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Connolly in hot pursuit of Bolts position

Rest and relaxation are scarce commodities for Brett Connolly. Hockey is a full-time job, even in the summer, and time is precious while he prepares for the rigours of an NHL season.
Brett Connolly
Former Prince George Cougars captain and Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Brett Connolly.

Rest and relaxation are scarce commodities for Brett Connolly.

Hockey is a full-time job, even in the summer, and time is precious while he prepares for the rigours of an NHL season. At 22, heading into his fourth pro season, the former Prince George Cougars captain is intent on making a permanent return to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

That's been his goal ever since the Lightning selected him in the first round, sixth overall, in the 2010 draft. Since he turned pro, Connolly has had to change his game to become a more complete player. He's had to improve his skating to match the demands of playing against grown men -- elite athletes at the peak of their physical strength -- and can't wait to show Lightning GM Steve Yzerman and head coach Jon Cooper how much he's developed.

"It's been good, I've been out in really good situations and I'm in an organization that believes in me and has a lot of faith in their young guys and I've had a couple years in the American League to round out me game," said Connolly, who played in Saturday's Cougars Alumni charity golf tournament at Prince George Golf and Curling Club.

"Coming in to [the AHL] I didn't know what to expect but it's such a good league and it's made me a way better player than I was when I first came into pro hockey my first year and I'm really excited for this season."

As an NHL rookie, Connolly totaled four goals and 11 assists for 15 points in 68 games with the Lightning. The following year, in the lockout-shortened NHL season, he helped the Crunch advance to the Calder Cup final. He led the Crunch in scoring last season with 21 goals and 57 points in 66 games.

Once the season was done, Connolly took two weeks off for a vacation, but he's been training ever since, surrounded by a select group of NHL and AHL players at the Gary Roberts High Performance Centre in Toronto. Connolly's training schedule allowed only three days at home with his parents Pat and Dawn and younger brother Josh, who plays defence for the Kamloops Blazers. The three of them are planning a two-week trip to Toronto to stay with Connolly later this summer.

"Summers are long and hectic but well worth it," said Connolly. "I'm trying to put myself in good position to be a real contributor this year and I'll be going at it until I go to training camp. You can't take anything for granted and that's why we work so hard in the off-season."

There's also the money factor as an incentive. If he's sent back to Syracuse next season Connolly stands to make $67,500. That jumps to $850,500 if he sticks with the Lightning.

Cooper, a native of Prince George, was a coach-of-the-year award finalist last season as a rookie NHL head coach with Tampa and coached Connolly with Syracuse two seasons ago. Connolly's other P.G. connection on the Lightning is veteran defenceman Eric Brewer, also a former Cougar and now part-owner of the Cougars franchise.

"Jon is a great coach and a great person and I've been fortunate to grow close with Brew over the last couple years, he's been very good to me since I got drafted there," said Connolly. "They've not only made me feel at home but they've made me a better player and taught me how to be a professional, so it's good to have them around."

The Lightning has had a glut of offensive-minded wingers the past couple seasons and Brewer says it was case of Connolly getting caught up in a numbers game that has delayed his return to the NHL.

"It's a bit of a challenge for a young offensive player to be on an offensive team," said Brewer. "It seems like a logical fit but we've had so many offensive players they're looking for a balance and it's been tough for him in that light. But he's a skilled player and he's going to do really well, and play for a long time."

Connolly's Prince George bantam head coach, Greg Pocock, is now majority owner and president of the Cougars. After years of playing at CN Centre in front of long rows of empty seats, Connolly predicts a return to the glory days of the franchise now that a local group has taken over the team.

"Obviously the franchise was dwindling a bit with the season tickets and the fans and the [team's] record, and a fresh start is good," said Connolly. "From what I've been hearing, there's good support around the city. People are excited about the team and I'd be very excited as a player coming in to be of part of it.

"With Dan [Hamhuis] and Eric and Greg involved, that's three very good guys at the top of the ownership group. I follow the team to this day and want them to do well and want them to win and it would be a very good city to win it."