Photo by Rena Laverty
One of the benefits of playing for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program is the camaraderie and life-long friendships that develop over the two-year commitment of the program.
For Connor Kelley, he wouldn’t trade those times for anything.
“I’m going to miss all the bus trips and time with the guys,” said Kelley. “It was so much fun to be with the guys and go out with them. We are together all the time, whether it is at practice or on the road. We just have so much fun together when we are away from the rink. That is something I always enjoyed and will really miss.”
It was on a USHL road trip to Omaha that Kelley and his Under-18 teammates found out their season had been cut short. If there was a silver lining, the team was together to process the bad news.
“It was really tough since we were really focused on the last tournament [the U18 World Championship],” Kelley said. “We worked so hard on it and to find out it was over, we were crushed. At the time, I don’t think we really realized that our whole season was over. It really just hit us that we were done. It was hard and upsetting for us.”
To understand how important this year was for Kelley, he took what happened in his first season with the NTDP and worked his tail off to improve his game. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound blueliner says his game grew the most defensively during his time in Plymouth.
“Defensively, as a whole I learned a lot, whether it was learning how to gap on a player or the hard work that you have to put in to be a player,” he said. “I think it really helped me hone in on my defensive game.
Photo by Rena Laverty
“In practice, you are competing against the best players day after day. You can be going 1-on-1 against the top forward or working on a 2-on-1 break. It really helps you learn a lot about competition and your compete level.”
He also credits the May training from his Under-17 year as something that helped his development. All of the work he’d put in over two years made him really want to finish this season.
“In our U17 year, we really didn’t like the way we started, finishing last in our first tournament,” explained Kelley. “I think we really had a chip on our shoulder and never let that happen again. We took the time to work out and skate and get better as a team. We knew that we would have three tournaments this year and we didn’t want to finish last again.”
Photo by Rena Laverty
The benefits paid off for Kelley and his U18 teammates as the squad captured its first international tournament win in Sweden in November. It was a special moment for him.
“It felt good,” he said. “We had so many ups and downs in our U17 year. To go into Sundsvall [Sweden] and get that first win, it was a good experience. I think it really was a breakthrough for us and showed the work we had put in.”
Another highlight of the season was playing against the University of Minnesota on Jan. 17. It was a special moment for the Minnesota native, especially since the U18s posted a 2-1 win.
“It was such a memorable experience and one that I will never forget,” said Kelley, who grew up in Maple Grove. “We had a ton of people at the game especially since [teammates] Owen Gallatin and Brock Faber are from the area. Brock and I grew up together, so we had a ton of our family and friends there.
“I just remember the ice sheet and looking up in the stands. When [Landon] Slaggert scored a goal on a 2-on-1, it was so cool. They were a hard team to play against, but I won’t forget just how special it was.”
Kelley will head to the University of Minnesota-Duluth in the fall to continue his hockey career. He will be the first NTDP player to sign at UMD since Joey Anderson (Roseville, Mich./2014-16).
“It was really cool to sign my National Letter of Intent,” Kelley said. “I honestly didn’t know when the date was at first but then, they said I could sign in early November. It was fun to be able to sign at the same time that other guys signed with their teams. I can’t wait to go to UMD and get started.
“My mom went to school at UMD, so we were always going up there. My brother went to college up that way. For me, the city really focuses on hockey. It is the big game in town.”
Right now, Kelley is focused on the present. He is back home and working to stay in shape for next year.
“I am home and have been lifting and working out with my brother,” he said. “My older brother has been training us. I’m also doing runs, springs and shooting pucks. I can’t skate right now, but I have been able to play some roller hockey at a rink that is nearby.”
At the end of the day, Kelley is thankful for the opportunity to wear the USA jersey and represent his country.
“It was such a memorable experience and a crazy, fun experience at the same time,” he stated. “It’s something that you can’t take for granted since wearing the jersey is bigger than you. I look forward to being able to wear the jersey again in the future.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.