It has been 223 days since Brett Connolly dressed for an NHL game. That streak will end when he takes to the ice for the Chicago Blackhawks against the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night. It has been a long road back to the NHL for the 29-year-old forward, but he showed his class and leadership the entire way from Rockford to Chicago.
Connolly Leaves an Impression with IceHogs
You hear the term “he’s a pro” uttered by coaches across the hockey world. What exactly does that mean? Well, Connolly showed what a true professional does when he was sent down the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League (AHL) before the start of the season.
The Blackhawks acquired Connolly from the Florida Panthers on April 8, 2021. He came to Chicago with defenseman Riley Stillman, forward Henrik Borgstrom, and a seventh-round pick with defenseman Lucas Carlsson and forward Lucas Wallmark going to Florida. The Blackhawks were so high on Stillman and Borgstrom that they were willing to take on Connolly’s contract that runs through the 2022-23 season with a $3.5 million salary-cap hit. He had a goal and assist in 10 games after the trade.
Connolly did not make the final cut coming out of training this past September. After clearing waivers, he was sent to the IceHogs. Instead of letting his disappointment get the best of him, he embraced the move as a chance to make himself valuable to the organization in other ways.
“To be honest, I’ve had some experience, a little bit, when I was younger, not the same situation but going down when maybe you think that you shouldn’t have,” Connolly said after his first practice with the Blackhawks. “But I definitely was not going to be that guy that went down there. It’s not my personality, it’s not [how] I wanted to represent myself. I just wanted to go down there and work my ass off and get back up here and be a positive influence on those guys and try to be the best player every night.”
Not only did he become one of the most productive players on the ice, but he became a leader and a mentor to the young roster in Rockford.
IceHogs Thankful for Connolly’s Time
Connolly immediately impacted the Rockford lineup. He brought the experience of 527 games with him. He quickly became one of the team’s most productive players with five goals and 11 points in 16 games before getting the call from Chicago. In addition to what he can do on the ice, what he did off it made a huge difference.
“He’s been great,” said IceHogs interim head coach Anders Sorensen. “He’s a true pro by the way he prepares himself and plays the game. It’s good to have the younger guys see how he carried himself here. It’s how he got ready for games and the work he put in on the side.
“On the ice, obviously, we miss him. He’s calm with the puck. He’s calm on the bench. The guys can lean on him. It was good that he was here so these guys could learn from him, but now it’s up to some of them to carry the torch.”
Carson Gicewicz, in his first full professional season after a successful collegiate career, is one of the young players who benefitted from Connolly’s presence.
“If you’ve ever been around him, you wouldn’t know his history,” Gicewicz said earlier this week. “He’s a humble guy. He treats everyone with respect. Outside of his obvious talent on the ice, we’re going to miss him in the locker room as a leader and as a buddy. It’s a big loss, but I’m very happy for him. He deserves it.”
Perhaps the most crucial role Connolly took on in Rockford was that of mentor for top prospect Lukas Reichel. The Blackhawks are rightfully taking their time with the 2020 first-round draft, and having him learn from guys like Connolly is huge for his development.
“I’ve learned so much from him,” Reichel said. “He’s a great player and a great guy. It’s been fun to play with him. I’m so happy for him that he got the call up from the Blackhawks, and he’s in the lineup now.”
Reichel and Connolly have been on the IceHogs’ top line for much of the season, along with Alex Nylander. The duo quickly developed excellent chemistry on the ice. The 19-year-old German native leads the IceHogs with seven goals and 12 points, even after missing three games while in concussion protocol. During the season, Reichel has mentioned several times that Connolly has shown him that it takes hard work and unwavering dedication to get to the next level. These lessons are priceless for a young player who has a bright future ahead of him.
When Connolly was sent down to the AHL, he could have easily taken his ball and gone home. We have seen plenty of veterans in this situation refuse assignment or ask for a trade or release. Instead, he went down to Rockford with a mission to be a leader and a mentor. It was that attitude, more so than his production, that has him back in an NHL locker room. There is a reason he has earned the respect of everyone he has played with.
Greg Boysen has been writing about the Chicago Blackhawks since 2010 and has been a site manager for both FanSided and SB Nation. He has been published in The Hockey News and was fully credentialed for the 2013 Stanley Cup Final. Among his various roles with The Hockey Writers are covering the Blackhawks, the AHL, writing the daily “Today in Hockey History” column, serving as a copy editor, and appearing and hosting multiple YouTube shows, including Blackhawks Banter. He is credentialed with the Chicago Wolves, Rockford IceHogs, and Milwaukee Admirals, while also being a regional scout for the NAHL. And, just because his plate isn’t full enough, Greg hosts trivia in the Chicago area two nights a week. For interview requests or to provide topic suggestions, follow Greg on Twitter and reach out.