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Vancouver Province article (Sorry, Cougars, but I've got big plans)

October 4 2011 at 12:33 PM
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N. W. Bruin  (Login NW_Bruin_GM)

Sorry, Cougars, but I've got big plans

Stanley Cup with Tampa for one

By Steve Ewen, The Province

October 4, 2011

Tampa Bay's Brett Connolly got up at the crack of dawn everyday to train in Toronto.

Photograph by: Getty Images Files, The Province

Don Cherry may have played a tiny role in Brett Connolly's bid to stick with the Tampa Bay Lightning as a teenager.

"Was I a Steve Yzerman fan growing up? I think everyone was. You have those Rock 'em, sock 'em videos and he's in almost every clip," Connolly, 19, said of the Lightning general manager, whose Detroit Red Wings career was routinely reviewed by the Cherry-inspired series.

"He's been a role model. I really look up to him."

It was a particularly blunt, onesided conversation that Connolly had with Yzerman that has had a major part in Connolly being in the running to leave his hometown junior team, the Prince George Cougars, with two years of WHL eligibility remaining.

After Connolly looked nowhere near ready to compete physically at Tampa Bay's training camp last fall, Yzerman challenged his work ethic and character, asking him to show why the Lightning were savvy in making the winger the sixth overall pick in the 2010 NHL entry draft.

Connolly obliged, leaving his friends and family for the summer and going to Toronto to train on his own. He's come back capable of competing against men, rather than merely outshilling boys in junior.

Tampa Bay has 25 players on its roster. It must get down to 23 by Wednesday.

"I'm a lot stronger, a lot faster," said Connolly. "I can really feel it on the ice.

"Making the NHL as a 19-yearold would mean everything to me. I have tried to set myself up for that.

"I've enjoyed my time in Prince George, but your ultimate goal is to make the NHL. The Lightning are a very promising team, with a lot of good players. They have all the pieces to win the Stanley Cup. I want to be a part of that. I just hope it's this year and not next year."

Connolly lived with an aunt and uncle in Toronto and "got up at the crack of dawn every day" to work with trainer Peter Renzetti. At the end of last season, when he was done putting up 46 goals in 59 regular season games with the Cougars, Connolly was carrying 190 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame.

He says he's "just under 200 pounds," right now, but it's a "different weight." He's got enough speed and quickness to keep up with Tampa Bay stars Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, two of the game's best players.

They have been his linemates for a part of the preseason, including last Thursday in Montreal, when Connolly scored two goals in a 4-0 win over the Canadiens.

"It's night and day," Connolly said of his conditioning. "Last year in training camp, playing with the older guys, I was so far behind. This year, playing with guys like Stamkos and St. Louis, I feel like I can keep up. I feel like I can play at their pace. I feel so much better than last year.

"To play with those two guys, two of the best players in the world, is a privilege. For the management and the coaching staff to have that faith in me is pretty special and I'm trying to make the most of my opportunity."

Even if he starts the regular season with Tampa Bay, it's not an assurance that he'll stick the year with the big club. Once he plays his 10th regular season game, the clock starts on his three-year, $2.7-million contract. It's unlikely he'd be sent back after that, although it has happened, perhaps most notably in these parts to another Tampa Bay prospect, James Wright, who was returned to the Vancouver Giants after 48 games with the Lightning in 2009-10.

Connolly making it in Tampa Bay would be a blow to the Cougars' playoff chances. General manager Dallas Thompson has been building up Prince George over the last couple of seasons, highlighted by landing playoff-seasoned goalie Drew Owsley from the Tri-City Americans this summer.

© Copyright (c) The Province

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