TAMPA, Fla. — Jack Connolly didn’t spend much time this season thinking about winning the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s most outstanding player.
He was more focused on helping Minnesota-Duluth get back to the Frozen Four and winning a second consecutive NCAA championship than impressing voters on the Hobey Baker committee.
Connolly’s quest to lead his hometown Bulldogs to another title fell short, but his outstanding senior season did not go unnoticed.
Connolly, a 5-foot-8, 160-pound center, was selected as the 2012 Hobey Baker Award winner on Friday during ceremonies at MacDill Air Force base. He beat nine other nominees, including two other finalists — forward Austin Smith of Colgate and forward Spencer Abbott of Maine.
“It’s pretty incredible. I would have liked to have been down here with my teammates and still playing,’’ Connolly said. “To win this, it’s just as much my teammates’ as it is mine. There were a huge part of this.
“My heart was racing. It was pretty much pounding out of my chest and when I heard my name, I kind of settled down but then became a little emotional,’’ he said of the countdown to announcing the winner. “Just to hear my name, it’s a feeling that’s pretty much unexplainable.’’
Connolly was a top 10 Hobey Baker finalist last season, when the Bulldogs won their first NCAA title with a dramatic 3-2 overtime victory against Michigan.
This year, Connolly was the second-leading scorer in the nation with 20 goals and 41 assists for 61 points and was selected as the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s Player of the Year and to the NCAA All-America First Team.
“It’s a tribute to my parents, my brother, my coach and everyone who’s helped me out along the way,’’ he said.
During his four seasons at UMD, he never missed a game, playing in 164 contests. He’s a three-time All-WCHA First Team selection and was an All-American a year ago. He served as captain as a senior.
“When I got the opportunity to stay home and play in my hometown, I wanted to stay four years and get my degree, and then if there was an opportunity in hockey, then I’d pursue it,’’ Connolly said. “I stayed the course and had an unbelievable ride.’’
Connolly is a communications major with a 3.3 grade-point average. He’s active in the community, taking part in hospital visits, volunteering with the Boys and Girls Clubs of American and reading to children.
“The Duluth community gives great support to UMD men’s hockey and I think we have the best fans,’’ Connolly said. “Whatever I can do to give back, I’m willing to do it.’’
Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin said he loved watching Connolly develop into an outstanding player and person.
“He’s a very special hockey player who’s had a tremendous career, but he’s even a better person,’’ Sandelin said. “He’s a very humble kid and it’s not about him. He’s a team guy. He’s been a fun player to coach and be around and his teammates feel the same way.’’
This season marks the end of two outstanding careers for both Connolly and his older brother, Chris, who played the last four seasons at Boston University. Chris also won the NCAA title in 2009 and served as captain of the Terriers this past season.
“For us to have national championships and be captains of our respective teams is a tremendous story, and I couldn’t be happier for what my brother has accomplished,’’ Jack Connolly said.
“Our parents sacrificed so much for my brother and myself to play hockey. It’s time, money and lots of travel. I can’t thank them enough.’’
For some reason, Minnesota-Duluth has a knack for producing Hobey Baker Award winners. Connolly is the fifth Bulldog to win the award, following in the tradition of Tom Kurvers (1984), Bill Watson (1985), Chris Marinucci (1994) and Junior Lessard (2004).
UMD has more Hobey Baker winners than any team in college hockey. Minnesota is second with four.
The award is named after the legendary Princeton hockey player who was America’s greatest amateur athlete in the early 1900s. Baker served as a pilot in World War I and was killed in a plane crash in 1918, on the day after he was supposed to return to the United States.
The Hobey Baker Award started in 1984, with Neal Broten of Minnesota winning the first award.
When he was recruiting Connolly, Sandelin told the future Bulldog that he wanted him to play two years of junior hockey before enrolling at UMD.
“My biggest fear when I sat down with his dad and Jack and told him that he had to play two years of junior is that he would say ‘I don’t want to wait’ and go elsewhere,’’ Sandelin said. “But he had a good first season and we brought him in a year early anyway.’’
Connolly said he was just fine with playing two years in the U.S. Hockey League if it meant he would eventually play for the Bulldogs.
“Duluth was one of the first teams to talk with me. I wanted to play in the WCHA and staying close to home and playing in front of family and friends was a no-brainer,’’ he said. “I was fine with playing two years of juniors. My brother played three. I played one year and then they said ‘we’re bringing you in early’ and that was fine with me.’’
And it turned just fine for the Bulldogs, too.
Connolly said he’ll likely be playing in Europe next season.
“I’m looking at some good opportunities in Sweden. That’s kind of the road I’m going right now,’’ he said. “Some of the opportunities are pretty inviting, more than some of the things here.’’