When the WHL Vancouver Giants secured a commitment from Kevin Connauton during the off-season, it served as confirmation the Edmonton, Alberta native was willing to add another destination to his personal road map of hockey. Over the past three seasons, his path of development has been rather unique.
Connauton was overlooked at the WHL Bantam Draft during his season of eligibility. However, what was initially a disappointment has undoubtedly become a valuable lesson in perseverance.
"Being passed up in the WHL draft, I just thought, oh well, it’s not the end of the world, there’s other ways to go," Connauton said. "My older brother (Sean) was playing in the Alberta Junior Hockey League when I was in midget, and he was enjoying it. I had some buddies playing in the WHL as 16-year-olds, so I just thought I would try to play in the AJHL, go for a scholarship and go from there."
Sean, the elder Connauton, had been wreaking havoc throughout the AJHL while suiting up with both the Fort Saskatchewan Traders and the Camrose Kodiaks. He amassed 492 penalty minutes during three seasons, played in the 2005 Royal Bank Cup, and earned an opportunity to lace up the blades at Brown University. Today, the defenseman is a junior at Brown.
Meanwhile, Kevin also wound up with an opportunity to play in the NCAA. Halfway through his first AJHL season with the Spruce Grove Saints, he accepted a scholarship offer from Western Michigan University. He finished his one and only AJHL season with 13 goals and 32 assists in 56 games. During that same season, the WHL had also come calling.
"The Giants had listed me when I was playing in Spruce Grove," Connauton said. "They tried to get me to come out, but I had already committed to Western Michigan."
His NCAA career actually began ahead of schedule.
"I guess one of the players WMU had signed was unable to get in academically," Connauton said. "So they called me and I was able to get down there a year early."
And so, prior to the 2008-09 season, it seemed Connauton’s opportunity to play in the WHL had effectively come and gone. An early start in the NCAA provided an excellent opportunity for the 6’1, 200-pounder to compete and develop among athletes both older and more physically mature.
"I think that it worked out better for me because I played a lot at WMU as a true freshman, which was probably better than being an 18-year-old rookie in the WHL," Connauton said. "So, it did work out because I ended up getting drafted."
In 40 games with the WMU Broncos, Connauton scored seven goals and 11 assists. He enjoyed the experience and the quality of play and was recognized as an honorable mention on the CCHA All-Rookie Team behind NHL prospects Chris Wideman (OTT), Brandon Burlon (NJ) and David Wohlberg (NJ). At WMU, he played alongside Tyler Ludwig, the son of former NHLer Craig Ludwig.
"He’s a great guy and was my defense partner for the whole year," Connauton said of Ludwig. "It was kind of an ‘older guy with a younger guy’ out there and I think we worked really well together. He’s got lots of skill and those good bloodlines, too. We had guys on our team that were 24 years old, I was the youngest guy on the team by quite a bit, but I think it was a good experience and I’m glad I did that."
After his NCAA rookie season, Connauton was chosen by the Vancouver Canucks in the third round, 83rd overall, at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Among WMU alumni, he is the fifth highest draft pick off the Broncos, an honor he now shares with NHLer Joe Corvo (83rd in 2007).
The selection by the Canucks resulted in some serious consideration about leaving Western Michigan, a decision he did not take lightly. If he were to make the jump to the WHL, it would be his third different league in three seasons.
"I don’t think it was ever a question about the talent level in the NCAA or the quality of hockey," Connauton said. "It is just all-around great hockey there. Some of the restrictions they have that relate to schooling, and then there’s the fewer games than in the WHL, well, that’s different. But the hockey, during the games, is just really, really good hockey.
"When I started talking with the Vancouver Canucks, they thought that development-wise, with an organization like the Giants, it would work out better for the long run and give me a better chance to play pro. A lot of that is because of the more NHL-like schedule. They are also big believers in (Giants head coach) Don Hay. He has great track record with putting guys into the pros, so we just laid out all of the options and at the end of the day made the decision to go to Vancouver. And I’m happy I did."
Attending Canucks training camp was an eye-opener for Connauton. He was hopeful that he would make a good first impression. The entire experience was has motivated Connauton.
"It was a great experience and I had a great time," he said. "You realize how important it is to stay in shape during the off season at a camp like that. The guys come to camp ready to play; they treat it like it’s their job. Everyone is in great condition. Everyone demands a lot from you, from the coaches to the players. It’s just that next step and it’s really motivating to go to a camp like that because you just want to get yourself in a position where you can play with those guys."
So far this season, Connauton has added stability to the Giants back end, an organization that graduated top defensemen in Jon Blum (NAS), Nick Ross (PHX) and Brent Regner (CBJ), along with 20-year-olds Craig Schira and Mike Berube. Through 13 games, Connauton has scored five times and added seven assists. He brings a physical presence and is a willing, capable pugilist. With his long reach and heavy shot, Connauton is a handful for any and all opponents.
"I’m a good skater and I have a good shot," Connauton said. "I’m an offensive defenseman, but I’m learning about how important it is to learn how to play the game in each zone. That’s what I think is such a big thing for me this year, just getting down within my own blueline. I think I’m an offensive guy who can run a power play and I know how to make that first pass.
"I’ve been playing with Ryan Funk pretty steadily when we’re five-on-five, and then on the power play with Neil Manning. Funk is a veteran in the league and it sure helps to have him next to me. He knows the league inside and out."
And speaking of knowing a league well, Connauton can offer a candid comparison between the AJHL, NCAA and WHL, given his travels through the hockey world these past three years.
"The AJHL is a pretty good league, very tough, but the skill level is not necessarily as high as the other two, but it is still junior hockey and there are similarities to the WHL," Connauton said. "I took the step to college hockey where it’s a lot faster and there is a lot more skill. The guys are a lot stronger, you’re playing against men.
"In the WHL, skill-wise it’s pretty similar to college. The main difference is that it’s a little more physical. Guys here get into the corners and they work a little harder to get the puck. In college you get a lot of guys weaving around behind you at center ice."
For now, Connauton is content with toiling for the Giants on the road and at their home rink, the Pacific Coliseum. And if all goes according to the current plan, the next major trip in his hockey future will be a short cab ride to General Motors Place, the home of the Vancouver Canucks.