Connor the quiet celebrity – Winnipeg Free Press

Paul Stastny was an instant fan. So, too, were legendary University of Michigan head coach Red Berenson, former junior teammate JJ Piccinich and, most importantly, Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff.

Indeed, Kyle Connor has made an everlasting first impression at every scintillating turn of his life in hockey. And seemingly each impression after that has been an indelible one.

There is no justification — either willfully or through ignorance — for any faction of the hockey world to negate his astonishing level of achievement since his early years of minor hockey in Shelby Township, Mich. The 25-year-old left-winger with rocket fuel in his skate boots, hands of a diamond cutter, dogged determination, and wisdom well beyond his years is firmly established as an NHL superstar.

“He puts a lot of pressure on himself, and he expects himself to score every night and he expects himself to be one of the best players out there.” – Paul Stastny

“He’s quiet, kind of introverted, keeps to himself, but when you dig deeper and pull the layers back, you realize how much he loves the game. He puts a lot of pressure on himself, and he expects himself to score every night and he expects himself to be one of the best players out there,” says Stastny. “He’s just a very dynamic player, wants the puck all the time, very hard to knock off the puck, for someone when you look at him you wouldn’t say is small, you wouldn’t say he is big, just regular stature. Just someone who constantly wants to get better.”

Connor has spent the majority of his time in Winnipeg ripping down the left side on a line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, although the trio hasn’t been together much in ‘21-22 with absences by the veteran centre (COVID-19) and the captain and right-winger (COVID-19 and a knee injury).

The Jets with him are a bubble team in Central Division, during an NHL season of fits and starts, owing to the pandemic. There is still plenty of time for the squad to enhance its stature in the division and Western Conference.

“He’s quiet, kind of introverted, keeps to himself, but when you dig deeper and pull the layers back, you realize how much he loves the game,” Paul Stastny (right) says of teammate Kyle Connor.” width=”2048″ height=”1441″ srcset=”https://media.winnipegfreepress.com/images/400*400/HKN+Jets+Canadiens+202104302.jpg 400w,https://media.winnipegfreepress.com/images/600*600/HKN+Jets+Canadiens+202104302.jpg 600w,https://media.winnipegfreepress.com/images/700*700/HKN+Jets+Canadiens+202104302.jpg 700w,https://media.winnipegfreepress.com/images/800*800/HKN+Jets+Canadiens+202104302.jpg 800w,https://media.winnipegfreepress.com/images/900*900/HKN+Jets+Canadiens+202104302.jpg 900w,https://media.winnipegfreepress.com/images/1000*1000/HKN+Jets+Canadiens+202104302.jpg 1000w”/>

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PAUL CHIASSON / CANADIAN PRESS FILES

“He’s quiet, kind of introverted, keeps to himself, but when you dig deeper and pull the layers back, you realize how much he loves the game,” Paul Stastny (right) says of teammate Kyle Connor.

Heaven only knows where the squad would be without Connor. Through 33 games (16-12-5), the 17th overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft has a team-leading 19 goals and 16 assists, factoring in on 35.35 per cent of the team’s scoring. Connor has three-game winners, including his most recent masterpiece Jan. 2, the overtime clincher on a sensational dash and ensuing laser beam past old buddy Laurent Brossoit in the Vegas cage to give his club a 5-4 victory over the Golden Knights.

Only seven NHLers have more goals as the midway point of the season approaches.

Since Connor was called up from the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League in mid-October 2017, the 6-1, 182-pound forward is up to 148 goals — including 28 game winners — in 318 career outings.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
 <p>Connor has spent the majority of his time in Winnipeg ripping down the left side on a line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler” width=”2048″ height=”1365″  data-srcset=”https://media.winnipegfreepress.com/images/400*400/NEP103131_web_220111-Jets-0009.jpg 400w,https://media.winnipegfreepress.com/images/600*600/NEP103131_web_220111-Jets-0009.jpg 600w,https://media.winnipegfreepress.com/images/700*700/NEP103131_web_220111-Jets-0009.jpg 700w,https://media.winnipegfreepress.com/images/800*800/NEP103131_web_220111-Jets-0009.jpg 800w,https://media.winnipegfreepress.com/images/900*900/NEP103131_web_220111-Jets-0009.jpg 900w,https://media.winnipegfreepress.com/images/1000*1000/NEP103131_web_220111-Jets-0009.jpg 1000w”/>								</p>
 <p>MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
 <p>Connor has spent the majority of his time in Winnipeg ripping down the left side on a line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler																							</p>
 <p>Just five all-world players — Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals (196), Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs (182), the Edmonton Oilers’ dynamic duo of Leon Draisaitl (175) and Connor McDavid (168), and David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins (154) — have more goals since the start of the ’17-18 season.			</p>
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Right now, he’s in a rut. Not a deep one, but a rut nonetheless. The tally on the Vegas strip represents the only time he’s cashed in since Dec. 10. That certainly sounds more ominous that it truly is, as Winnipeg has made just six appearances in a month.

