Who will draft Trevor Connelly? Inside the NHL’s evolving scrutiny of top prospects


In late July, NHL scouts traveled to Central Europe for the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, an under-18 international tournament, to watch some of the best young players eligible for the 2024 NHL Draft.

Over six days, scouts bounced between the FOSFA Arena in Břeclav, Czech Republic, and the Pavol Demitra Ice Hockey Stadium in Trenčín, Slovakia, as they watched likely first-round picks Berkly Catton and Sam Dickinson from Team Canada and highly rated Czechia defenseman Adam Jiricek. But few prospects caught their attention as much as Trevor Connelly, a 17-year-old forward from Tustin, Calif.

Over five games, he scored five goals and had five assists and led Team USA to its first medal at the event since 2016. He displayed dynamic skating, puck skills and offensive creativity. In the bronze medal game, Connelly went end-to-end and chipped a shot over the shoulder of Finland’s goalie. One scout said of Connelly: “He looked like the best player here.”

His play was written about glowingly by several hockey publications, with The Hockey News calling his performance the “start of the hype train for him.” After playing well in the United States’ top junior league and shining in another international event in December, he moved up to No. 5 on one prominent list of North American prospects.

Connelly was known to scouts before the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, but his play forced teams to consider him anew. He was no longer just a prospect; he was a potential impact NHL player. But that made the evaluation of him thornier because, as one scout said, “Some stuff I’m just not willing to look the other way on.”

Many NHL evaluators were already aware that, in 2022, when he was 16, Connelly posted to Snapchat a picture of a teammate sitting on the floor of the children’s area of a library with building blocks assembled in the shape of a swastika. Connelly added the caption “creations.” He was removed from his team, the Long Island Gulls, after that incident. Connelly apologized for the posting of the swastika and said he didn’t understand how hurtful it would be to others. Some NHL people were also aware he had been accused of directing a racial slur at an opponent during a game in 2021, which he has denied. He was initially suspended after that allegation, though the suspension was not upheld, with the disciplinary committee for the California Amateur Hockey Association writing that the allegation could not be corroborated. Connelly told The Athletic he doesn’t use racial slurs. Some teams were also aware that Connelly had been involved with four amateur programs from 2020-22, an unusually vagabond career for a player with his talent; one of those stops, at Bishop Kearney, a high school in Rochester, N.Y., with a select hockey program, lasted less than two weeks.

Teams are also evaluating Connelly amidst a sea change in the level of scrutiny being applied to behavior by NHL executives, coaches and players. Actions that might have previously gone unnoticed or unexamined are being exposed and judged by the media and fans. That has led to the exile of several prominent hockey men over the last few years.

That scrutiny has trickled down to the draft process. In the 2020 and 2021 drafts, teams chose prospects they knew had committed misconduct and were fiercely criticized. One team — the Arizona Coyotes — quickly renounced the player’s rights. Another — the Montreal Canadiens — retained the player but endured a dressing down from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, among others.

“You were always worried about the player’s character and how it could affect your team, but the external considerations are newer. How will your fans react? What will the feedback be on social media? Will people dig up anything on this player’s old social media posts? How will this pick reflect on your team and team ownership? These are all newer things we didn’t worry about as much before,” said one NHL executive.

Even teams that said they have already decided against drafting Connelly are grappling with the questions his evaluation raises, figuring it won’t be the last time they are put to this test. How much should an organization’s stated values figure in the draft process? How do teams weigh a prospect’s talent versus misdeeds from the past? Because prospects are often minors when troubling behavior occurs, teams are also trying to decipher what acts are byproducts of immaturity as opposed to signs of a larger concern. And when is a second chance warranted?

Said the NHL executive: “Before, we never would have met with our public relations department to discuss a potential draft pick.”

In a recent ranking of NHL Draft prospects, Trevor Connelly is No. 5 among North American skaters. (Courtesy of Tri-City Storm / USHL)

The due diligence teams do on prospects is, as one NHL executive termed it, largely a “word of mouth” system. “None of us are HR people. None of us know the questions to ask. We all have our network of people. We just call each other,” said an NHL executive, who like some others who spoke to The Athletic were granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about prospects or their team’s draft process. Some youth hockey sources were granted anonymity due to their fear of retribution.

