Starting his professional career straight out of University, Connolly came over to the SHL in 2012 and has never looked back.
With the season entering the final stretch towards the playoffs, Luleå is having one of their best campaigns in recent memory. Although they finished second overall in the regular season last year, this season has seen them improve upon that success as they currently sit 1st overall with a fairly comfortable point lead. Connolly credits this success to a few things.
- I think a lot of it has to do with the coaching staff and the guys we have in our locker room. They've implemented a system that has worked and we wanna go out there and take it one game at a time and work hard. Obviously its been working for us over the last couple of seasons, so its been good. Berglund has done a great job coaching our guys and we've got a great group of guys in the locker room that all buy into the same system and try to play that system every night and its been working well for us. We've also had a core group of guys for a few years, mix that with a few key new players each season and it works well. Tyrvainen and Illomaki have both been big for us this year, they've really boosted our team. Having a core group of guys on a successful team is definitely big for us.
Although they have a comfy lead over the other top six teams, there is still 12 games to play in the regular season. In a league that can see major standing shifts in just a few games, Connolly knows that a 1st place finish for them is certainly not a guarantee.
- This league is always a tight league, anybody can beat anybody on any night, it doesn't matter who you're playing. Obviously you've got teams like Frölunda, Djurgården and Färjestad that people think are close to the top of the league, which they are, they have great reputations as winning programs. So obviously those teams come to mind as threats heading into the final games. But we play almost every team once more this season so just gotta take it one game at a time and hopefully finish near the top of the table.
After their success last season, Luleå was a part of the Champions Hockey League this year which, of course, adds extra games and extra travel for the team. Although the finish to their CHL season didn't turn out as well as they would've hoped, Connolly says it was an all around good experience.
- It obviously adds a lot of travel for us but we took it very seriously. We had a good run and just fell short against Frölunda. But those games added into our regular season, it gets to be a lot, but I think our guys handled it well. I think the CHL is a good journey, it's fun to play against other teams from other leagues and see some other countries. So it was definitely fun for us to be a part of and hopefully we'll be a part of it next year.
Having been a part of the SHL for eight seasons now, Connolly has seen many players come and go. This season, however, has one of the lowest counts of North American skaters since Connolly arrived back in 2012.
- I kinda noticed that this year, I've known a handful of guys that have played over here, guys that I've played with or against back home. It definitely seems like teams are having a few less imports each year, but I honestly don't know the reason behind it. Obviously there's a lot of great Swedish players and alot of young guys coming up that are great hockey players, so maybe teams are going back to keeping it more Swedish and developing the younger guys. Either way I'm glad to be a part of this league and I've had a great experience here and it's been a good run so far.
With turnover from season to season, especially among imported players, it's not extremely common to see a North American skater with a long SHL career. However, Connolly came over in 2012 right after college and has been in the league ever since.
- In my opinion it's one of the best leagues in the world, the level of play is very high and I have a lot of respect for this league. Färjestad gave me a great opportunity coming over straight out of college to get my feet wet in this league. My wife and I have grown pretty comfortable here in Sweden, it's a great country to live in, similar to Minnesota where we're from back home. All the people have been super welcoming and its been a great fit for us, plus the teams and the hockey have been great, so we've really enjoyed our time here in Sweden.
During his time here in Sweden, the league has undergone a few major changes. They rebranded themselves from Elitserien to the SHL and they followed the lead of the NHL by adopting 3 on 3 overtime and the shootout. These changes, Connolly believes, have been good for the league.
- I think they're always re-evaluating and looking for things to tweak after each season. Those two big ones you mentioned I think were positive ones for the league. In my opinion, the league is also changing with its average age, it's getting younger, there's alot of young swedes that come up that are high draft picks. That's definitely making the league a lot faster, I think the speed of the game is picking up, even compared to when I first started, which I think is great, it's definitely evolving. It's a great development league for high end talent and high end players. Overall I think the league has done a great job with the positive changes and it's helping the game in the right direction.
Having spent four successful seasons in the NCAA with the University of Minnesota - Duluth, Connolly went undrafted and was weighing his options. Despite numerous possible opportunities in North America, he packed up his skates and headed across the pond.
- I just kind of evaluated my situation after I graduated as a senior. There was definitely some NHL interest, I went trhough my draft years undrafted, which was fine, then my agent at the time said there was a lot of interest from the NHL. But there wasn't any teams willing to offer me an NHL contract, so I could've gone with an AHL contract with a bunch of different teams. My agent also said that opportunities in Europe were pretty good, especially starting out from college. So I had to weigh my options and figure out what would be the best for me and my career and I ultimately made the decision to come to Sweden. It also happened to be the lockout year in the NHL, so when I look back on it I made the right choice to go the European route because I'm not sure where I might've ended up in North America during the lockout. There's obviously the "what ifs" about what could've happened if I gave it a shot back home, but I have no regrets, I'm very happy with my decision to come over right away. The SHL has been good to me and they've given me an opportunity to play in a great league.
One of the hardest things for any professional athlete to do, but especially one in a contact sport like hockey, is stay healthy. Connolly has managed to do just that over the majority of his career. He hasn't missed a regular season game in the past four seasons and only missed two in the past five, something he says is a combination of intelligence and luck.
- I think it's just being smart on the ice. I was also very fortunate in college to play all four seasons and not miss a game there as well. You have to factor in some luck obviously, things can happen so fast, blocking a shot or taking a hit or things that are out of your control. But I'm always trying to be smart on the ice, try to put myself in good positions where I'm not too vulnerable. Also just taking care of the body, keeping up with stuff off the ice, all the little things you need to do to prepare for the game.
Favourite Movie: Gladiator
TV Show: Breaking Bad
Music Genre: Rock and Hip Hop
Meal: Any kind of pasta, Carbonara or Alfredo
NHL Team: Minnesota Wild
Dream Car: Bentley