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Tim Connolly (and Sidney Crosby, for that matter): the problem with always playing with 5 fouls already

It was interesting this past summer to see the different response in two very close-by markets when Tim Connolly signed as a free-agent with the Maple Leafs.

Here, there was a range of emotion:  some were thrilled because Connolly has a background as a semi-legitimate “number-one” center.  Others were happy, but disappointed that the Leafs missed out on bigger names like Brad Richards. Still others weren’t too sure, because of Connolly’s recent medical history.

But hey, he was a Leaf now, and he could put up points.  So, welcome to town, as they say...

Now, just across the border in Buffalo, Connolly wasn’t even in the conversation much.  By that I mean that his old club, the Sabres (where he had plied his trade often quite well for many years) weren’t the least bit interested in keeping him.  The local media also seemed quite content to see him depart.  Many fans felt the same.

He was, for some, yesterday’s news, a broken-down guy, a shadow of what he once was, despite the fact that he is not an old player, age-wise.  His departure caused nary a ripple in Buffalo.  He was expected to leave.  He did.  Goodbye.

We won’t know for a while if this was a great pick-up by the Leafs, or if some media and fans in Buffalo were indeed “right”.  Because it’s not a question of whether Connolly can produce points—he has always been able to do that.  (He is also, by most accounts, a competent penalty-killer, willing to block shots in the noble tradition of the modern-day hockey warrior.)

And we know he desperately wants to “prove” himself in Toronto, and perhaps prove something to the team that chose not to fight to bring him back.

The question, though, is this:  will Connolly be healthy enough (and stay healthy enough), long enough, to be worth the 4 million plus he will earn this season and next for the Maple Leafs?

In fairness, we can say that for any player.  Hockey is played nowadays at such a fast pace, it is remarkable more players aren’t seriously injured.  The game is just so fast.  Players are big, strong.  Setting aside the issue of “head shots”, it is no shock that the league is fighting an epidemic of sorts.  So many players, including some of the league’s finest, like Crosby, are clawing their way through the fog created by concussion effects that the league doesn’t know what to do. (Quick aside on head shots and such concerns: the big Phaneuf hit the other night raises questions- at least for me.  It was, apparently, a "legal" hit.  But would anyone have been surprised if the Ottawa player had walked away with a concussion?  I mean, if Crosby has missed almost a year and one of the hits in question that he took was "incidental", what about hits like Phaneuf's?  He did exactly what he wanted to do- deliver a major blow.  He just missed the player's head.  And going at the speed they were both going at, how do you ensure against head injuries.  The answer is, you can't.  Just because the player was not hit directly in the head doesn't mean there wasn't head trauma...or am I off base?)

Yes, there have always been injuries in hockey.  I remember well how it was in the late 1950s, and through the ‘60s and ‘70s.  Yes, there were knee injuries (look at poor Bobby Orr) for example, and no medical technology to deal with those problems.  Guys fought, yes, and on occasion would swing sticks (Shack/Zeidel, Maki/Green, etc.) in frightening fashion.

In the ‘70s, there were bench-clearing brawls.  Yet that was not generally when guys got seriously injured.

But now, surely we are aware that fighting does cause head trauma, and the size of the players, the rock-like, huge equipment and the tempo of the game is a recipe for huge health risks.

And we don’t really know what to do about it.

Which brings me back to Connolly, and other talented players like him—and Crosby.

The problem for fans, here in Toronto (and this is just my sense) is that they would love to get behind the guy.  We need a top-flight guy in the middle, and that is his history.  Maybe not a top-five or ten guy in the whole league at center, but pretty darn good when healthy.

And though we know all players could easily be in the same boat, I wonder if some fans are wondering, “this guy is one hit away from his career being over…” because of having dealt with (if I’m not mistaken) serious concussion issues twice already in his NHL career.

Since we know more than ever before (and still don’t know enough, unfortunately) about concussions, the old macho thing doesn’t stand up as a badge of courage so much anymore.  As soon as someone gets hit, they are checked out and if there is any question, they have to sit.  And dozens of athletes in all sports are feeling the effects of concussions that have now been identified as such and hoping they can return to action—some day.

Gone are the days when a player like Montreal's legendary winger, Rocket Richard, would get hammered, obviously be suffering from a serious concussion, and then come back in the same game and without knowing exactly what was going on, perhaps, drive past a defenseman to deke the goalie and score the winning goal in overtime in a playoff game (as he actually did for Montreal against the Boston Bruins in the mid ‘50s).

Imagine if all those guys some of us watched play in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s were tested like players are today?  How many guys were playing with debilitating side effects but were afraid to tell the trainers or their coaches they weren’t right?

My point about Connolly?  Fans here want the best for him.  They hope he stays healthy and plays long and well for the blue and white.

But sadly, it may be a bit like watching that star in the NBA, playing in a game with 5 fouls.  You need him out there, but one more foul and he’s out of the game.  If the coach sits him to protect him from getting the 6th foul, the team may suffer and lose.

But if he gets that 6th foul, he’s done.

Hey, the guy may play great with 5 fouls, throwing caution to the wind.  On the other hand, he may be tentative, not wanting to take any chances on getting that 6th foul.  And then he's ineffective.

Except in this instance, it's not just sitting out the rest of a game.  It could be a career.

I guess that’s what we’re going to see with Connolly, and perhaps even more so this season with Crosby in Pittsburgh, if and when he returns.  As fans, we will probably spend too much time thinking: will he play like he did before he was hurt?  What if he gets hit again…?”

Can they play the same, knowing their next concussion may be the end-game?  Can we, as fans, enjoy things as much as we wish we could?

It's easy to ask the questions.  Not sure what the answers are.


  1. the size of the players today is much bigger (as you noted in a previous entry), and their equipment is a suit of armor instead of basic padding... all adds up to bigger injuries. scary stuff.

    i actually live in buffalo, NY (since moving from canada in the mid-90's), and the fans really turned on connolly the past two seasons... before that they would laud his playmaking/stick-handling abilities... then all of a sudden it became a 'get rid of him' mentality saying he had a bad attitude coupled with constant injuries. >shruggin<

  2. Since we now have a virtual logjam of C's (with highly varying levels of skill) now as opposed to a pretty bare cupboard 2 seasons ago, it's not like we can't simply use the LTIR space. Personally, I think RW is making sure Connolly has every chance to start the season as healthy as possible before putting him back in the grind. And I think he's going to by ok- just a feeling. His newfound motivation has the possbility of giving Leaf fans a Connolly indian summer of sorts. I personally think that how a player is mentally can mitigate some injury issues (or cause them to hide them more)- it's possible that Grabbo's extremely high resiliency comes at least in part from his day-to-day joy for where and how he's playing.
    On his time with the Habs, via Jonas Siegel-

    "Everybody made a group," he said, "and they [stayed] in groups; French guys with French guys, Czech guys with Czech guys. Here [it's] better because everybody's together. It doesn't matter what kind of nationality.
    "That's better than if you're just friends on the ice."

  3. Aaaaaaaaand just after I post something in hope of Connolly's season, he skates for 15 minutes and leaves the ice this morning.......