Paul Stastny was an instant fan. So, too, were legendary University of Michigan head coach Red Berenson, former junior teammate JJ Piccinich and, most importantly, Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff.
Indeed, Kyle Connor has made an everlasting first impression at every scintillating turn of his life in hockey. And seemingly each impression after that has been an indelible one.
There is no justification — either willfully or through ignorance — for any faction of the hockey world to negate his astonishing level of achievement since his early years of minor hockey in Shelby Township, Mich. The 25-year-old left-winger with rocket fuel in his skate boots, hands of a diamond cutter, dogged determination, and wisdom well beyond his years is firmly established as an NHL superstar.
"He puts a lot of pressure on himself, and he expects himself to score every night and he expects himself to be one of the best players out there.” ‐ Paul Stastny
"He’s quiet, kind of introverted, keeps to himself, but when you dig deeper and pull the layers back, you realize how much he loves the game. He puts a lot of pressure on himself, and he expects himself to score every night and he expects himself to be one of the best players out there," says Stastny.
"He’s just a very dynamic player, wants the puck all the time, very hard to knock off the puck, for someone when you look at him you wouldn’t say is small, you wouldn’t say he is big, just regular stature. Just someone who constantly wants to get better."
Connor has spent the majority of his time in Winnipeg ripping down the left side on a line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, although the trio hasn’t been together much in ‘21-22 with absences by the veteran centre (COVID-19) and the captain and right-winger (COVID-19 and a knee injury).
The Jets with him are a bubble team in Central Division, during an NHL season of fits and starts, owing to the pandemic. There is still plenty of time for the squad to enhance its stature in the division and Western Conference.
Heaven only knows where the squad would be without Connor. Through 33 games (16-12-5), the 17th overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft has a team-leading 19 goals and 16 assists, factoring in on 35.35 per cent of the team’s scoring. Connor has three game-winners, including his most recent masterpiece Jan. 2, the overtime clincher on a sensational dash and ensuing laser beam past old buddy Laurent Brossoit in the Vegas cage to give his club a 5-4 victory over the Golden Knights.
Only seven NHLers have more goals as the midway point of the season approaches.
Since Connor was called up from the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League in mid-October 2017, the 6-1, 182-pound forward is up to 148 goals — including 28 game winners — in 318 career outings.
Just five all-world players — Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals (196), Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs (182), the Edmonton Oilers’ dynamic duo of Leon Draisaitl (175) and Connor McDavid (168), and David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins (154) — have more goals since the start of the ’17-18 season.
Right now, he’s in a rut. Not a deep one, but a rut nonetheless. The tally on the Vegas strip represents the only time he’s cashed in since Dec. 10. That certainly sounds more ominous that it truly is, as Winnipeg has made just six appearances in a month.
Pay little heed to the fleeting drought. If the past five seasons since Connor became a permanent fixture on the Jets’ top-six forward group have taught us anything, the team’s resident sniper won’t allow it to linger. Battling to be the best is in his DNA, and he does it quietly but confidently.
“Maybe that can be a fault when you’re never satisfied and you are content to just look at where you’ve gotten to, but that’s for the end of the year, that’s when you sit back and look back to see if you accomplished your goals." ‐ Kyle Connor
"There are ups and downs but I don’t really get uncomfortable on the ice, just because I set a pretty high standard for myself. I’m a pretty tough critic when it comes to my game every single night, and over the course of my career as well," Connor says.
"Personally, I don’t see (success) as a shock or surprise. I think we’re all pretty motivated and want to be the best that we can as athletes. It’s always looking at how to get better, taking advantage of that next opportunity to improve.
"Maybe that can be a fault when you’re never satisfied and you are content to just look at where you’ve gotten to, but that’s for the end of the year, that’s when you sit back and look back to see if you accomplished your goals. I’m such a competitive guy that I’m trying to stay in the fight every day and focus more on that, how I can get better.
"I definitely know with my speed I can create space and use it to my advantage. On the ice, you can’t go out there not confident in yourself, in our ability, because that’s when you’ll make mistakes, you get injured.
Connor is straddling the edge of a fifth consecutive 20-goal campaign, and he could cross the threshold Thursday in his old stomping grounds. The Jets play their first game in a week against the Red Wings (16-16-5) in downtown Detroit. Game time is 6:30 p.m.
In Winnipeg’s most recent visit to Little Caesars Arena (LCA), Connor scored a pair of second-period goals in a 5-2 defeat to the hosts Dec. 12, 2019, his fourth career game in Detroit.
"They’re always special games at home. I was pretty fortunate, I got to play at Joe Louis before they tore that down and moved over to the LCA," he says. "It’s always special to play the team you grew up idolizing, and all the family and friends that are supposed to be coming to the game.
"I think I was five when I went to my first game. It was probably pretty difficult to get tickets, considering they were sold out every night. At the old arena, it felt like the seats were right on top of you. It was a phenomenal place to watch at game."
