Roman Augustoviz

Connolly calls it “puck luck” but Minnesota Duluth’s star has skills

by Roman Augustoviz January 23, 2012 in Hockey

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Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin looked past Jack Connolly’s size when he recruited the hometown center. He was playing for a small private school nearby.

“[Jack] had skills, a head for the game,” Sandelin said. “I thought he could be a player for us for four years and I hoped we could build around him.”

Five years later, Connolly, who spent one season in the USHL, is a senior at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is still only 5-8, 170, but Sandelin’s hopes have turned into reality.

Connolly led the Bulldogs to their first NCAA title in school history last season and he might lead them to another. Going into the final weekend of January, UMD was the nation’s No. 1 team in both major national polls and was 16-1-3 in its last 20 games.

And Connolly is leading the nation in scoring with 15 goals and 25 assists for 40 points. He has a 20-game points streak, which ties a school record.

“We’ve gotten spoiled because we see [Jack] every day,” Sandelin said. “His hand-eye coordination is amazing. He picks pucks out of the air. He is a special kid, a special player.
“He is very humble, a team-first guy who everyone has a ton of respect for, and is pretty even keel.”

He’s an iron-man, too. Ever since bantams, when a couple broken front teeth kept him out, Connolly has never missed a high school game at Duluth Marshall, a USHL game at Sioux Falls or a college game at UMD.

He also is remarkably consistent. Connolly has been held without a point in consecutive games just once since his freshman season. He has 61 goals and 177 points in 149 games.
“I’ve played with some really good hockey players,” Connolly said. “Our team has had some success and I’ve had puck luck as well.

“A lot of my points [are] assists. I am always looking for open teammates. On my goals, I take shots when there is an opportunity. I may not have the hardest shot, but it is decently accurate and I try to pick a corner.”

Mark Connolly bought his son, Jack, a UMD jersey at age 5. And his father still sees the little boy in Jack when he watches him play.

Jack and his older brother, Chris, a senior forward at Boston University, grew up on outdoor rinks. Their home in the Duluth Heights neighborhood was on a hill and at the bottom was a rink.

“I was the rink director and had keys to the building,” Mark Connolly said. “Upstairs was a community room, downstairs were concessions.”

Jack’s mom, Judy, helped run the concession stand.

“It helped being involved,” Mark Connolly said. “If we weren’t there, friends of ours were. And the boys skated outside on the coldest days, on Saturdays they started at 9 a.m. and were there the entire day to 5 or 6 at night, eating hot dogs.”

Jack was an all-state soccer player in high school and could have played at a Division II college if not for the tug of hockey, the sport he loved the most.

His soccer skills still surface on occasion when he catches a puck with a skate, then quickly slides it to his stick.

“He has been very fortunate that at every level, starting with squirts and peewees, every coach of his recognized his talent and stuck with it, including Scott Sandelin,” Mark Connolly said.

“He didn’t try to change me as a hockey player,” Jack Connolly said. “He’s rough on me when I make mistakes, but he lets me play the way I always had. He didn’t make me a grinder, or ask me to go out and shut down lines, work the corners and bang bodies. That’s not the way I play. I am more of a skilled guy.”

He attended Chicago’s NHL development camp two summers ago and the Wild’s last summer and is an undrafted free agent.

“I felt I fit in fine with the pace of the game and skill level,” Connolly said. “It gave me a little hope.  I’d like to give [pro hockey] a shot.”

As for the college game, he has already mastered that. Or as Connolly humbly said: “I’ve done a pretty good job.”