PENTICTON, Canada – Mike Connolly admitted as the days pass by, there are butterflies in the stomach.
It’s the meaning of preseason for a forward prospect looking to move up the ranks.
Coming off a monster season at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, the 22-year old left winger who is skating for the San Jose Sharks in the Vancouver Canucks preseason YoungStars Tournament has a national championship, All-American honors (second team) and career-high numbers from the 2010-11 campaign (that’s 54 points in 42 games for you).
All he wants now? A chance to move up the ladder in the Sharks system.
“That’s what we all dream about – playing at that top level and playing with top players in the world,” said Connolly. “Definitely, there’s a little bit of butterflies but it’s a great opportunity and that’s all you can ask for as a player.”
Considering the microscopic percentile of players in North America who can actually testify to slipping on an NHL jersey, Connolly is already in elite company. Following the emotional high of the national title season, he signed with the San Jose Sharks on April 15.
As he puts the college atmosphere in his rear view mirror, what the 5-foot-9 forward looks ahead to is a new type of classroom. No more writing, no more books, but no more short schedule.
In the last five years, combining both college and Alberta Junior Hockey League experience, he has appeared in no more than 47 games in one season. But for an explosive forward who carries a calling card bearing skill, grit, vision and on-ice intelligence, a new world is at hand that features more games at the pro level.
As far as Connolly is concerned, the fire in his eyes gives the impression that the more games, the merrier.
“As a player I think you really enjoy playing games and you get into game shape,” said Connolly. “Once you get going, you just keep going.”
With a thirst for competition that seemingly can’t be quenched, it has caught the eye of Sharks management.
“I think there’s always that transition with the travel; the number of games,” said Sharks Executive Vice President and General Manager Doug Wilson. “When you really love coming to the rink, you find a way to work through it. We expect that. We’ve got a lot of players who come from the college route and we see them hit that wall a little bit. The guys who are hockey rats and love to play the game, they push through it pretty quickly.”
With that passion, the element of production isn’t too far behind for him. During his storybook junior season, Connolly buried a highlight reel shorthanded goal against national power Denver, when he scored off the rush – his second grade-A scoring opportunity in the same shift.
In the midst of an emotional backdrop (the game was UMD’s final at their old venue, the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center), he began the play with a steal inside the Denver blueline and hit the post twice when attempting a backhander and follow-up on a rebound.
After the Pioneers recovered and carried the puck into the Bulldogs zone, Connolly pounced on another turnover. After racing with the puck down the right wing, he buried a wrist shot from the right circle for a 2-0 lead in the second period.
The goal stood as the game winner.
The credentials are there as well as the opportunity. Since Connolly began his time with the Sharks during rookie camp, he has been put through detail laden drills and discussions.
"It's a very disciplined system,” said Connolly. “It obviously works because they're a contender, year in and year out. There are a lot of details you need to be aware of."
The initial impression is very promising, when it comes to his learning curve: no complaints and no loafing.
“He’s fun to be around,” said Wilson. “He’s got that little twinkle in his eye. He loves to play the game, competes hard and had a very successful college career.”
Perhaps, that twinkle has an eye for NHL prominence.