Q&A with Tim Connolly
For someone who is admittedly superstitious, Tim Connolly has had his share of bad luck.
In the last seven seasons, Connolly has had a broken leg, a serious concussion and now, in the middle of his most productive NHL season, the 24-year-old Sabres center finds himself nursing a knee injury, courtesy of a controversial hit from the Rangers' Darius Kasparaitis.
In this edition of Facing Off, Connolly speaks candidly about shaking off the injury bug and getting drafted by the NHL's most fickle GM.
Question from David Amber: As an 18-year-old, you made the jump straight from Junior to the NHL. What was that first training camp like for you?
Answer from Connolly: I was pretty nervous. I was only 18 years old. A few months earlier, I had broken my leg and had surgery, I had a rod put in my tibia, so I wasn't feeling 100 percent until right around when camp got started. But I was excited at the same time. I knew the Islanders were looking for some young guys to step up and I had a legitimate chance of making the team and that's what ended up happening.
Q: And you made a quick impression. Tell us about your first NHL goal.
A: It was unbelievable. I still rip Chris Drury a little bit 'cause he was one of the guys I went around when I scored that first goal, and now we're teammates and play together on the power play. I got a drop pass at the blue line and I cut into the middle and there was Drury. I gave him a head fake and he went sliding to his knees. I went around him and then luckily Gino Odjick, who I played with at the time, had bumped Patrick Roy out of the net. So, I had plenty of room to shoot and I buried it. It's pretty cool scoring my first NHL goal on Roy, who was my favorite goalie growing up.
Q: So where's the puck?
A: The puck is just sitting on my dresser. [Laughs] I never got a plaque made up for it. It's just sitting alongside another couple of pucks on my dresser beside my bed.
Q: As a first-round pick and a prolific scorer in Junior, what is your expectation in the NHL?
A: Well, I'd like to play in a playoff game, it is something I have yet to do. It better happen this year. I just want to get better. I came into this season wanting to set personal highs in all offensive categories, and that's what I'm on pace to do, so hopefully I will when I come back from this injury.
• Drafted fifth overall by the New York Islanders in the 1999 NHL entry draft
• Finished third in team scoring in his rookie season (14 goals, 34 points)
• Traded by the Islanders to Buffalo, along with Taylor Pyatt for Mike Peca, on June 24, 2001
• Missed all of 2003-04 season with post-concussion syndrome
• Missed only three games over his first four NHL seasons
Q: Speaking of your injury, how would you describe the hip check that Kasparaitis put on you?
A: I don't really want to comment too much on that. I haven't seen the video yet, so I can't really comment on it. It happened so fast, so I don't know exactly how the hit was.
Q: [Sabres coach] Lindy Ruff called the hit dirty, saying Kasparaitis didn't have to check you low [at the knees]. He said Darius could have taken you higher and then you wouldn't have gotten injured.
A: When it originally happened, I went down and my knee locked up and I couldn't move my leg, but it calmed down and I was able to skate off the ice without help, so I thought maybe it's not too bad. But then, I went into the locker room and the staff checked it out. The doctor said I had an MCL tear and would be out a minimum of six to eight weeks, and if my ACL was damaged, I would be done for the season. I was really upset, but when I got back to Buffalo and had the MRI, it turned out it was only a Grade II MCL tear, so I'll be out just four to six weeks, and with the Olympic break taking two of those weeks, it's really not that bad. So I'm just trying to stay positive and try not to think too much about it.
Q: You're from Syracuse, so do you follow the Orange in football or basketball at all?
A: I follow the basketball team. Football a little bit, not so much. I follow the lacrosse team, as well. I grew up playing lacrosse in that area.
Q: When the basketball team won the championship a few years ago, how did you celebrate?
A: It was great, I had Syracuse winning the whole thing in my pool, so I won that year. I won our team pool, picked up some money, so that was cool. I take Syracuse every year, so finally it paid off. My parents were in Syracuse at the time and they said it was crazy, the whole city went nuts.
Q: After two years with the Islanders, where you finished near the lead in team scoring both seasons, you were traded to Buffalo. What did Mike Milbury tell you about trading you, a 20-year-old former first-round pick?
A: I was at my younger sister's high school graduation when I got the call and Milbury just said, "It's Mike Milbury. I'm just calling to inform you that you've been traded to the Buffalo Sabres in a deal with Taylor Pyatt in exchange for Michael Peca." I was kind of shocked 'cause it was the second day of the NHL draft, and on the first day, all sorts of deals happened. A day earlier, the Isles had traded for Alexei Yashin and Chris Osgood. I was excited that they were bringing in some solid players, and then the next day, I got traded. Milbury basically said they were looking for some leadership and they wanted some older veterans who were in their prime. He said it was nothing personal, but they had an opportunity to get Mike Peca and they wanted him. I was pretty shocked, so I had nothing to say. I just said, "OK."
