When Jack Connolly was a junior at Marshall Prep School in Duluth, he was unsure if the next level of hockey was even in cards for him. After all, Connolly wasn't blessed with much size, and his obvious offensive skills to that point had translated to just a few college offers.
When Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin finally came calling, he had an offer, but also a condition -- Connolly would have to play two years of junior hockey in the United States Hockey League before he could play for his hometown team.
Although the two-year commitment caused some hesitation, Connolly realized it may be his only way of achieving his dream of playing Division I hockey.
"A light bulb kind of went off for me," Connolly recalled. "I thought maybe I'd have a future in hockey if I worked a little bit harder at it. So I kept working hard, had a great senior year and got the opportunity to go down to Sioux Falls to play juniors."
But even Connolly couldn't have known that in a few years, he'd become one of Duluth's most prized hockey possessions.
As it turned out, Connolly played just one season in the USHL after tying for the league lead in scoring and being named the USA Hockey Junior Player of the Year. With his Bulldogs struggling and the program stuck in the bottom half of the ultra-competitive Western Collegiate Hockey Association, Connolly headed home to try and turn their fortunes.
Now, Connolly is the senior captain of the defending national champions.
"In his time here, [what he's done is] nothing short of phenomenal," Sandelin said. "Just his maturity, his development. We get spoiled watching him everyday. You have to be around him everyday to appreciate what he does, and how easy he makes the game look."
That diminutive local boy, once named to the All-Area Second Team by the Duluth News Tribune, has now become one of the most beloved players in area history. With the national title victory, he, along with Keeghan Flaherty and Max Tardy, became the first Duluthians to win a national title with their hometown Bulldogs.
In the four years prior to Connolly's arrival, UMD compiled a 52-80-21 record. In the 3 1/2 seasons since, the Bulldogs are 86-44-18 with a national championship and a WCHA Playoff title to boot.
"There have been folks [from Duluth] like Robb Stauber, Dave Spehar and Mike Vukonich," said the Duluth News Tribune's Kevin Pates, who has covered the Duluth hockey scene for over 30 years. "But as far as victories during his time here, Connolly would be at the top of the list for success."
For many reasons, Connolly's 2010-11 will go down as one of finest seasons in UMD history. His 59 points was third best in the country. He became an All-American for the second time. He was named to the All-WCHA First Team for the second straight season. He was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, and of course, Connolly led the Bulldogs to their first-ever national title just 150 miles down the road at Xcel Energy Center.
"There are times when I'll see a picture or a video highlight and it gives me chills when I look back at it," Connolly said of winning the title.
Connolly is now on pace to perhaps trump his junior year by the time this season wraps up. When he decided to come back for his senior season, he became just the second Bulldog in history to make a run at a third All-American award. His 36 points through 22 games thus far is tops in the nation -- making him an early favorite for the Hobey Baker Award. It's very likely he will indeed become the first UMD player to be a three-time All-American. He's currently riding a 20-game scoring streak as the top-ranked Bulldogs recently went on a 17-game unbeaten streak that finally ended n Saturday in Omaha.
All of this has happened while playing in front of the fans he was once among as a boy growing up. His parents Mark and Judy used to bring Jack and his brother Chris, a senior forward and fellow national champion at Boston University, to games at the DECC. To Jack, it made the experience of winning a national championship even more special.
"I've been lucky enough to share this with my friends and family and fans here in Duluth," Connolly said. "It was my dream to play in the WCHA and to have the opportunity to play in Duluth, it's been a dream come true."
"It's a great story," Sandelin said. "He chose to stay at home, and as good as his numbers are and as good a hockey player as he is, he's an even better kid. To me, that's equally as important as what you see on the ice.
"I can't say enough about him."
Connolly, a communications major with a 3.3 GPA has also been nominated for the Lowe's Senior Class Award, given to a player every year who exceeds not only on the ice, but in the classroom and in the community.
"He's the kind of person you'd love your son to grow up to be," Sandelin said.
A once cloudy future in hockey now seems quite clear for Connolly, who attended the Wild's Development Camp last summer, along with former linemate Justin Fontaine
, who signed with the Houston Aeros after capping his career last April. An NHL team looking for an offensive playmaker may very well look to scoop him up as a free agent after the season.
Connolly can worry about that later. He and the Bulldogs still have business to address this season.
"We want to get back to where we were last year and win another championship," Connolly said. "That's really the only thing I'm focused on right now."