“It’s always special to play the team (Detroit) you grew up idolizing, and all the family and friends that are supposed to be coming to the game." ‐ Kyle Connor
Steady improvement has been Connor’s mantra since he was a mere youngster, swatting pucks on the big backyard rink his late father, Joe, made for his four kids (Brendon, Kyle, Jacob and Krystal) every winter at their home, just north of Detroit. Floodlights hanging above created the perfect setting for evening three-on-three games with neighbourhood friends.
His mother, Kathy, says hockey wasn’t the only activity to which he put his determination into while growing up.
"He was a big sports guy, he played a lot of football and baseball, and he used to be big into chess," she says. "He’d go compete against other schools. In elementary school, the kids would come in their best shirts but Kyle would always put his Belle Tire (hockey) cap on. He was so competitive and loved those tournaments."
Joe grew up supporting the Montreal Canadiens but switched his allegiance when the Red Wings began dominating in the 1990s, and Kyle and his siblings shared his passion.
Winnipeg’s premier scorer makes no secret of the identity of his childhood hero, and his efforts to emulate him on the outdoor rink at home.
"We always waited for that first freeze. I had a cousin (Tyler Burrows) who was a goalie, so it was perfect. He’d come over and wear the pads and we’d play a little scrimmage. Just a lot of good memories," he says. "You could be as creative as you want on the backyard pond. The memories of growing up, idolizing the Wings, you’re seeing a move Pavel Datsyuk did the night before and you’re out there trying it and pretending you’re him. That’s where the dreams of becoming an NHL player are formed."
Joe died last August, just a month before Jets training camp. Kyle says he cherishes memories of his father teaching him how to skate and coaching him in minor hockey.
"I’d call him before every single game throughout my whole career, just to talk to him. He was a coach, too, so he always had little pointers. He was there every step of the way." ‐ Kyle Connor
"He’s the one that introduced me to the game, he’s been everything to me," Kyle says. "I’d call him before every single game throughout my whole career, just to talk to him. He was a coach, too, so he always had little pointers. He was there every step of the way."
Kyle played AAA hockey with the Belle Tire program for several seasons, winning a national 14-and-under title in 2011 with a stacked squad that included three other future NHL first-rounders, forwards Dylan Larkin of the Red Wings and Brendan Perlini of the Edmonton Oilers, and Columbus Blue Jackets defenceman Zach Werenski.
Leaving home to play for the Youngstown (Ohio) Phantoms and attend high school four hours away from home wasn’t a difficult decision for Kyle, just 15 at the time. A shy teen, he immediately formed a bond with another Phantoms newcomer, JJ Piccinich, and the two became inseparable, at Ursuline High School and at the rink.
Piccinich, a kid from New Jersey, was six months older but didn’t have a car, so Kyle was the chauffeur once he got his driver’s licence.
"Kyle was awesome. He was just a super dedicated guy and you could tell how special a player he was. He loves hockey and he was so talented, even at 15 or 16, such a special player as soon as he stepped onto the ice." ‐ Former teammate JJ Piccinich
"I’m sure that’s a great memory for him, always having to pick me up every morning at like 5:30," says Piccinich, from his home in Ireland. He’s in his first year with the Belfast Giants of the British Elite Ice Hockey League after four pro seasons in North America split between the American Hockey League and ECHL. "It was something his parents got him (a 2004 Ford Escape) to get from A to B. Usually, I was still half a sleep, he’s calling me, getting me out of bed."
In his first season (2012-13) with Youngstown, Connor had 17 goals and 41 points in 62 games, while sharing the ice with players five years older than him. Most were far bigger and stronger, too.
"Kyle was awesome. He was just a super dedicated guy and you could tell how special a player he was. He loves hockey and he was so talented, even at 15 or 16, such a special player as soon as he stepped onto the ice," recalls Piccinich. "It’s tough to pinpoint one part of his game because he’s so good at working on everything. I remember in practice just trying to keep up with his speed. His brain worked as fast as his feet."
Connor grew up a University of Michigan fan and took in many Wolverine hockey games with his family. While still in Grade 10, he and his parents, Joe and Kathy, accepted an invitation to tour the campus and athletic facilities, and a scholarship offer from legendary college coach Red Berenson was quickly accepted.
"That was always kind of our team, and I remember other colleges wanted Kyle to come visit and I’d say, ‘Are you excited to go see another one?’ And he’d say, ‘Yeah, but I want to play for Michigan,’" says Kathy.
In his second USHL season, he was named a first-team all-star, leading the Phantoms with 31 goals and 74 points in 56 games. And he led the league in scoring (34G, 46A) in his final year of junior (2014-15) and won the USHL’s top player award.
Kevin Cheveldayoff remembers a conversation he had with Berenson months before the 2015 NHL Draft.