Q: How would describe the Islanders' blueprint for success? It seems they are always trading away first-round picks?
A: It's quite unbelievable. They had Eric Brewer, Roberto Luongo, Taylor Pyatt, Mike Rupp, Branislav Mezei, Kristian Kudroc, Wade Redden and myself, all first-round picks that have all been traded. So they have drafted some pretty good players, but they have ended up playing somewhere else. There might be some impatience there, but it's part of the business. If they see an opportunity to get a player they want in return, then I guess they will take that chance.
Q: For you, the lockout was a second straight year not playing in the NHL. You missed the entire 2003-04 season with post-concussion syndrome. What happened?
A: I got hit in preseason. I took a mid-ice, shoulder-to-head hit with Scott Nichol from the Blackhawks. It was a clean hit, but I had just taken a shot, so I was in a vulnerable position where I couldn't really brace myself. I didn't get knocked out, I skated to the bench, but I was out of it. My legs gave out a little bit. I had never suffered a concussion before, but it was one of those situations where it wouldn't go away. It took more than six months before my head was clear and I was able to work out and get back in the swing of things.
Q: What was it like suffering through the post-concussion syndrome?
A: I just had headaches every day constantly for the first few moths. Little by little, they would go away, but it was tough to concentrate, even reading was tough. That is so far behind me now that I don't even like to think about it much, to be honest with you.
Q: So this year, you come back healthy and into a new NHL. How have the new rules helped your game?
A: The new rules have helped a lot, before you used to beat a guy one-on-one, but he clutched or grabbed you or gave you a hook and he was able to stop you. But now, if you get a step on a guy, he's toast, unless he takes a penalty on you. The fact they are calling the obstruction and you can make the two-line pass is great. The game is a lot more open and there is more room for offense.
Q: You are known as a guy who scores highlight-reel goals. What kind of response do you get from your friends when you score a big one?
A: [Laughs] My phone fills up with text messages. Most of my friends watch the games and my family, as well. It's a good feeling when you are able to do something like that, the new rules let the skill players make some cool moves.
Q: You're known for your great hands, but who is the most challenging defenseman to go one-on-one with?
A: [Long pause] You know, Brian Rafalski is pretty tough to beat. He's a good skater, really strong, with a low center of gravity, and he doesn't go for any of the moves. He ends up putting his stick between your legs and taking the body, so he's tough to beat, unless you can get a good gap on him.
Q: Rafalski is a U.S. Olympic guy. Knowing how you played in the first half of the season, what were you thinking when the U.S. team was announced?
A: I was a little disappointed 'cause I thought I had played well enough to give myself a shot at making the team. But there are so many great hockey players out there, I knew there were only a few spots open. It's something that wasn't on my mind at the beginning of the year, but as the year went on, it did creep into my mind a little bit that I had a chance to make the team. But again, there are a lot of great players out there.
Q: What's with the new look? You shaved off the blond curls and now you're rocking the shaved head look?
A: I did it when I played in Switzerland during the lockout. A few guys on the team shaved their heads and I liked it, so I went for it. It doesn't grow anymore anyway, so I'm just sticking with this look [laughs].
Q: Do the ladies like the new look?
A: I don't think they mind it too much. If they did, then I would have to try to grow it back.
Q: I read you play a fair bit of poker during the season. How good are you?
A: I'm not that good. We'll I'm all right I guess, I win enough money to keep playing. I usually come up on the plus side on our plane trips. There are a couple of guys who are shaky, just starting out, just learning the game, so I help them out a little bit, but not too much.
Q: You're pretty superstitious. Are there any crazy things you do to keep things going well?
A: I'm always knocking on wood, constantly, nonstop. I have to get dressed the same way every time, tape my stick the exact same way every time. There are so many things I do that it actually is a lot of work. Earlier this year, I had a 10-game stretch when I wore the same suit every day 'cause things were going well for me and the team.
Q: Ten straight games? That's like two weeks. How nasty was that?
A: Things were going so well, so I just kept putting the same suit on. I didn't want it to be the suit's fault if we lost a game. It was a black suit, so it still looked OK, but it was pretty wrinkled and probably was a little funky by the end.
David Amber is an ESPN anchor and a contributor to ESPN.com.