For Winnipeg Jets sniper Kyle Connor, winning the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy means more than might meet the eye of the casual Jets fan.
As a child, Connor – now 25 – emulated Detroit Red Wings star, Pavel Datsyuk.
And it wasn’t just the odd game or highlight, either.
Connor made sure to look up game footage of each of his favourite player’s contests during his elementary and junior high days, often spending hours online daily searching for Datsyukian content to attempt later each evening at his own hockey practice.
“He had a run, winning ’06, ’07, ’08, ’09, four in a row Lady Byng trophies,” Connor said moments after being named the 2021-22 victor. “For me, I tried to replicate and do everything he did. I’d watch a ton of YouTube videos. He was so creative and I just loved that. I tried play like Pavel Datsyuk as much as I could.”
Despite being as Russian as they come, Datsyuk happened to play for the team in Connor’s Shelby Township neighbourhood in Michigan, and Connor thinks of him as “a fellow Detroit boy”.
“To see it come full circle and get my name on the same trophy as him, it’s pretty special,” Connor smiled. “I actually played against him at the World Championship over in Russia. Classic Datsyuk, he picked like three or four of our guys on Team USA and ended up burying one right after. That was the only time I ever played against him. It was a dream come true for sure.”
Connor‘s 2021-22 campaign was one that the ‘Magic Man’ would certainly be proud of. In fact, it had Datsyuk’s fingerprints all over it.
Starting with Connor’s career-highs in goals (47), assists (46) and points (93), he came within four points of Datsyuk’s career high (set in 2007-08 and matched in 2008-09). But it was also his minimal penalty minute total that really raised some eyebrows across the league.
In 79 games of action, Connor was sent to the sin bin just twice – both for minor infractions. Should he have skated in the three games he missed due to COVID-19, odds are he wouldn’t have been assessed a penalty… and who knows, he may have even topped 50 goals on the year – which he will likely use as a motivator next season.
“It’s just kind of how I’ve always played my game, just kind of used my footspeed and my stick to check moreso than my body,” Connor said of staying out of the box. “It’s being smart with your feet, being in the right positioning to be able to check with your stick. You know it’s not something where I go out there looking, I just play my game. Is it hard to not take penalties? I don’t think about it at all when I’m on the ice.”
The Jets winger had just four penalty minutes on the year, matching Datsyuk‘s lowest total, which he set in his rookie year – a season he skated in 70 games for the Red Wings. In his Lady Byng-winning seasons, Datsyuk actually hit 20 penalty minutes each time. But it was his gentlemanly play that earned his recognition.
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For Connor, he was up against two defensemen: Jaccob Slavin of the Carolina Hurricanes, who had actually earned the Lady Byng the season prior, and Jared Spurgeon of the fellow Central Division’s Minnesota Wild. Both players earned their way as finalists, but only one name could be selected.
“I would love to thank my family and friends. They’re always there whenever I need them, and you know, their unwavering support means the world to me,” Connor reflected. “It’s such a great honour to win this award and for me to be recognized, there’s so many good, talented players out there in the league. It’s pretty cool, so I’m sure I’ll look back at this one and I’ll be smiling at it.”
In terms of the particulars, Connor actually dominated the field. Of the 195 votes cast, his name appeared on 181. Of those 181, only 59 ballots had him ranked second or third, meaning 122 voters had Winnipeg’s offensive driver as the No. 1 pick.
Reading from a script in advance of the virtual trophy presentation was Lucie and Tanya Bossy – wife and daughter of the late Mike Bossy, who passed away following a lengthy battle with lung cancer back in April.
“That was very cool,” Connor said of the three-time winner. “Obviously Mike’s a very special player. Unfortunately the way he passed away this past year. To get a very special award from those two was pretty cool.”
Bossy, who won four-straight Stanley Cups with the New York Islanders during the team’s dynasty years in the 1980s, also took home the Lady Byng in 1983, 1984 and 1986. A perennial goal scorer, Bossy hit the 50-goal mark in nine of his 10 NHL seasons. He averaged 21 penalty minutes a year, recording 14 minutes or less on four occasions.
“I came across something my father wrote in his book about his first experience winning the Lady Byng Trophy, and I thought I could share that with you,” Tanya Bossy said in her video message to Connor. “He wrote, ‘I won my first Lady Byng Trophy as the League’s most gentlemanly player. I was happy to get the Lady Byng, but I didn’t understand what I did that particular year that I hadn’t done in years past.’
“So I think that captures everything about my dad. He was out one way in his everyday life, and one way on the ice, showing sportsmanship and being a gentleman was in his blood. It was just the way he was and the way he acted in his life. He definitely set up a high standard for everyone to look up to for strength, courage and growth, and as a three-time recipient of this award, it is evident that my father considered sportsmanship as being an important part of the game.”
If he’s anything like his idol Datsyuk, and Datsyuk’s predecessor Bossy, Connor appears destined to put together another strong offensive season, coupled with a low penalty minute total.
If all else fails, check back in one year’s time to see how he did.
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