By the time Kyle Connor was 3 or 4, he already was on skates and sliding across the backyard rink his dad would set up every winter.
As he aged, he’d pretend to be playing for the University of Michigan, the Detroit Red Wings or Team USA — just like every other hockey player growing up in Michigan.
“You always kind of joke around on the ice,” said Connor, who grew up in Shelby Township and thrived playing minor hockey in the Belle Tire Hockey Club system. “You envision playing for one of those someday.”
At 17, Connor already has checked off one of those goals — playing for the U.S. — and is well on his way toward college and the NHL, too.
Connor is one of 42 players selected to play in the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game Sept. 25 in Buffalo, N.Y. Only the top U.S. players eligible for the 2015 NHL Entry Draft are invited to participate. Players invited typically are selected in the top rounds of the draft, which will be held June 26-27 in Sunrise, Florida.
Connor committed to play for the University of Michigan when he was just a freshman in high school, and he’s still excited about playing for the Wolverines. He’s been a diehard Michigan fan since he can remember, and he’s scheduled to start at Ann Arbor next fall.
But Connor’s hockey career has been on a steep rise. The NHL certainly could make that decision to play college hockey much more difficult if he’s selected high in the draft. For instance, what if the Red Wings call his name?
“That would be unreal,” he said. “Being from Michigan and always watching their games, growing up a fan … yeah, that would be surreal.”
Fortunately, Connor doesn’t have to make any decisions now. He knows if he keeps playing well, the future will take care of itself. He said getting an invitation to play in the All-American Prospects Game is another big step in his hockey growth.
“I think it’s a great chance to show early in the year all the scouts and coaches and all the players out there that you’re ready for the year and you took your game to the next level from last year,” he said. “It can set a good tone for the season to come.”
Connor will play for the Youngstown Phantoms of the United States Hockey League for a third consecutive season. Last year he was an All-USHL First-Team selection, leading the Phantoms with 74 points (31 goals, 43 assists) in 56 games. He was second in the league in scoring and fourth in both goals and assists. In his first season, 2012-13, he had 41 points (17 goals, 24 assists).
But in the past year, the biggest highlight for the 6-foot-1, 175-pound center/forward was playing for the U.S. in the IIHF Under-18 World Championships in Finland in April.
Over seven games, in which the U.S. went 6-1 to win the gold medal, Connor was the only American to register a point in every game, with four goals and three assists.
After an upset loss to Switzerland in the opener, the Americans regrouped and prevailed.
“It’s a really tough tournament to win,” Connor said. “Everybody sends their best.”
Getting a chance to play so well against elite competition was a big step, he said.
“Any time you can produce points like that or score goals against [that level of opponent], I think it helps your confidence, no doubt about it,” he said.
His solid performance was just the latest for Connor representing his nation.
He played for the Under-17 Select team in the Five Nations Tournament in the Czech Republic in 2012, scoring four goals with two assists in helping the U.S. take first place.
After the 2012-13 Phantoms season, he also played on the Under-18 Select team that placed second at the 2013 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, posting three points. Then in November of 2013, Connor scored what would be the game-winning goal in a victory over Russia to win the World Junior A Challenge, a six-team tournament in which the U.S. went unbeaten.
This past summer, Connor participated in the U.S. National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, New York. The camp was the first step in building the 2015 U.S. National Junior Team that will compete at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship In Montreal and Toronto, Canada. Connor was steady on left wing, notching a goal and an assist in five games.
As Connor heads into his third season for Youngstown, his goal is to continue to sharpen his game. He knows his best assets are his speed and his ability to distribute the puck and score, but he’s determined to improve. Some of that will involve time in the weight room.
“I’ve got to work on getting better for the next level,” he said. “Just overall strength around the corners, winning more battles everywhere on the ice.”
With the chance to play in the All-American Prospects Game, the draft and perhaps a first college season looming, big things are on the horizon for Connor. He’s going to try to take it one small step at a time.
“Just try to focus on the little things,” he said. “I’m sure once the draft comes closer, around towards the end of the [hockey] year, I’ll start getting nervous, but right now I’m just trying to focus on getting better every day.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.