Tim Connolly dropped off the radar after his final season in the NHL, the uber-talented and oft-injured former Buffalo Sabres center suddenly absent from the game for the first time in his life.
“I traveled around a while, got engaged, got married, had a kid, tried living down South, but I’m a Northeasterner, so I ended up back in Rochester,” Connolly said Thursday night at KeyBank Center, as the Sabres welcomed him back along with players from the 2000s as part of the team's 50th anniversary celebration. “My wife’s family and my family is both from Buffalo and Syracuse, and we have a lot of friends in Rochester, so we ended up settling down there and I’ve been there for a few years now.”
Connolly, 38, was raised on the outskirts of Syracuse and played eight of his 11 NHL seasons with the Sabres after being drafted fifth overall by the New York Islanders in 1999. Two years later, Connolly was dealt to Buffalo as part of a package for Michael Peca.
Connolly recorded 94 goals and 320 points in 464 games with the Sabres. After missing the entire 2003-04 season with a concussion, he said he felt he was playing at the height of his abilities on offense and defense during the 2006 postseason, when he scored the tying goal late in the third period of the Sabres’ 7-6 overtime victory in Game 1 of their playoff series against the Ottawa Senators.
The Sabres tied the game five times before winning.
“It was a fun game to play in because it was back and forth, back and forth. They would score, we would score, they would score,” Connolly said, “and I think really they were more of a favorite than us to win that series. And I think Game 1, tying it up late and then scoring in overtime, Chris Drury, I didn’t even see the goal. I was in the locker room getting my skate worked on. I think that was a pivotal game in that series and gave us some confidence to beat them.”
Connolly scored 11 points in eight games that postseason, but a concussion in Game 2 sidelined him for the remainder of the playoffs and nearly the entirety of the 2006-07 season.
“He was almost like the wild card for us,” former teammate Daniel Briere said. “We had different lines. The Drury line. My line, Derek Roy's line. Tim kind of came out of nowhere and he was a force. He didn't have a specific line, but he could do so much for you. He was so talented, so skilled. You could plug him in anywhere because he was so smart. He was the wild card, definitely a special talent.”
Former teammate Paul Gaustad still marvels at Connolly’s performance that postseason.
“That Ottawa series, I don't know if I've seen a guy play that good and be that dominant and that impactful in a series in a long time,” Gaustad said. “He was unbelievable, another level in those first games. He was tremendous. We always had the next-man up idea but it was hard in that case when he went down. 'TC' was so good at that point and I know if you ask him, it was the best hockey of his career. He was a huge part of everything and a big loss for us."
Connolly said he’s often thought about how the Sabres might have won the Stanley Cup that season were it not for a rash of injuries, including his own.
“But where’s that going to get you, really? Woulda, shoulda, coulda,” Connolly said. “I definitely feel myself, personally, that was the best hockey I was playing both offensively and defensively and it’s unfortunate what happened, but the team went on to make a really solid run and just came up a little short. But it was fun. Those couple of runs there that we had were fun and we had a legitimate shot to win the Cup.”
Connolly was dogged by injuries throughout the remainder of his playing days – including bone spurs that required season-ending hip surgery in 2008 – but set a career high with 65 points in 73 regular season games in 2009-10.
He spent his final NHL season with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2011-12, was waived and played in 28 games the next season with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.
Connolly returned to hockey last season as a part-time youth hockey coach with the Rochester Monarchs – his neighbor’s son plays for the team, he said – and he helps with the 12U AAA team this season.
“You’d be surprised – I think it’s a lot harder being a coach than being a player,” Connolly said. “They’re at an age right now where they’re still soaking up a lot and learning a lot, so it’s fun to teach them and travel with them and to be with them…
“My one major skill in life was hockey, so you get away from the game a little while but you kind of get dragged back in. You never really leave.”
Connolly marveled that goalie Ryan Miller, his former teammate, is still playing at 39 years old.
“When he was a rookie, he was my roommate, lived with me,” Connolly said. “His condo was being built. He said it’d be two weeks and he ended up living (with me) the whole year. But he was a first-team all-star, so he had to stay and live with me. I’ll take credit for that.”
Connolly laughed. He said he’s happy with how his pro career played out, for the most part.
“I’d like to subtract the injuries out of it,” Connolly said, “but it’s what happens, you’ve just got to roll with it and work at it. I had a great time playing. There’s no other job I’d rather have.
“If you get a decade, I think you’re pretty lucky and fortunate.”