Winning the Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals is the highlight of Brett Connolly's 26 year-old life.
Nothing else comes even remotely close.
The celebration that came with hoisting hockey's holy grail lasted for days but one thing was missing for Connolly - the chance to share it with the people of Prince George who helped pave his way to the NHL. That day will come on Monday, Aug. 20 when Connolly brings the Cup to the city he calls home.
That public ceremony at CN Centre will give him a chance to pose for pictures beside the Cup and rekindle relationships with his friends, his minor hockey teammates and coaches, his teachers and the fans who used to watch him score goals for the Prince George Cougars. It's his chance to personally thank everybody who helped him realize his goals as a professional athlete.
"I'm really excited. Prince George is where I got my start, where I kind of got that belief in myself I could play hockey and I could play at the professional level and it just took off from there," said Connolly, from his home in Toronto.
"I owe the city a lot, I owe a lot of people a lot and and this is one way I can repay them."
His Stanley Cup homecoming will also be Connolly's way of paying tribute to his former Cougar teammate, Brock Hirsche, who died of testicular cancer in February. To help raise money for the Brock Hirsche Memorial Scholarship Fund, the Cougars are offering two groups of fans a backstage VIP experience with Connolly and the Cup and will auction a collection of autographed Capitals merchandise he will be bringing to the event. Hirsche, who was 26 when he died, joined the Cougars a year after Connolly did and took over as captain of the Cats when Connolly left as a 19-year-old for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"Brock was an old teammate of mine and obviously I would have loved for him to be around to experience it but that didn't happen," said Connolly. "I was actually in contact with him this year about setting some stuff up for him in Toronto and maybe seeing him in the summer when I got back but he didn't make it that far.
"Every dollar I make is going to go to his scholarship fund he set up for kids to go to school and I'm really excited about that. His parents (Tim and Sharla) are going to be there and it's just a great cause and it's a no-brainer for me to do that. That's kind of been my focus with everything, to raise as much money as I can and have people be aware of what a good person he was and what he did before he passed away. He was character guy right to the end, making a difference and hopefully he'll look at this and see what we're doing from upstairs and be proud of what he did."
Fans can now visit the Cougars' office or the Tickets North booth at CN Centre to buy a draw ticket for a raffle for the VIP experience for four with Connolly before the public ceremony begins at noon on Aug. 20. Draw tickets are by donation with a minimum price of $5. There's also an online silent auction VIP package for corporate and private donors and highest bid will win that private session for four with Connolly and the Cup.
"It'll be a great event when August 20th comes around and a big thank you to the Prince George Cougars and Andy Beesley," said Connollly. "They've done everything and they've been working with me directly to put this event on and have been very accommodating with what I want
"There's a lot of planning that goes into it. I get to come back on Thursday so I get the whole weekend (in Prince George), my last weekend before you get serious about training camp."
Connolly's last shot of the season produced the Cup-winning goal, 12:23 into the third period in Game 5. Fed in the slot by linemate Andre Burakovsky, Connolly got all his weight behind the shot. The puck had enough steam to get through the legs of Vegas Golden Knights Marc-Andre Fleury, and Lars Eller tucked it into the net. That goal, that moment, will forever live in Capitals' history.
"Devo (Devante Smith-Pelly) scored a really big goal to tie it up and that gave us a really big boost and from there we just settled in and were getting chances," said Connolly. "A good forecheck by my linemates and I was open for some reason, I was wide-open in the slot and Burkie made a good play to get it up to me and I just shot it as hard as I could. I think it hit a stick and hit the ice and found a way to trickle by Fleury and I knew he didn't know where it was. and I saw Lars and his eyes light up. I knew he could see it and I kind of had a front-row seat to it.
"That was a very special moment and a really cool celebration we got to experience with that goal. It's just really cool to be a big part of that. To be the primary helper on a Stanley Cup-winning goal is a moment I'll never forget."
That goal quenched a long drought for the championship-starved city of Washington, which hadn't seen a champion in one the big four pro sports since the Washington Redskins brought home the Super Bowl in 1991. Following the lead of Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, Connolly was in on the sudsy celebrations which started with long sleepless night of partying in Vegas and an early-morning flight out of town. It continued with the massive parade through the streets of D.C., a night at the ballpark as guests of the Nationals and Ovie's well-publicized dive into a public fountain. The week ended with Connolly and his wife Katrina taking off on a much-needed holiday to Italy and Greece. Six weeks have passed since the season ended and Connolly is still getting used to the fact he's now part of an exclusive club.
"It's nice to relax and sit back and reminisce on all the memories and let it kind of sink in," he said. "I've seen a lot of pictures popping up on social media and it's definitely a cool thing, something I'm very proud of. I'll take this every year."
Connolly's wife, his parents, Dawn and Pat, his brother Josh and grandfather Richard McDonell were on the ice when he was took the full 15.5-kilogram weight of the trophy and lifted it over his head to skate around the rink, realizing the dream of every driveway ball hockey kid who fantasizes about scoring the goal that wins the Stanley Cup.
"It was a special moment to see them come on the ice, just the emotions, I think that was the coolest thing, just seeing their reactions," he said. "It shows you that it was so much bigger than myself, it touched so many people. There's a lot of people who supported me my whole career and that's kind of the pinnacle of why you play. Just to do in Las Vegas where the franchise just started in a city that's very unique, it was a great moment, something you dream of, and it comes true and I'm obviously happy I got to experience that with my family.
"That's a once-in-a-lifetime experience that not a lot of people get to do and obviously I'd like to win another one but you just don't know if you'll get that opportunity again so you really got to enjoy it and soak it all in."
Connolly was a free agent signing with Washington two seasons ago and is under contract with the Capitals for one more season. He put up back-to-back 15-goal seasons and was at his best in this year's playoffs with six goals and three assists in 24 games.
"It was two productive seasons in a row for me in terms of scoring and with the icetime I was getting and in the playoffs, you just want to be a contributor every night and a difference-maker and I really felt I played my best hockey at the right time of year," he said. "That's what you want and the people at the top want and people around the league are seeing that. It was good for me mentally for my confidence to really produce at the toughest time of the year when the game is so much harder and I'm happy with the way I responded."
The Caps will have a new head coach with Todd Reirden moving up from his assistant's role now that Barry Trotz has signed with the New Your Islanders, taking Caps assistant, former Cougar head coach Lane Lambert, with him to New York. Connolly will miss Trotz but predicts it will be a smooth transition with the new staff Reirden puts in place. Blaine Forsythe remains as one of the assistants.
"I think with Barry, he's a guy who puts a good team together and our assistant coaches were a big part of our success last year and the year before," said Connolly. "Barry put a lot of trust in his assistants and Tom and Lane, for the most part, were running the team as well. They had a big say in everything we were doing and it will be no different.
"For the most part we're going to have the same group and it's going to be fine. Tom is a very smart and creative coach and he's paid his dues and is going to get an opportunity to repeat and coach a good group of guys with a lot of skill. It's going to be be a lot of fun."