Beyond Tomorrow: Connor steps into the spotlight after a superb U18 WJC showing

By Chau Vo

Kyle Connor - Youngstown Phantoms

Photo: Youngstown Phantoms forward and 2015 prospect Kyle Connor was named to the 2013-14 All-USHL First Team after finishing second overall in scoring with 74 points (courtesy of Rob Bindler)

The state of Michigan may be famous for being the birthplace of the automotive industry, but aside from cars, the state also produces many of the top hockey players in the world. When the Detroit Red Wings began play in 1926, it helped nudge a budding grassroots hockey movement in the right direction.

Fast forward to today and the Detroit area is home to some of the most esteemed minor hockey programs in the country, including the Belle Tire hockey club.

Kyle Connor, born in Shelby Township, MI, about 30 minutes north of Detroit, played for the Belle Tire organization for his entire minor hockey career, including two years with the Belle Tire midget program. A highly skilled forward with a knack for scoring, Connor put up 12 goals and 18 assists for 30 points in 31 games as a 14-year-old playing against older players, some as old as two years his senior.

The next year, Connor led his team in scoring with 53 points in 40 games. 39 of those points came from assists and highlighted his playmaking abilities. At just 15 years of age, Connor committed to the University of Michigan for the fall of 2015.

“Growing up, that was my dream school,” said Connor. “I’m a Michigan football fan and Michigan everything, even my parents are big Michigan fans. When I heard they offered me the scholarship it was a no brainer.”

College scouts were not the only ones who saw potential in Connor, however; the CHL was interested as well, with Connor being chosen by the Saginaw Spirit in the 14th round of the 2012 OHL Priority Selection. Connor was a top-10 talent in his draft class but fell to the 14th round due to his college commitment.

That same spring, in addition to his college commitment and being drafted by the Spirit, Connor was tendered an offer by the Youngstown Phantoms of the USHL. The tender process was a new system implemented by the USHL in 2012 to help teams acquire ’96 birth year players ahead of the 2012 USHL Futures Draft.

“I was really impressed with the Youngstown coaching staff when I met them,” says Connor. “They know how to develop a player well, both on the ice and off the ice.”

By choosing to play in the USHL instead of the OHL, Connor maintained his NCAA eligibility.

“The USHL is a great league for development. Every year someone gets drafted in the first round from the USHL.”

The summer before Connor was set to head to Youngstown to play for the Phantoms, he was invited to the USA Hockey Select 16 Festival in Rochester, NY. It was there that he was chosen for the U.S. U17 Select team that was still picking its roster for the annual Five Nations Tournament in Chomutov, Czech Republic.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Connor of his first international tournament. “Anytime you get to wear the USA jersey it’s a real honor. It was my first experience and I was just trying to take it all in. It was an unreal feeling.”

Connor's initial foray into international was a successful one as he led the tournament in scoring with four goals and two assists in four games. Team USA would go undefeated in the tournament to win the gold medal.

Youngstown is located about four hours away from Shelby Township, near the Ohio and Pennsylvania border. The Phantoms play in the Eastern Conference of the USHL and its roots can be traced back to 2003 when it began operating as an expansion team in the NAHL, a tier 2 league in the United States. From 2005-09, the Phantoms were known as the Mahoning Valley Phantoms but reverted back to their original name when they were admitted to the USHL in 2009.

As a USHL rookie, Connor was fourth in team scoring with 41 points in 62 games, including 17 goals. He showed he had the talent to be both a goal-scorer and a playmaker at the highest level of junior hockey in America. The third-seeded Phantoms also made the playoffs that year and beat the Green Bay Gamblers, 4-1, in the first round series before falling to the eventual champion Dubuque Fighting Saints in the second round in a best-of-five series. Through those nine games Connor had three assists.

“My first year was a great year and I learned a lot from the veteran players and what it takes to win and compete at the USHL level,” says Connor.

After the conclusion of the 2012-13 season, Connor got a chance to once again don the Team USA jersey and represent his country at the 2013 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. The tournament features some of the best U18 national teams in the world and, although it is unsanctioned by the IIHF, the teams are comprised of a number of players that would go on to play in the U20 WJC tournament.

It was this tournament that really opened Connor’s eyes to international competition.

“It prepared me for all the other international tournaments and see what all the best players around the world are like,” says Connor.

Team USA won four of six games in the tournament, losing to Finland in overtime in the preliminary round and to Canada in the championship game. Connor played in five of those games, posting two goals and one assist for three points.

Despite a less prolific showing in last season's playoffs, Connor was expected to be the Phantoms main offensive threat going into his sophomore season.

The 2013-14 regular season proved to be Connor’s breakout year as he cemented himself as one of the league’s brightest young stars with 74 points in 56 games, including an impressive 31 goals. Those 74 points not only led the Phantoms but were also good enough for second in the entire league. Unfortunately, Connor was unable to help his team make it to the playoffs as the Phantoms finished last in the Eastern Conference.

In November of 2013, Connor took a break from the Phantoms to represent Team USA in yet another international tournament. This time, it was the World Junior A Challenge in Nova Scotia. The six-team tournament featured the United States, Canada East and Canada West squads, Russia, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic. The United States won all four of their games, including the championship game where they beat Russia, 4-1. Connor scored the game-winning goal with 14 seconds left in the second period to help the United States win back-to-back gold medals. In four games, Connor had two goals and three assists for five points.

When his USHL season ended, Connor was asked to join Team USA as they prepared to play in the IIHF U18 World Championship. The tournament format is similar to the U20 WJC held in the winter and the United States typically dominates due to the timing of the tournament coinciding with the CHL playoffs.

This year, the tournament took place in Finland in the cities of Lappeenranta and Imatra. Although Canada won the group play with 10 points in four games, it would be the United States who would go on to win the gold after beating the Czech Republic in the championship game. Connor finished the tournament with seven points in seven games and a tournament-leading +8 rating.

“Everybody around the world sends their best players,” Connor said of competing at the U18. “We had a shaky start losing to Switzerland the first game but we rebounded well, and from that point on we didn’t look back. It was a great experience.”

With the off-season here and the U18 tournament over, Connor will spend the summer getting ready for his final season in the USHL leading up to next year’s NHL Draft.

“I really want to focus on getting stronger next year on the ice and off the ice. Get stronger on the corners and along the boards and hone in on my defensive game. Try to be a little smarter.”

When asked if he feels any pressure going into this next season as the Phantoms' returning leading scorer, Connor says no.

“I feel like if I just play my game out there it’ll be okay knowing we’ll have a really good team next year.”

Next time in Beyond Tomorrow

The next feature will go overseas and take a look at one of the top-ranked European skaters eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft. Hard hitting defenseman Rasmus Andersson made his pro debut with his hometown team Malmo this year in the tier 2 Swedish league.

Follow Chau Vo on Twitter via @chowdersoop