talking to some of the older guys to see what they do and learned from them. There is a lot more time and you have to manage it."
Connor, a first-round pick (No. 17) in the 2015 NHL Draft, led all NCAA players in his only season at Michigan with 71 points (35 goals, 36 assists) in 38 games in 2015-16. He began last season on the Jets roster but was sent to Manitoba of the American Hockey League after having four points (one goals, three assists) in 19 NHL games. He fared better in the AHL, with 44 points (25 goals, 19 assists) in 52 games.
Connor said he was in many ways a typical, wide-eyed NHL rookie who was forced to learn and adapt quickly.
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"It was eye-opening," he said of his demotion to the AHL. "I had to see the things I needed to improve on. I thought I was ready for that. Even the little things make such a difference at that level. For me, that was staying on the puck and winning all the battles I could and not trying to float too much, then relying on my skills.
"You have to experience it. Once I moved down [to Manitoba], it was a bit upsetting, of course, and it took a couple of games more than I wanted to adjust. But once I did, I worked with the staff really well and the stuff they wanted me to implement into my game. I thought that made a huge difference, and you could see it toward the end of my season."
Connor was rewarded when he was recalled by the Jets on April 3. He scored his second NHL goal in the regular-season finale against the Nashville Predators on April 8.
"There were lots of ups and downs," he said, "but overall I thought it was a very productive year. As a first-year pro, I think I learned a ton. Once I got that recall, I felt like I was a totally different player."