It’s a Sunday morning in mid-September and Tim Connolly sits in a lower-bowl seat inside HSBC Arena in Buffalo, N.Y., patiently waiting the start of another National Hockey League season.
In a few minutes he will begin his eighth season in a Buffalo Sabres’ uniform, and his 10th overall in the league, when he and his teammates hit the ice for the start of another NHL training camp.
It has been a long offseason for Connolly and the Sabres. For the second straight year, playoff hockey has taken a hiatus from Buffalo. It’s a thought that wears heavy on the minds of everyone in Buffalo, especially the Sabres’ veteran players.
For Connolly, these thoughts are closely tied in with the hope that he will make it through the 2009-10 season without injury. It’s a hope that is shared by Sabres’ players, coaches and fans. A healthy Connolly gives the Sabres their best shot at jumping back into the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
“I’m just excited to get back out there on the ice and get another season under way,” says Connolly, the longest tenured player on the Sabres’ roster.
“It was a very long offseason. When you don’t make the playoffs, the offseason can really drag out for you.”
Looking back on his time in the NHL, Connolly has experienced some highs and more than his fair share of lows. In his first four seasons of play in the NHL, which included two with the New York Islanders, the Baldwinsville, N.Y., native missed just three regular season contests.
But the next five seasons have proven to be a nightmare of sorts for the talented center. Included in the list of injuries are a broken rib, two cracked vertebrae and two concussions.
It is the concussions that are of major concern to not only Connolly, but to the rest of the Sabres team and fans as well.
But it is something that Connolly doesn’t dwell on.
“You have to take this type of injury in stride,” says the former first round pick and the fifth player taken overall by the Islander in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft.
The concussions forced Connolly to miss the entire 2003-04 NHL campaign.
He also missed part of the 2006 NHL playoffs as well as 80 games of the following regular season with more post-concussion syndrome. Having recovered from both, Connolly speaks with the voice of wisdom when offering advice to younger players and their families.
“Listen to what the doctors have to say. You have to wait until you are symptom free,” Connolly says. “It takes time, and you don’t want to come back too early. Your health is the most important thing.
“You have to realize that you will eventually work your way through it.”
It helps when you have the understanding of your coaches, who care about the individual and aren’t willing to do anything to risk his long-term health. Connolly is fortunate to play for a head coach like Lindy Ruff, who has always been supportive.
“He’s the type of player who has taken the puck into positions where a lot of other players won’t go,” Ruff says. “It is the courage part of the game that has gotten him into trouble, not the lack of courage.
“Even after having all of the injuries that Tim has had, he still comes back for more. He doesn’t shy away from areas where he has to make the plays from. He looks at it as being part of his game. And he looks at it that if he doesn’t do it, he will not be an effective player.”
That thought process trickles down from the top.
“Some people who look at Tim over the last four or five years would say that he is injury-prone,” Sabres’ General Manager Darcy Regier says. “But if you looked at him for the first four or five years of his career, as well as his Junior years, those same people might say that he is a very durable player.
“I think the durability will return to Tim as soon as he overcomes the injury recovery time.”
The veteran is viewed as being an offensive-style player by many hockey fans, although he scored a career high of just 18 goals last season. But Connolly doesn’t exactly agree with that assessment of himself.
“Actually, I play a tight defensive style of game,” the 28-year-old Connolly says. “My main concern is to keep the puck out of the net and going on the offensive attack after that.
“As I’ve gotten older and played the game for awhile, you start to realize just how important the defensive side of hockey is. It is my job to be the best two-way player that I can be on the ice.”
As one of the veterans on the team, Connolly relishes the leadership role that has been thrust upon him.
“I try to lead by example,” says Connolly, who wore the Team USA uniform in the 1999 World Junior Championships and again in the 2001 World Championships.
“I try to do all the little things right, things that may go unnoticed by many fans, but the guys in the room see what I’m dong.
“I think if you try and do these things to the best of your ability, other guys will follow.”
And this season he will be called upon to do even more.
“I expect a lot from Tim,” Ruff says. “His play on the ice speaks for itself. We need him to be one of our leaders.”
Healthier than he has been in quite some time, Connolly feels this is his time to shine. A quick start could bring with it consideration for a coveted roster spot on the U.S. Olympic Team, but more importantly, Connolly is ready to lead the Sabres’ charge out of the gate and up the Eastern Conference standings.
“Just talking to him, I’ve seen a real change in Tim,” Regier says. “Maybe it’s because of all the situations he has gone through with his injuries.
“I now see a more mature Tim Connolly. I think he now has a greater understanding of what it takes to be successful, both individually and as a team.
“Tim has that voice in the locker room that we need, and one that will be listened to.”
Randy Schultz is a freelance writer in Buffalo, N.Y.