Jess Myers

Connolly brothers bring hard work and hardware to hometown Duluth

by Jess Myers April 23, 2012 in Hockey

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For some, sports are about competition, fitness, the thrill of victory, and those moments where you put everything you have to give on the line.

Jack Connolly has always taken a bit of a different approach to sports – hockey, in particular. For the 2012 Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award winner, heading to the rink to chase a puck up and down a sheet of ice was always about family and community.

As a kid growing up in Duluth, Minn., Jack and his older brother Chris became the first generation of Connollys to take to hockey – a sport definitely ingrained as part of life in Minnesota. Neither of their parents had played the game, but together the brothers found a way they could play together and pass the long winter afternoons and evenings, at a rink in their neighborhood, not far from the shore of Lake Superior.

“I remember some of my friends had backyard rinks that their dad made with some plywood and floodlights. That’s really where you develop a passion for the game. I’m a big believer that if you don’t have a passion for the game you’re not going to make it very far or be very successful. That’s something Jack has always had,” Chris said. “He’s a true rink rat out there who enjoys the game. The Duluth community is a big reason for that. Duluth is such a big hockey community and it’s great for us. He’s been happy to give back because Duluth has given both of us so much.”

A decade or so after those days where one would have to drag the boys off the ice some nights, their college hockey careers ended within 24 hours of one another, but not before both brought an impressive array of hardware home to Duluth.

The Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award seems tailor-made for a player, and person like Jack Connolly, as it recognizes accomplishments in the classroom, community, in competition and in character. While maintaining a high grade-point average en route to a degree in communication, Jack helped lead the University of Minnesota Duluth to its first NCAA men’s hockey title in 2011. In doing so, he equaled a feat his brother had accomplished just two years earlier.

As a freshman at Boston University, Chris was a member of the Terriers team that captured the 2009 NCAA title. Unable to get to Washington, D.C., for the title game due to school commitments, Jack instead organized a viewing party among friends in Duluth and cheered like wild when his brother’s team took home the crown with an overtime win over Miami (Ohio).

Two years later, Chris and the Connolly parents were in attendance in St. Paul, Minn., to see the Bulldogs take powerful Michigan to overtime, then get the decisive goal as the little school from the Connollys’ hometown stood atop the college hockey world.

While both brothers saw their college hockey careers end short of another NCAA Frozen Four trip this past March, Jack’s accolades were far from finished. At the Frozen Four in Tampa, Fla., in April, he was presented with the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award during the NCAA semifinal games at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. One day later, Jack made history, becoming the first college hockey player to win both the Lowe’s award and the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, which goes annually to the nation’s best player.

Jack and Chris posed side-by-side with the trophies, both showing off their diamond-encrusted national championship rings, and fondly recalling a supportive brotherly relationship that helped the two of them thrive in sports and in life.

“We’re very similar people, both on and off the ice,” Jack said. “There was never a huge competition between us or anything. I never felt competition or the need to work harder to catch up with him or vice-versa, so that worked our well for everyone. We have a relationship that doesn’t involve a whole lot of animosity.”

It’s that complimentary nature that helped Jack succeed in college hockey despite his average size in a game where dominant players are seemingly getting bigger every year. As a junior, Jack was paired with Mike Connolly (no relation) and Justin Fontaine on the Bulldogs’ renowned “FCC line” and the trio played a huge role in the team’s run to the title. One of the lasting images of the Bulldogs’ postgame celebration was Jack, with a bushy playoff beard, hoisting the national championship trophy as tears of joy rolled down his cheeks.
As a senior, with two new linemates, Jack’s game didn’t slip a bit, as he notched an impressive 60 points in just 41 games and helped the Bulldogs to the top ranking in the nation for much of the season.

“He’s one of the ultimate team players. This year he lost his two linemates, both of whom signed pro contracts. So he played with different guys all year, and you look at the numbers of some of the guys he played with,” said Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin. “Look at their point production and you see what kind of player he is. He makes everyone around him better, and the guys love him in the dressing room, with his personality, and the kind of kid he is.”

That kind of impact was certainly not a new thing for Jack, who has been making an impression on folks with his work on the ice since he was just a child. As a 12-year-old, one of Jack’s coaches was Bill Watson, who won the Hobey for Minnesota Duluth in 1985 and played several years of NHL hockey.

“It’s been so much fun to be a part of this,” said Watson, now an assistant coach with the Bulldogs. “When I first met Jack he was little, just a peewee, but when he stepped on the ice he was one of the most unique guys. It was one of those things where you get on the ice with someone for the first time and you can just feel that impact that they have as a player.”

And those who know him best say that impact is definitely not limited to what he does on the ice or in the classroom.

“He gives back in any way he can, whether that’s going out and skating with kids, or getting involved in charities, helping out at the hospitals, whatever that may be,” Chris said. “It’s also a little different because he’s a Duluth native, so some of those kids have known him since before he was in high school. I know it means a lot for him to give back, and a lot of kids picture Jack as a role model, so it’s not just his on-ice accomplishments. He enjoys giving back to Duluth.”

The Connolly brothers’ game has evolved from the neighborhood rinks in Duluth to the biggest stages of college hockey and now to the professional hockey ranks. A few days after the Frozen Four, Jack signed a two-year contract with Farjestad of the Swedish Elite League, and will soon play hockey for a paycheck at the highest level in Europe.

But his roots in the game will always be in Duluth, skating with his brother, growing together and working toward a day when they’d both bring glory to their family and to their hometown. That lifetime of work on the rink, in the community and in the classroom, makes Jack Connolly a fitting recipient of the 2012 Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award.