A sea of players took to the rink in Yost Ice Arena.
Some wore blue practice jerseys, others white. One even wore purple — a signal for exemption from physical contact. But the one thing all the players of the Michigan hockey team shared was the navy helmet they wore, crowning them a member of the Wolverines.
But as practice began this week, and even before that, a different colored helmet could be spotted — a player donning a white helmet in a white jersey — shooting pucks hours after practice had concluded and all the players had trickled off the ice to the locker room.
It was Kyle Connor.
The former Michigan forward recorded 35 goals and 36 assists in his lone year with the Wolverines, placing runner-up for the Hobey Baker Award in 2015-16. Connor got drafted into the National Hockey League with the Winnipeg Jets where he continued his success, recording two back-to-back, 30-goal seasons.
And lately, Connor’s presence, as an elite player and friend, has been felt at Yost.
“Kyle’s been around,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “He’s been around the last few summers since he’s turned pro. He always comes back to Ann Arbor. He enjoys it here.”
Swinging by, summer after summer. A standstill in contract talks has extended his annual summer visit into September this year. When he comes to Yost, Connor arrives with a wealth of knowledge and experience. With three years as a professional, on top of a storied college career, Connor has insights on what it takes to be successful at all levels.
“As a coach, I want to ask him questions,” Pearson said. “Just about little things, whether it’s about analytics at the next level or practice at the next level, or how hard they work or what it might be. Or different drills. You’re always trying to steal ideas and steal thoughts and whatnot.”
Connor’s time at Michigan didn’t overlap with Pearson, who was the then-head coach of Michigan Tech before taking over for Red Berenson before the 2017-18 season. But the lack of familiarity didn’t stop the two from conversing and learning more about each other’s path to success. And it wasn’t a one-way affair.
“As a young kid coming in,” Connor told The Daily, “you just want to pick his brain and talk, kind of similar to Red.”
The trading of information wasn’t limited to just coach and pro, though. Pearson thought his players would be “well-served” to ask for a few pointers from “one of the best at what he does.” But the players didn’t need the push from Pearson to act — they had already approached the NHL star themselves.
Though Connor was gone by the time the current seniors stepped foot on campus as freshmen, they had seen him plenty, whether for summer skate or a drop-by during practice.
“I’ve talked to a lot of the guys, just kind of the upperclassmen,” Connor said. “I know them a little a bit, just being familiar and talking to them. They’re a great group of guys. And they work hard. I mean, that’s the biggest thing.”
His pointers to the seniors, including forwards Will Lockwood and Jake Slaker, were centered around Connor’s specialties: shooting and passing.
“We were out there doing a shooting drill, and he was talking about what it takes to score at the next level,” Lockwood said. “And just some things to work on, which obviously, coming from him, is a pretty big deal — he scores 30 goals a year.”
Puck release, speed of shot, shooting on net. Connor emphasized the importance of getting the puck off quickly, regardless of the power behind the stroke.
“You just got to hit the net and get it off quickly, especially when the puck’s going from side to side,” Lockwood said. “So some good advice from him.”
But just as important as Connor’s words are his everyday actions at Yost. As he practices, skating or shooting, eyes wander in his direction, looking to him to lead by example.
“It’s not even him talking. Just kind of watching him you know, of course as an elite player in the NHL,” Slaker said. “So just watching him you just learn. It’s fun having him there.”