Connolly leading Canada with renewed enthusiasm

Canada forward Brett Connolly speaks with the media in Calgary, Alta., Jan. 2, 2012. (DARREN...

Canada forward Brett Connolly speaks with the media in Calgary, Alta., Jan. 2, 2012. (DARREN MAKOWICHUK/QMI Agency)

ERIC FRANCIS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:19 PM ET

CALGARY - It didn't take long for Hockey Canada officials to realize Brett Connolly arrived here in need of an attitude adjustment.

Minutes after landing in Calgary last month the Tampa Bay Lightning loaner admitted his very presence at Team Canada's selection camp was "bittersweet."

One practice later, his approach to the chance -- despite what every other player on the ice saw as the opportunity of a lifetime -- was so lacking that his phone rang that night.

It was Steve Yzerman -- his employer, and a man who knows a little about leadership and attitude.

And he wasn't amused.

"I was aware of (his body language and attitude), and ya, I talked to him and let him know what his expectations were and what he needed to do," said Yzerman of the heart-to-heart he had with the 19-year-old who was picked sixth overall by Yzerman in 2010.

"I told him, 'You've got to go there and compete. You're there representing Canada and the Tampa Bay Lightning.'

"These are 17, 18 and 19 year-old kids learning how to be professionals and Hockey Canada has high standards and expectations."

Injured in the opening day of camp, Connolly was told that as one of the four returning players to the Canadian team he needed to be a leader in every possible way. And that meant proving on and off the ice he wanted to be there.

Message received.

So much so that the next day he hit the ice so hell-bent on proving his mettle he knocked Canadian teammate and friend Quinton Howden out of a scrimmage with a dangerous hit that threatened to end the recipient's tourney dreams.

Although he was simply responding to the demands of Yzerman and coach Don Hay to be more physical, his nightmarish start suddenly got worse as he made headlines for all the wrong reasons. The kid who was sent here solely to further his development by having a good experience was having just the opposite.

"I watched the hit -- they wanted him to compete hard, and I didn't think he should be criticized for it," Yzerman said. "He just didn't get off to a great start."

Luckily, Howden recovered quickly. As did Connolly.

Since then, Connolly's attitude has been so exemplary he earned an 'A' on his jersey, has played alongside Howden on the team's shutdown line and has scored in all four of Canada's games. He also kills penalties and sees powerplay time.

Quite a turnaround for the Prince George, B.C., native who had to worry early on if his second world junior experience would be a total bust.

"Not at all," said Connolly, insisting he patched things up with Howden that night and stayed positive throughout.

"Obviously, you go through things like that and you've got to get through it. It's a great experience. The guys are great, and any time you get to play for your country, it's a great experience. Playing against the best players in the world in a pressure environment is a great experience and will only help me down the road."

Canadian team GM Scott Salmond also spoke to Connolly early on and said the player would be the first to admit he needs to work on his body language.

"I think any player coming back here from the NHL wants it to be a good experience here, but there is an adjustment -- this isn't the NHL," said Salmond, counting on big things from Connolly in Tuesday's semifinal (7 p.m. MT Saddledome).

"Since he made that adjustment, he's been great."

In fact, there isn't a facet of the game he hasn't excelled at here, proving Yzerman was right to send the misunderstood winger north for the month.

"Brett's always been a different guy, and he never had to assume that leadership role with us," Salmond said.

"There's no better person than Stevie to call him and say, 'This is what they expect from you.'

"It's made the world of difference."

eric.francis@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/ericfrancis

- Eric Francis appears regularly as a panellist on CBC's Hockey Night in Canada.


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