"‘Ma oh man, I was just out scouting and was in Youngstown and watched one of your guys you’ve got coming in here. I love that Kyle Connor.’ We hadn’t drafted him yet. He wasn’t even our player, yet." ‐ Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff
"We had (Jacob) Trouba and we were taking Trouba out (of school) and I was talking to Red and I said, ‘We really like him,’ saying all these things about Trouba. But I said, ‘Man oh man, I was just out scouting and was in Youngstown and watched one of your guys you’ve got coming in here. I love that Kyle Connor.’ We hadn’t drafted him yet. He wasn’t even our player, yet" says Cheveldayoff.
The Jets selected him with pick No.17 at the draft in Sunrise, Fla., after the Boston Bruins ignored him with three consecutive picks.
"He could do things at such a high speed. Having speed is one thing, having the hands is one thing and having hockey sense is another. To be able to skate, think and execute at that kind of speed, those are the tools that he possesses," the Jets GM says.
Berenson, who spent 33 years behind the Wolverines bench — guiding them to 11 Frozen Four appearances and two national titles — only coached Connor for the 2015-16 season. But what a season it was for the slight but speedy skater.
He led all of U.S. college hockey in goals (35) and points (71) as a freshman, and was one of three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s outstanding player. Harvard forward Jimmy Vesey won it, despite finishing with 25 fewer points than Connor.
Berenson, 82, retired from the program in 2017. He was a six-time NHL all-star, played 17 years, and won a Stanley Cup with Montreal in 1965. The man had sensed there was something special about Connor at just 15, and his instincts were correct.
"He was still pretty young when he came to Michigan, and a lot of good players from the U.S. Hockey League had not done as well in Division I, but Kyle just stepped right in and continued to do what he did," says Berenson. "Now, we had him playing with two of our best players and they ended up being the highest-scoring line in college hockey that year. He played with J.T. Compher and Tyler Motte. They called them the C-C-M line and it was amazing how they fed off each other."
Compher, a top-nine forward with the Colorado Avalanche, still marvels at the deftness — demonstrated then and now — of his former college teammate.
"It maybe took a bit of time for Kyle to get comfortable, but once he did you really saw a quiet confidence about him that made him a really good player," Compher says. "The way he trusts his skill, all of it, it’s elite. His skating, stick-handling, agility and that quick snapshot he has, he really can do it all. It’s fun to follow the career of guys you’ve played with, and it’s great to see him continue to rise. I watch the highlights and he scores a lot of goals but he’s got great vision, too. He makes his linemates better."
"The way he trusts his skill, all of it, it’s elite. His skating, stick-handling, agility and that quick snapshot he has, he really can do it all." ‐ Former teammate J.T. Compher
Connor signed an entry-level deal with the Jets in April 2016. Berenson was disappointed but not at all shocked by the sudden loss to the Wolverines.
"I thought we’d have him for more than one year, and mostly because of the physical development. Sometimes, those kids aren’t quite as strong as they need to be, and they get to the NHL, they get beaten up and get hurt, and then it takes away from their development. But I think Winnipeg was smart to sign him," Berenson says. "He had to play in the minors but the team was right there, and he was fine in that environment and the rest is history."
Connor cracked the Jets roster out of training camp in 2016 but only dressed for 19 games — putting up a goal and three assists in limited playing time — before he was dispatched to the farm. After a bit of a slow start with the Manitoba Moose, he shot off like a cannon, scoring a team-high 25 goals and added 19 assists in 52 games.
In the fall 2017, he was among the final cuts the Jets made at the tail end of training camp, owing to some inconsistent play during the preseason. He went back to the Moose and promptly scored three times and added two assists in the first four games, positioning himself for an early promotion when the big club ran into early injury troubles.
"So many guys could have taken it the other way and went south. But he went down for four games and got five points and, lo and behold, we had some injuries and he came and has stuck on the top-six ever since. He understood and never pouted and played and the rest is history," says Cheveldayoff.
Barring injury or a prolonged work stoppage attributed to the global health crisis, Connor will almost assuredly reach the 30-goal plateau for the fourth time in his five-year NHL career, while continuing to progress as a more dependable two-way player.
He gets paid to score, securing a seven-year, US$50-million contract prior to the 2019-20 season that carries with it an annual cap hit of US$7.14 million.
Connor’s mom says the money hasn’t changed her down-to-earth son.
"I don’t think people close to him see him any differently, and he doesn’t act differently. I’m still mom, always thinking of ways to help him out," says Kathy, who attended the Jets’ home-opener in October. "I text him most days and send him a ‘good-luck-in-your-game note.’ We watch all his games on TV and we’re just so proud of him.
"He really loves playing in Winnipeg, he likes the people, he likes the team. He and (his girlfriend) Ally enjoy the town, and they have a puppy now. It never crossed his mind to play anywhere else."
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