Jack Connolly: Duluth's new hometown hockey heroDuluth’s Jack Connolly is a dependable, durable, dynamo for the top-ranked and defending national champion Bulldogs
A black-and-white photo of Jack Connolly reaches to the ceiling of the Amsoil Arena ticket lobby.
At 5-foot-8, he’s become larger than life for Duluth hockey fans.
The hometown boy, playing for the hometown college team, has fashioned a legacy that few would’ve imagined, some 30-plus years after the exploits of 5-foot-6 Huffer Christiansen and 5-foot-8 Mark Pavelich.
Connolly, 22, has never missed a game at Minnesota Duluth and has been named an All-American twice. The 165-pound senior center leads Division I in scoring this season and has tied a single-season school record with 22 straight games with a point.
He’s a dependable, durable, dynamo for the top-ranked Bulldogs.
“The coaches Jack has had along the way have allowed him to be the playmaker he is,” said Chris Connolly, Jack’s older brother, a forward for No. 2-ranked Boston University. “There has been criticism through the years about his size, and all he’s done is get better and better every year. He’s had different linemates and each line has been successful.
“Hockey is a team sport first, but individually, Jack makes plays that a lot of guys can’t make. He understands the game so well, and the passion and his love of the game is what’s drives him.”
Entering today’s Western Collegiate Hockey Association home series against Michigan Tech, Jack Connolly has 61 goals and 116 assists for 177 points in 149 games, ranking him No. 12 in UMD career scoring. He has 40 points in 24 games this season and is among the candidates for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, which goes to the top player in Division I.
Skate hard and have fun
Judy and Mark Connolly have two children — two hockey-playing boys. And when the boys chose the sport and began skating at the Duluth Heights rink, they were dropped off with the same words: “Skate hard and have fun.”
Mark Connolly, who grew up in Superior and didn’t play the game, says his sons learned from each other. Jack watched Chris, two years his elder, train and succeed at the prep level, and was motivated. They played one year on the same team at Duluth Marshall High School, in 2004-05, when Chris was a senior and Jack was a sophomore.
And when Jack got a college scholarship first, from the first school to talk with him as a high school senior in March 2007, Chris was motivated to do the same.
“Before his senior season at Marshall, Jack played in the (Upper Midwest High School) Elite League and was a fourth-line center, and I remember North coach Pat Guyer saying, ‘He’s the best high school player in the state who no one knows,’ ’’ said Mark Connolly, who owns Field & Connolly Insurance in Superior. “In his year in the U.S. Hockey League, with Sioux Falls, coach Kevin Hartzell said Jack reminded him of the little kid who goes to the rink every day with a smile on his face.”
Chris Connolly, 24, played one season with Omaha with the U.S. Hockey League and two with Fargo-Moorhead in the North American Hockey League, and then got an offer from Boston University. He has 110 points in 136 games.
Jack and Chris are seniors, captains and centers who both wear No. 12, and look remarkably similar in style on the ice. And each has won an NCAA championship —Chris in 2009 and Jack in 2011.
The odds of siblings with those coincidences are likely incalculable.
“Both of our dreams were to play college hockey, but for both of us to achieve the ultimate dream of winning a title, that’s almost too hard to believe,” said Chris Connolly, who is 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds.
Serious, meticulous and coordinated Jack Connolly (named after his late grandfather, Jack Connolly, who operated a Superior bakery for 30 years) says he has few interests outside of family, friends, school and hockey. He keeps a cumulative 3.4 grade point average and will graduate in May with a communications degree and business administration minor. He plays a fair bit of golf in the summer, mostly at Enger Park Golf Course, and shoots in the upper 70s and low 80s. He likes rock, classic rock and techno dance music and isn’t too big on video games. He hasn’t lived at home since his high school days, sharing a house this school year with fellow seniors Brady Lamb, Kenny Reiter and Cody Danberg.
On game days, Connolly has a stoic face behind the beard he’s worn the past five years —“I grew it so I wouldn’t look so young.”
Judy Connolly, a Duluth native, saw that game face at an early age.