As NHL scouts begin evaluating a prospect, their first call is typically to a coach who worked with the player. Some scouts might dig deeper, talking to parents, billets and teammates, but some evaluators don’t, relying almost entirely upon the opinion of a coach with whom they may have a relationship. Coaches can provide a great deal of information about their star players. But they also are not impartial. Coaching a high draft pick can lead to a better job for a coach and more ticket revenue for a junior team. The NHL also compensates Canadian Hockey League teams for drafted players who make the NHL with CHL eligibility remaining. “They are incentivized to promote that player,” said one former NHL executive.

Also, hockey is a parochial sport, and there is an ingrained reluctance by many of those who speak with NHL scouts to disclose information that could imperil a pro career. In hockey parlance: No one wants to be the guy who “buries” a kid.

There are surely dozens of current NHL players, if not more, who have benefited from this system. “There are good players out there who have done bad stuff that have already been drafted, they just haven’t been caught,” said one NHL team official.

But even when the wrongdoing is widely known, it hasn’t stopped teams from drafting a talented prospect.

At the 2014 draft, the Tampa Bay Lightning used the No. 19 overall pick on Tony DeAngelo, an 18-year-old defenseman from the Sarnia (Ontario) Sting who was twice suspended for violating the league’s harassment and abuse policy for the use of a slur. Al Murray, Tampa Bay’s director of amateur scouting, said at the time of the draft that some of the incidents involving DeAngelo were “blown out of proportion.” Most critically, the Lightning faced little to no criticism for selecting DeAngelo.

DeAngelo was traded to the Arizona Coyotes after only two years in the Tampa Bay organization, never playing for the NHL team, amidst a report of “attitude issues.” In total, he has played for five organizations over nine seasons and faced team and league discipline for, among other issues, a physical altercation with his own team’s goaltender, for what his coach called a “maturity issue” and for physical abuse of an official.

Fast forward to the 2020 draft.

The Coyotes drafted Mitchell Miller, a defenseman from Sylvania, Ohio, in the fourth round. Miller was at one point projected to be selected much higher, but then NHL teams learned that when Miller was 14 years old he was convicted of assault after he kicked and punched a developmentally disabled classmate, called him a racial slur and convinced him to eat a piece of candy that had been dragged through a urinal.

Like DeAngelo, NHL teams knew about Miller’s past; some teams took him off their draft board, meaning they would not select him no matter how far he fell. After the draft, Coyotes president Xavier Gutierrez said the team would help Miller learn from his past misconduct. But Coyotes fans weren’t having it. Social media backlash was fierce. Mitchell’s victim said how hurt he was by the pick; his mother told the Coyotes her son never received an apology from Miller.

A few weeks after the draft, the Coyotes renounced Miller’s rights.

In November 2022, the Boston Bruins signed Miller, who was coming off an 83-point campaign with the Tri-City Storm of the USHL. Boston fans flooded the Bruins’ inbox and posted seething comments on the team’s Instagram page. Respected Boston veterans Patrice Bergeron, Nick Foligno and Brad Marchand voiced their disapproval.

The Bruins promptly released Miller. Team president Cam Neely apologized to the victim’s family and said the Bruins would be “re-evaluating” internal processes. Miller now plays in Russia.

Another test for NHL teams came at the 2021 draft. Logan Mailloux, an 18-year-old from Ontario, tantalized scouts as a blueliner with size and skill. But at least nine teams told The Athletic that Mailloux had been removed from their board as a result of his criminal conviction in Sweden roughly seven months earlier for disseminating a photograph of himself and a young woman, taken without her consent, engaged in a sexual act. Prior to the draft, Mailloux called the conduct a “stupid, childish mistake,” but in interviews with some NHL teams Mailloux allegedly portrayed the woman as vindictive.

Three days before the draft, the young woman told The Athletic that all she wanted was a “heartfelt apology” from Mailloux. An hour after the publication of that story, Mailloux announced that he was asking teams not to draft him because he had not “demonstrated strong enough maturity or character to earn that privilege.” Mailloux’s announcement prompted many NHL executives to assume he’d go undrafted.

The draft was held virtually that year, with teams videoconferencing in to make selections. When it came time for the Montreal Canadiens to make the No. 31 overall pick, general manager Marc Bergevin announced that the Habs “were proud to select … the Knights de London défenseur Logan Mailloux.” The pick was followed by several seconds of dead air before host John Buccigross said: “All right, well, this is something the league probably wishes didn’t happen.” Draft analyst Sam Cosentino added during the broadcast: “The most polarizing pick I’ve ever seen, maybe in the history of the draft.”

