April 7, 2012 PRINT Bookmark and Share

One More Trophy

Hobey Winner Connolly Feeds Off Surroundings

by Scott McLaughlin/CHN Writer

Jack Connolly became the fifth UMD Bulldog to win the Hobey Baker Award, presented Friday at MacDill Air Force Base. (photo: Joe Koshollek)

Jack Connolly became the fifth UMD Bulldog to win the Hobey Baker Award, presented Friday at MacDill Air Force Base. (photo: Joe Koshollek)

TAMPA, Fla. — All around MacDill Air Force Base, which hosted Friday's Hobey Baker Award presentation, there were signs that read, "One Team, One Family, One Community." While the motto is meant for the base's military personnel, it would also be a fitting motto for Hobey Baker winner Jack Connolly.

In his acceptance speech and ensuing interviews, the senior center from Minnesota-Duluth kept coming back to those three things — team, family and community. Without that trifecta, Connolly might not have ever played college hockey, never mind won a national championship and the Hobey Baker.

Born and raised in Duluth, Connolly and his older brother Chris — who just wrapped up a stellar career of his own at Boston University — are products of their community. They grew up playing on ponds and backyard rinks, often until someone had to drag them off. They took pride in being labeled "rink rats." They looked up to local high school players and, of course, the Bulldogs.

Connolly and his brother knew they wanted to be hockey players, and their family helped them get there. Their parents paid for their equipment and drove them all over. They were there to keep them grounded when they scored a hat trick and got a little too big-headed, and they were there to lift them up when they got cut from a team or were told they were too small (Jack is listed at 5-foot-8, Chris at 5-foot-9).

"It's incredible," Connolly said of his parents' support. "They sacrificed so much for both my brother and myself to play the game of hockey. They put in a lot of time, money and travel to get us to this point. I can't thank them enough. Their support means the world to me. I love them."

The family and community helped Connolly get his chance, which came from the Minnesota-Duluth team. The Bulldogs were the first team — and one of just a few total — to recruit Connolly while he was in high school. He had originally planned to play two years in the United States Hockey League, but UMD asked him to come in a year early after he was named the 2007-08 USA Hockey Junior Player of the Year.

Connolly's family, community and team helped him get to UMD and helped him succeed once he was there, and he paid all of them back tenfold. He contributed 197 points over his four seasons with the Bulldogs, including 49 or more each of the last three years. He was named a First Team All-American and Hobey Baker finalist last season as he helped lead the school to its first national championship.

He was supposed to take a step back this season after losing linemates Justin Fontaine and Mike Connolly (no relation). Instead, he put up a career-high 60 points and won the most prestigious individual trophy in college hockey.

"I'm extremely proud," Chris Connolly said of his brother's career. "Last year he had a tremendous season as well, leading the team to their first national championship. I know there were a lot of doubters this year with his two big linemates leaving and turning pro. So there was kind of a question mark on what he was gonna be able to accomplish. For him to fight through that and have his best season numbers-wise and surpass his season from last year, I think it tells a lot about him. He's obviously very deserving of this award."

Of course, the Hobey Baker is also about off-the-ice accomplishments as well as on-ice feats. Connolly works with the Adopt-A-Highway program, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and various cancer fundraisers. He also visits local hospitals and schools.

Connolly said he's so willing to give back because of how much the Duluth community has given to him — during his time at UMD and throughout his life in general. It's not often that a college athlete gets to give back to the same community he was raised in, so Connolly made sure he took advantage of his situation.

"Little kids there really look up to the Minnesota-Duluth players," Chris Connolly said. "He gives back in any way he can, whether that's going out and skating with kids, doing charity things, helping out at the hospital, whatever it may be. It's also a little different because he's a Duluth native, so some of those kids have known him since he played in high school. I know it means a lot for him to give back. A lot of kids look at Jack as a role model."

In succeeding both on and off the ice, Connolly also gave back to his parents. Although Chris is two years older than Jack, their college careers ran parallel thanks to the fact that Chris had to play three years in juniors before finally getting noticed — a story of determination that Jack pointed to as an inspiration.

What the brothers gave their parents over the last four years looks like this: two national championships, two captains at top-tier college hockey programs, and now a Hobey Baker Award. The emotion in their mother's face and voice said it all.

"Just overwhelmed. So proud," Judy Connolly said of her son winning the Hobey Baker. "He just works hard, on and off the ice. He's always been a very good student. He's always just done the right thing. We've always tried to encourage our boys to get involved in the community and just to be good people. I'm very proud of both of my boys."

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