Same family, same team goals
Connolly Brothers bring unique leadership to UMD, BU
Here's the first thing to remember about Chris and Jack Connolly: they're not twins.
That might be easy to forget, given that both players are seniors entering the home stretch of their final seasons of college hockey; Chris at Boston University, Jack at Minnesota Duluth with their hometown Bulldogs. However, there are certain key differences that are worth noting...and there's more to it than their hair (or, in Chris's case, the lack thereof).
Chris is two years older, having spent three years sharpening his skills in the junior ranks before moving on to college, two with the NAHL's Fargo-Moorhead Jets, and one with the USHL's Omaha Lancers. Jack, meanwhile, played one season of junior hockey (with the USHL's Sioux Falls Stampede) before coming home to Duluth, and has been the bigger scorer the past three years. He was named a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award last year, and with 18 goals and an NCAA-best 37 assists in 36 games, the younger Connolly is considered among the favorites to win the award this year.
"He's meant an awful lot," said Bulldogs head coach Scott Sandelin. "He's been a top offensive producer pretty much his whole time here. More importantly, he's a great kid and a great teammate, and the guys certainly have a lot of respect for him. He loves to play the game, loves to be at the rink, and loves to be around his teammates."
Chris has certainly held his own -- he's among the nation's top 10 in assists per game, and his 26 helpers in Hockey East play lead the conference -- but even he has to admire his younger brother's performance for the Bulldogs this season.
"I'm really proud of him," Chris said, "and the way that he's dealt with some of the adversity that he's dealt with. Arguably, he's going to have his best year this year, and he just keeps proving people wrong and putting up really good numbers and being successful leading a team that some people had a question mark on going into the season."
Of course, the fact that both Connolly brothers are among the nation's assist leaders is a good reminder of how much they have in common. They've also got one NCAA championship apiece - Chris as a freshman in 2009, Jack last season - and as they head to the postseason in search of their second, both Connolly brothers are the captains of their respective teams.
Neither Sandelin nor BU head coach Jack Parker is particularly surprised that both Jack and Chris are leaders of their teams.
"I know they have a lot of admiration for each other," Sandelin said. "I think when you look at those two guys, and them both being captains, and what they've done at this level throughout their careers, and both of them having national championships under their belt, I know that if I was a parent, I'd be pretty proud of that. I think it speaks volumes about the type of kids they are, that both of them are captains at different programs."
"Kids don't grow up like their neighbors," Parker said. "They grow up like their parents. I'm sure that Jack Connolly is a heck of a leader and a heck of a team guy like Chris is for us."
Leadership has been particularly important for the Terriers this year, as the 2011-12 season has seen two players dismissed from the program after being charged with sexual assault, and a third depart for the major junior ranks. Those players combined to produce 19 goals and 21 assists, but the Terriers have held together, maintaining a high win percentage and securing high positions in both the national rankings and the Hockey East standings. In looking at the way BU has continued to win despite the loss of top players and the scrutiny the program has faced, Parker credits Chris Connolly not only for way he's held things together in the locker room, but also on the ice, where he's moved from wing to center on BU's top line and raised his offensive production.
"Chris has been the leader in that dressing room and the leader on the ice," Parker said. "He's let nobody hang his head and say, 'We're not going to be any good anymore.' It's almost like, 'We've got to rally around this and get better, boys.' People might have thought we weren't going to be good, and I think people in the league thought we weren't going to be good when we lost that caliber of player. I think Chris has almost made it a point to not let anybody feel sorry for themselves."
For Chris, the key to spreading that attitude among the Terriers has been to exemplify it on the ice, where he's made the most of the move to center. In the first 16 games of the season, Connolly had no goals and 13 assists. Since moving to center on January 6, the Terriers' captain has eight goals and 14 assists in 17 games.
"Being in this position," Chris said, "you don't know what you're going to get thrown at you, and the best thing you can do is keep moving forward and leading by example, and showing that it doesn't affect you personally. It's definitely been a learning experience."
Having a brother who's also leading one of the nation's top teams doesn't hurt, either. Jack Connolly hasn't lost teammates to off-ice issues this season, but he has had to adjust this season with the departure of his linemates from UMD's championship run: Mike Connolly (no relation) and Justin Fontaine, both of him who have moved on to the pros. As evidenced by his on-ice success
"Over Christmas break was when we got to reflect and talk to each other about our respective teams," Chris said. "It's pretty funny how similar some of the messages that are sent through the dressing room are. It's very similar, so it's nice to have someone who's that close to you going through similar situations."
"It's definitely been pretty cool," Jack said. "It definitely shows what kind of people we are, team-first type of guys before ourselves. We like to go out there and do whatever we can to help our programs win as much as possible. I'm glad to see him having success out at BU, and I'm just trying to work hard here at UMD."
Naturally, both brothers entered their senior season with the same goal -- to win a second NCAA championship and as the NCAA tournament nears, it's become more apparent how at odds their goals are. With less than a month before the 2012 NCAA Frozen Four in Tampa, Fla., it's not hard to imagine the Terriers and Bulldogs meeting for the national championship.
So, what if that happened?
"I guess it'd be kind of cool," Jack said. "I'm sure my parents wouldn't like it too much, but that would definitely be kind of cool to try to go down to Tampa and fall in that situation. Whoever came out on top, it'd be difficult for the other one, but that's not a situation that we're thinking couldn't happen. I think we're just going to try to keep playing well in our conference playoffs, and try to play consistent in the NCAA tournament, see where things end up."