Canadiens assistant general manager Trevor Timmins struggled to come up with an answer when asked about the pick the following day. Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister and a lifelong Habs fan, said he was “deeply disappointed.” Montreal subsequently announced Mailloux wouldn’t attend development camp or training camp.

But he remains in the Habs organization and was an all-star for the Laval Rocket of the American Hockey League. The two men responsible for picking him, however, are no longer with the Habs. Bergevin and Timmins were ousted within months of drafting Mailloux. The team was struggling when they were let go, but drafting Mailloux remains part of their legacy in Montreal.

Miller and Mailloux were convicted of criminal acts. What Connelly did or has been accused of doing is harder to categorize and that makes his evaluation different. For some teams, that gray space could provide the room needed to take a chance on Connelly. For others, that gray space, the unknown, heightens the concern. “He’s a hell of a player and could play in the league for a long time,” said one NHL executive. “(But) you may not keep your job after picking him.”

Connelly, his mother and his representatives have worked hard to make the case that Connelly is guilty of only a single youthful mistake: the posting of the offensive photo to Snapchat. And when discussing that incident, they highlight the outreach he has done to better understand the hurtful nature of the photo he posted and the community service he’s completed.

“We determined that he’s not a hateful kid. He’s an ignorant kid. And my position is you don’t punish ignorance, you punish hatred. You educate ignorance,” said John Osei-Tutu, an NHL agent advising the Connelly family.

But Connelly’s frequent moves and short tenures at prominent hockey programs have also been flagged by teams. While it is not unusual for top prospects to move to a new program in search of a better situation, Connelly’s well-traveled career stands out. Between the ages of roughly 13 and 17, he was a member of seven different programs, and that included two stops where he stayed less than a month. To understand what might be behind those frequent moves, The Athletic spoke to more than 40 people (players, parents, coaches and others) who interacted with Connelly during his playing career.

Connelly played six seasons for the Anaheim (Calif.) Jr. Ducks, ending with the 2018-19 season when Connelly was around 13, and The Athletic interviewed more than a dozen parents who had a child who was a teammate of Connelly’s during at least one of those seasons. Ten of those parents said they witnessed behavior by Connelly that they considered troubling, and eight of those 10 parents described Connelly’s actions as bullying.

Four parents said they saw Connelly punch a teammate during practice; three of those parents said they saw it happen multiple times. It was usually in response to Connelly getting frustrated, those three parents say, such as when he lost a puck battle or a teammate wouldn’t allow him to cut in line during a drill. Five parents said he would slash teammates with his stick out of frustration. Four of those five parents said they also saw him slew-foot players — trip an opponent from behind with a leg or foot.

Individually, those incidents are not unheard of at the highest levels of youth hockey. And some parents chalked up Connelly’s behavior to the fact that he was intensively competitive. However, the incidents were frequent enough that eight parents said that at some point they felt concern for the well-being of their son or that of other players.

Parents said Connelly also picked on some teammates in the locker room and away from the rink. He seemed to focus on players who were small in stature and/or were among the less talented members of the team, according to eight parents. He would make fun of their appearance, tell them they were not good players and that they didn’t belong on the team, among other insults. “He wasn’t just a troublemaker; it wasn’t just that. He was mean,” said one parent.

One mother said her son avoided team activities, like bus rides or team meals, to avoid being around Connelly more than was necessary. Another mother said her son asked to not stay at the team hotel because he didn’t want to be around Connelly. Yet another parent said she went so far as to ask her son to assist a player Connelly repeatedly picked on. “It’s frustrating when you have to tell your kid to protect his teammate from another teammate,” she said. Two players left the Anaheim Jr. Ducks program prior to or during or the 2017-18 season in part because of how they were treated by Connelly, according to three parents associated with that program.

Connelly, in response to the above allegations, wrote in an email: “I am surprised and sad to hear these allegations. It is difficult to respond to anonymous allegations. I’m willing to sit down privately with anyone and listen to what they have to say. I wasn’t a perfect kid or teammate. It’s no secret I am highly competitive and there were definitely times when I let my competitiveness get the best of me but I never tried to intentionally injure anyone.

“Since I started playing travel hockey, I’ve had to listen to a lot of negative things yelled at me when I was on the ice, mostly by parents of other players. I know what that feels like and it’s one of the reasons I’ve committed myself to being a leader on and off the ice.”

