Kyle Connor has no doubt the Winnipeg Jets were on the verge of something special when the NHL season was suddenly shut down by COVID-19.
They had won a season-high four straight to get back into a playoff spot. They were as healthy as they’d been all year and the schedule down the stretch was allowing for plenty of rest and recovery between big games.
“I think the sky was the limit with this team,” Connor said Friday morning during a Zoom conference call with several media members. “We were just starting to hit our peak and come together as a team. Once everybody as a team buys in, that’s when you see teams go on to do great things.”
Connor was playing a big part of that, with a team-leading 38 goals that had him among the league’s elite scorers. He had eight in his past seven games, including a two-goal effort in that Mar. 11 contest in Edmonton which is the last time the Jets hit the ice.
“I thought myself, I was really getting in the groove, as well as the whole team. We were playing some great hockey, we were making that push. We knew every single game was so big at that point. That was kind of our mindset after going in and hearing about (the potential league shutdown) after the first period as well,” said Connor.
“You know if we win this game and get in a playoff spot, because who knows if they start the playoffs. That was kind of the way we approached it for those last two periods.”
So much has changed in the world in the month that has now passed. There is no timeline for a potential return to NHL play, with all kinds of scenarios being tossed around that are ultimately at the mercy of health officials and government leaders.
“I really hope they do finish the season, but that’s still up in the air. This team, the way it was playing, some of the best hockey we ever have. And it just sucks the way it all unfolded,” said Connor.
He’s back at his summer home in Michigan now, trying to do whatever he can to keep his body, and his mind, busy. That includes plenty of roller-blading around his neighbourhood, along with Xbox, Netflix and even puzzles.
“It’s tough, it’s tough for everybody,” said Connor. “I think for everybody, as it starts to warm up we just want to go outside, but Michigan’s got a pretty tough quarantine. They’ve really cracked down. I don’t even think golf courses are open at this point so can’t do any golfing.
“I don’t have a lot of equipment with me, so I’ve been doing a lot of calisthenics. Just different motion exercises, that’s been good. It’s something that’s a lot less stress on the body, so that’s nice to kind of recover and let the body heal a little bit from the season. We were at such a grind at that point. It’s been tough, not being able to skate. Some different workouts, but they’ve been good.”
Connor said if the NHL resumes at some point, there will definitely need to be a mini-training camp for players.
“I don’t think anybody’s skating at this point. And to be off the ice for that long, it’s tough,” he said. “You can’t just jump into it and into a season. I think that’s something we definitely need to talk about. There’s talks going on about how we can finish the season we had and I think it’s gotta start with a training camp. Everybody’s gotta get acclimated again.”
Speaking of golf, Connor said that’s an easy choice as what he’s missing most besides playing hockey.
“It was Masters week this week. That’s pretty sad that we’re not watching Tiger and all the other golfers tee it up at Augusta. That definitely sucks. And just all sports, but golf for sure,” he said.
Connor signed a seven-year, $50-million extension during training camp last September which looks to be an even smarter move now, considering the financial uncertainty swirling in the NHL.
But that didn’t stop him from taking his game to a whole new level.
“Just overall, understanding the NHL. Understanding it’s a long season, 82 games is a grind, and it’s a lot about consistency and bringing it every single night. I think that’s what separates a lot of good players from the great players is just the consistency of showing that high level of compete, and it shows every single night.” he said.
“That’s something I’ve learned and I think I’ve grown my game. I showed glimpses my first couple of years of how great I can be. Moreso now it’s just more consistency and bringing that every single night.”
And he believes that personal growth extended to several other players on the team, which he described as the tightest-knit he’s seen during his three full seasons.
“That all starts with Blake Wheeler, too, our captain. He sets the tone for everything that we do in our locker-room and on the ice. With the personnel that we lost over the past couple of years, starting with Buff, he was an assistant captain, one of our leaders, and the other defencemen. We’ve needed to step up, and it’s been a full team effort this year, whether you lead by example or you’re more vocal, everybody chips in in that department,” he said.
“It’s just something that we grew as a team. We got to know each other. We hung out more as a team and got to know each other. You’re just battling for the guy next to you. That’s what makes teams successful, just that buy-in.”
Connor finished his chat session by sending a message to front-line workers batting the pandemic.
“They’ve just been so important, everybody, in keeping us safe and we want to say thank you to everybody who’s out there on the front lines, making it safe for us and to be able to enjoy life and keep doing your work. It’s saving lives and making a difference, so thank you,” he said.
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