Pay little heed to the fleeting drought. If the past five seasons since Connor became a permanent fixture on the Jets’ top-six forward group have taught us anything, the team’s resident sniper won’t allow it to linger. Battling to be the best is in his DNA, and he does it quietly but confidently.

“Maybe that can be a fault when you’re never satisfied and you are content to just look at where you’ve gotten to, but that’s for the end of the year, that’s when you sit back and look back to see if you accomplished your goals.” – Kyle Connor

“There are ups and downs but I don’t really get uncomfortable on the ice, just because I set a pretty high standard for myself. I’m a pretty tough critic when it comes to my game every single night, and over the course of my career as well,” Connor says. “Personally, I don’t see (success) as a shock or surprise. I think we’re all pretty motivated and want to be the best that we can as athletes. It’s always looking at how to get better, taking advantage of that next opportunity to improve.

“Maybe that can be a fault when you’re never satisfied and you are content to just look at where you’ve gotten to, but that’s for the end of the year, that’s when you sit back and look back to see if you accomplished your goals. I’m such a competitive guy that I’m trying to stay in the fight every day and focus more on that, how I can get better.

“I definitely know with my speed I can create space and use it to my advantage. On the ice, you can’t go out there not confident in yourself, in our ability, because that’s when you’ll make mistakes, you get injured.

FRED GREENSLADE / CANADIAN PRESS FILES</p>
 <p>Barring injury or a prolonged work stoppage attributed to the global health crisis, Connor will almost assuredly reach the 30-goal plateau for the fourth time in his five-year NHL career, while continuing to progress as a more dependable two-way player.” width=”2048″ height=”1604″  data-srcset=”https://media.winnipegfreepress.com/images/400*400/KYCO.jpg 400w,https://media.winnipegfreepress.com/images/600*600/KYCO.jpg 600w,https://media.winnipegfreepress.com/images/700*700/KYCO.jpg 700w,https://media.winnipegfreepress.com/images/800*800/KYCO.jpg 800w,https://media.winnipegfreepress.com/images/900*900/KYCO.jpg 900w,https://media.winnipegfreepress.com/images/1000*1000/KYCO.jpg 1000w”/>								</p>
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 <p>FRED GREENSLADE / CANADIAN PRESS FILES</p>
 <p>Barring injury or a prolonged work stoppage attributed to the global health crisis, Connor will almost assuredly reach the 30-goal plateau for the fourth time in his five-year NHL career, while continuing to progress as a more dependable two-way player.																							</p>
 <p>Connor is straddling the edge of a fifth consecutive 20-goal campaign, and he could cross the threshold Thursday in his old stomping grounds. The Jets play their first game in a week against the Red Wings (16-16-5) in downtown Detroit. Game time is 6:30 p.m.			</p>
 <p>In Winnipeg’s most recent visit to Little Caesars Arena (LCA), Connor scored a pair of second-period goals in a 5-2 defeat to the hosts Dec. 12, 2019, his fourth career game in Detroit.			</p>
 <p>“They’re always special games at home. I was pretty fortunate, I got to play at Joe Louis before they tore that down and moved over to the LCA,” he says. “It’s always special to play the team you grew up idolizing, and all the family and friends that are supposed to be coming to the game.			</p>
 <p>“I think I was five when I went to my first game. It was probably pretty difficult to get tickets, considering they were sold out every night. At the old arena, it felt like the seats were right on top of you. It was a phenomenal place to watch at game.”			</p>
 <p>																																																																																																																				“It’s always special to play the team (Detroit) you grew up idolizing, and all the family and friends that are supposed to be coming to the game.” – Kyle Connor																										</p>
 <p>Steady improvement has been Connor’s mantra since he was a mere youngster, swatting pucks on the big backyard rink his late father, Joe, made for his four kids (Brendon, Kyle, Jacob and Krystal) every winter at their home, just north of Detroit. Floodlights hanging above created the perfect setting for evening three-on-three games with neighbourhood friends.			</p>
 <p>His mother, Kathy, says hockey wasn’t the only activity to which he put his determination into while growing up.			</p>
 <p>“He was a big sports guy, he played a lot of football and baseball, and he used to be big into chess,” she says. “He’d go compete against other schools. In elementary school, the kids would come in their best shirts but Kyle would always put his Belle Tire (hockey) cap on. He was so competitive and loved those tournaments.”			</p>
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He gets paid to score, securing a seven-year, US$50-million contract prior to the 2019-20 season that carries with it an annual cap hit of US$7.14 million.

Connor’s mom says the money hasn’t changed her down-to-earth son.

“I don’t think people close to him see him any differently, and he doesn’t act differently. I’m still mom, always thinking of ways to help him out,” says Kathy, who attended the Jets’ home-opener in October. “I text him most days and send him a ‘good-luck-in-your-game note.’ We watch all his games on TV and we’re just so proud of him.

“He really loves playing in Winnipeg, he likes the people, he likes the team. He and (his girlfriend) Ally enjoy the town, and they have a puppy now. It never crossed his mind to play anywhere else.”

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Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

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