“Jack has a funny sense of humor, and when the two boys get together they can be hilarious,” she said. “But Jack is pretty meticulous about everything and is serious about things he wants to do right. He’s driven and he’s focused.
“Many of the things he’s tried in sports, like baseball and soccer, he’s showed some good ability. There was a time when he was 3 or 4 and had a little plastic bat and a plastic ball, and knocked the ball right over the house on one swing. He has that hand-eye coordination.”
Connolly has always looked at himself as the set-up man in hockey and not the goal scorer. He led Duluth Marshall in scoring as a senior with 37 goals and 40 assists for 77 points in 31 games (and, in soccer, was named News Tribune Player of the Year). At Sioux Falls (S.D.) in 2007-08, he tied for the U.S. Hockey League scoring title with 26 goals and 46 assists for 72 points in 58 games, and was named the USA Hockey Junior Player of the Year. At UMD, his rising point totals are 29, 49 and 59.
His strength is making plays in small areas around the net. He has speed, but his deft ability to slow the game and find teammates has helped the Bulldogs become the top-scoring team in Division I this season.
“Jack makes the most unbelievable plays. If you get to an open spot, he’ll get you the puck. He always finds you,” says junior linemate Mike Seidel, a left winger from Darien, Ill. “He’s strong for his size and not easy to get the puck from, and is probably the most calm player I’ve ever seen. And don’t think he can’t shoot because he can put the puck in the net with great accuracy.”
A UMD era of success
UMD’s freshman class of 2008-09 entered the program after four sub-.500 seasons. That group, which included Jack Connolly, Mike Connolly (not related), David Grun, Scott Kishel, Travis Oleksuk and Lamb, has a career record of 87-44-18, matched only by a 119-50-9 mark in four years from 1982-86.
Jack Connolly spent much of the last two seasons centering Mike Connolly and Justin Fontaine. They were the highest-scoring line in Division I during UMD’s run to the 2011 NCAA championship. Mike Connolly left afterward, with a season of eligibility remaining, to sign with the NHL’s San Jose Sharks, while Fontaine, a senior, signed with the Minnesota Wild. The remaining Connolly, a 2011 Hobey Baker top 10 finalist, was assigned new wingers this season, Seidel and sophomore Joe Basaraba of Fort Frances, Ontario, and some observers wondered if the centerman’s magic would continue.
“After last season, we talked about losing Mike and Fontaine, and I told Jack this would be an opportunity to try some different things and become even a better player,” said UMD coach Scott Sandelin, in his 12th season. “I think he is better and that this is his best season.
“He’s very humble, very even-keeled and someone who has matured into a good leader. If you look at consistency and production, he’s probably at the top of the list of players I’ve had here. He has a feel for the game that’s unique and is one of the better playmakers I’ve seen.”
Christiansen, from Fort Frances and International Falls, was UMD’s first super star with 196 points in 102 games from 1963-67. Pavelich, from Eveleth, had 142 points in 110 games from 1976-79. Both were centers. Both were All-Americans. Neither was a giant.
If Connolly earns a third All-American honor in 2012, he’d be the first forward in program history to do so (defenseman Norm Maciver was a three-time winner from 1984-86). He’s already the highest-scoring Bulldog to have grown up in Duluth and, arguably, is as good as any college forward from the city in recent memory.
He wasn’t drafted by the NHL and hopes to get a chance to play professionally next season. The word is that Minnesota and Tampa Bay are interested.
“My goal coming to UMD was to try to be in the lineup every night, work hard and gain the trust of the coaches to keep me in the lineup,” said Connolly. “Our class wanted to bring winning back to the program, and get to the point where we expected to win and hated to lose. We wanted to win championships.
“I knew I didn’t have the size of some players so I worked on my skating, and quickness, and puckhandling and passing. I don’t know what it would be like to be 6-foot-2. I’ve seen other players, like (5-foot-7 former North Dakota forward) Ryan Duncan and (5-foot-5 former Boston College forward) Nathan Gerbe, and thought, ‘If they can have some success, why can’t I?’ ’’
He’s succeeded at home, helped revitalize a program and become a player of stature in a glittering new rink. In the Amsoil Arena ticket lobby, he’s larger than life.