Three parents said they complained to Jr. Ducks coach Eugene Kabanets about Connelly’s conduct at some point. (The Athletic reviewed one of those complaints, sent via email, when the players were around 11.) Others said they were reluctant to complain because Connelly was such a good player that they didn’t believe Kabanets would do anything.

Kabanets acknowledged that there was the “occasional conflict” on the team but described Connelly as a “good teammate.” He added in an email: “If and when I observed issues or when concerns were ever brought to my attention, I spoke to the players in question and to their parents and we would address it immediately at that time. The main thing that stands out to me when I think about bullying during that time period is what I observed Trevor endure personally. He was the victim of ridicule and extreme bullying from a young age, often from the parents of opposing players. It was very difficult to watch and I know that it was hard for him as a young child.”

For the 2019-20 season, then 13-year-old Connelly left the Jr. Ducks and played up an age group with the AA San Diego Saints. Coaches Josh Robinson and Rob Overman said they were unaware of any specific issues involving Connelly during his one season with the team. Tanya Maxwell, who carpooled her son and Connelly to practice multiple times per week, said Connelly was a model teammate and added in an email that the fishbowl atmosphere of youth hockey in California can cause “a lot of jealousy and unwarranted gossip about the top players.”

In 2020, Connelly, then 14, enrolled at Bishop Kearney, which started a boys select hockey program during the pandemic, drawing top players from around the country. Almost immediately, the school suspended Connelly, but he left Bishop Kearney shortly thereafter. A public relations official working with the family said that all that should be written about Connelly’s short stint at the school is: “He was there for a week and he left.”

Sources involved in the school’s hockey program said that Connelly was suspended after urinating on another student’s belongings, among other alleged acts. One source said Connelly was acting in response to hazing that Connelly had received earlier. That source said he witnessed the hazing Connelly endured and also saw students tease Connelly about being hazed.

Steve Salluzzo, Bishop Kearney’s president, wrote in an email: “We do not discuss student matters with anyone beyond students and their families.”

Trevor Connelly said in a statement: “At 14 years old, I was the victim of a humiliating hazing incident in my dorm room and then harassed about it afterwards. I reacted poorly to the situation with an immature act. While I took responsibility at the time, I regret and am embarrassed by how I handled myself.”

Connelly next joined the North Jersey Avalanche of the Atlantic Youth Hockey League. Avalanche coach Donny Kane said Connelly left the program after approximately two weeks because it became too difficult to travel between California and the East Coast regularly because of travel and quarantine policies during the pandemic. Matt Zocco, a coach and father in the program, said Connelly was “well mannered” in all his dealings with him.

Connelly returned to Southern California but did not rejoin the Jr. Ducks. “At that time we did not feel he was a good fit for our program,” the organization said in a statement.

Connelly instead joined Anaheim’s Jr. Ice Dogs, and in April 2021, when he was 15 and playing for that team versus the L.A. Jr. Kings, he was accused of directing a racial slur at an opponent. What happened remains in dispute. The player came off the ice “so visibly shaken and upset with tears streaming down his face after the incident that I had to sit him for the remainder of the first period so he could collect himself,” according to an email his coach, Brett Beebe, sent to Pacific District official Wayne Sawchuk, which was viewed by The Athletic.

Video footage of that game shows the player leaving the ice in the first period and flagging his coach’s attention. The two move behind the bench and speak for approximately one minute, with the coach consoling the player. The player then walks to a nearby vestibule and bends over with his hands on his knees, where he remains until the period ends.

Beebe asked in his email to Sawchuk that the incident be reported to members of the Pacific District tournament disciplinary committee. He later testified before that committee, which suspended Connelly.

The matter was then taken up by the disciplinary hearing committee of the California Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA). After a hearing before that group, the panel found that “the alleged incident as described by the Pacific District Tournament Disciplinary Committee may have occurred, however, there was no supporting documentation presented by the (Pacific District Tournament Disciplinary Committee) that corroborated the allegation against the player, and the player maintained that he at no time uttered any racial slurs against his opponent,” according to its written decision. In closing, the CAHA committee stated that Connelly had not violated the USA Hockey rule covering misconduct.

Connelly attended the hearing, conducted via videoconference, as did his parents and Osei-Tutu, his adviser. Beebe and the player who alleged Connelly used the slur were not in attendance, according to the committee’s written decision. Beebe said in an interview he was not made aware that the hearing was taking place, and no one from CAHA alerted him that the allegation was under further review. The player who made the initial allegation was not contacted about the hearing, either, nor were his parents or the player’s adviser.

