Photo by Steve Christy
A new city, a new arena, a new coaching staff, a new training staff, and a new group of faces in the locker room. Just some of the things a hockey player traded during the season expects to encounter when he dons the new sweater.
But “new” is a relative term when it comes to defenseman Brian Connelly, one of the more recent additions to the Rockford IceHogs roster.
Connelly joined the IceHogs on Feb. 26 when the Chicago Blackhawks sent Rockford forward Brad Winchester to the Minnesota Wild organization in exchange for the d-man. The veteran had appeared in 50 games for the American Hockey League’s Iowa Wild, leading the team in points (32) and assists (27) at the time of the trade.
Of course an athlete who goes to a new team takes his previous stats with him. But those just might mean more when you go back to a team where your name is already in the record books. Enter Connelly’s previous stay in Rockford, where he made his professional debut in 2009.
“It’s special coming back where it started. I played three years here, had some success, and I was looking forward to coming back. The style of play I think fits me,” Connelly said.
When Chicago traded the blueliner to the NHL’s Calgary Flames for center Brendan Morrison on Jan. 27, 2012, Connelly had just been selected to his second-straight AHL All-Star Game and owned an IceHogs all-time record for number of assists with 105. Connelly had also established franchise marks for Rockford defensemen, including number of games played (211), points (126), and goals (21).
And before the 2012 trade that had him packing his bags on the way out of the Forest City, Connelly had played in 127 consecutive contests with Rockford, an AHL record.
With those notes next to the Minnesota native’s name, it’s no surprise that Hogs head coach Ted Dent knew what he was getting in his “new” defenseman.
“We know each other real well. He’s an offensive defenseman, plays very similar to (Adam) Clendening and good along the blue line in the offensive zone, moves the puck well, so hopefully compliments some of our forwards,” Dent said.
But a knowledge of the organization didn’t stop Connelly from being “a little surprised” when he found out where he was headed from Iowa.
“You never know. I heard some rumors about teams being interested, you never hear what teams they are. But with Teddy being here and (Blackhawks General Manager of Minor League Affiliations) Mark Bernard, I’m familiar with them and they obviously know what I can bring to the table, so it was a good transition for me,” Connelly said.
While the name on the sweater and the location of the arena might be the same as when Connelly left just over two years ago, the faces in the locker room aren’t as familiar.
Besides phone conversations with Bernard about the deal, Connelly reached out to just two fellow skaters: forwards Jeremy Morin and Brandon Pirri. Because they were the only two who were with the IceHogs the last time Connelly was. Despite Pirri’s March 2 trade to the Florida Panthers, Connelly isn’t complaining about the adjustment.
“There’s been a lot of change with Rockford,” Connelly said. “That’s just the nature of the beast in the AHL and the changeover. But I’m liking what I see and I like the blend of the team.”
For his part, second-year d-man Adam Clendening, who has drawn comparisons to Connelly for his style of play, is already getting to know the veteran.
“He’s very easy to get along with,” Clendening said. “I’ve only known him like two weeks and I think we became pretty good friends.”
As a Rockford rookie, Connelly had defenseman Richard Petiot and centers Mark Cullen and Jake Dowell showing him the ropes. This time around, the skate is on the other foot.
“They showed me every day, whether it’s practice or a game or days off, you’ve got to be a good professional and take care of yourself. When you do that, good things will happen on the ice,” Connelly said.
“Me being in the veteran spotlight now, trying to be a little more of a leader out there. My first couple of years here I had good veterans show me the way and I kind of flew under the radar. Now being in the league and having some success, I think I just have to help the younger guys out as much as I can,” he added.
Clendening, who tallied his 41st assist of the season on Friday in Milwaukee to tie Connelly’s all-time season record for assists by a defenseman (2010-11), has already pinpointed some highlights of the veteran’s game.
“He’s very patient with the puck. He has no panic really with his game. It’s nice to see,” Clendening said. “He’s good in his own end for being a small guy, has a really good stick defensively.
“How simple he is in his own end, how he is good defensively -- underrated, I would say -- for being such a small guy. So just learn how to kind of take in what he does and how patient he is,” Clendening added.
But for Connelly, this go-round at the BMO is about more than helping develop up-and-coming talent in the Blackhawks organization. The 27-year-old also brings playoff experience to the table, having skated on the IceHogs last playoff squad in addition to making postseason trips with the Abbotsford Heat in 2012 and the Houston Aeros in 2013. So far, he likes what he sees in this group.
“We have good leadership in the locker room with some veteran guys that have gone deep in playoffs, won Calder Cups, and a good blend of younger guys that are excited to be playing professional hockey at a high pace. I think when you put all that together and the style of play that Chicago wants us playing down here, it’s a good thing to see.”
With the Hogs currently sitting in the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, every point counts.
“We just got to continue to have the mindset of going in and having good games. This last month of the season, obviously you want to be playing your best hockey going into the playoffs,” Connelly said. “We’re looking forward to the challenge.”