CAHA president Tom Hancock declined to comment, citing CAHA’s policy not to discuss disciplinary matters involving minors. Sawchuk also declined to comment. Connelly wrote in an email: “I don’t use racial slurs. I have stood up for teammates when they have been called racial slurs and I understand this is a problem in our sport. This is why I’m so committed to my work as a coach and mentor with Hockey Players of Color.”

Colleen Connelly, during a two-hour interview in Nebraska, where Trevor Connelly currently plays for the Tri-City Storm of the USHL, said: “There is a significant history with (the LA Jr. Kings) and my son. Parents on that team have been extremely abusive to Trevor for many years.”

Connelly returned to the East Coast for the 2021-22 season, joining the Long Island Gulls. In March 2022, Connelly, then 16, posted the photo on Snapchat of a teammate sitting next to the building blocks assembled in the shape of a swastika. The photo was quickly taken down, but screenshots circulated and team officials and parents learned of the photo. (The Athletic has reviewed a screenshot.)

The two players were not immediately disciplined — they played in a regional tournament days later — but after consulting with the U.S. Center for SafeSport, USA Hockey, New York’s state governing body and the club’s attorney, who conducted an internal investigation, the Gulls removed both players from the organization.

The incident came at a time when Connelly was able to be recruited by college programs, though some schools had already decided not to pursue him. “Because of everything that went with him, we just didn’t (recruit him),” said a coach at one perennial powerhouse.

Connelly called the incident an “awful mistake” in an email and added: “While I was not in the photo and did not participate in building the symbol, I understand and recognize how ignorant I was in sharing it. I did not appreciate how offensive and hurtful the post would be in the moment and I still feel terrible about it.

“Over the last year and a half, I’ve dedicated a lot of time and energy to educating myself, completing diversity trainings, doing volunteer community service work, and to coaching and mentoring other hockey players. I am also very grateful to be working with a Rabbi and Cantor. They have been very kind to me and I’m learning a lot from them.”

In an interview with RinkLive, which came after Connelly’s play at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, Connelly said he had visited the L.A. Holocaust Museum and read the book “Night” by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, and that he was undergoing diversity, equity and inclusion courses and performing community service.

Jazmine Miley, the founder of the Hockey Players of Color program where Connelly volunteered following the swastika incident, said: “Trevor is an amazing young man who just made a dumb mistake and is working his way to fixing that.”

Trevor Connelly said he has “dedicated a lot of time and energy to educating myself.” (Courtesy of Tri-City Storm / USHL)

Osei-Tutu, who began advising the Connelly family around the time Trevor left Bishop Kearney, has been lobbying NHL teams on Connelly’s behalf. In defense of his client, he tends to push back on or deny all but the swastika incident. The other allegations are untrue, misconstrued or lack context, he said. He considers Connelly to be mostly “a victim of the game of telephone.”

This runs contrary to how some NHL teams view Connelly. “We’re willing to forgive and take a chance on a kid who just makes one mistake, the issue for teams comes when there is a pattern and you’re worried it is representative of a real issue with the player and not just immaturity,” said a scout.

In September, Osei-Tutu sent a flurry of direct messages defending Connelly to a prospects writer after that writer posted on social media a quote about Connelly from an unnamed scout: “He’s got top 10 skill, but bottom 10 character.” Osei-Tutu repeatedly expressed concern that The Athletic was trying to “destroy” or “cancel” Connelly. He also offered in an interview the name of another prospect who was previously disciplined for using racist language and suggested The Athletic look into that player. On multiple occasions he attempted to draw a distinction between Connelly and Mitchell Miller, saying only his client showed accountability.

After the Connelly family became aware The Athletic was working on this story, they engaged an attorney who previously was involved in a lawsuit against The Athletic. (That lawsuit has since been dropped.) That attorney sent an eight-page letter that, among other assertions over more than 3,500 words, attacked the journalistic integrity of one of the writers working on this story. The family also engaged a Los Angeles-based public relations person who includes “reputation management” among her areas of expertise in her company bio.

Connelly recently began meeting with NHL teams, and evaluators have asked him direct questions about the swastika incident and his stop at Bishop Kearney and other issues, parsing his responses. One evaluator described Connelly as upfront and transparent in his meeting with him, another said Connelly was eager to deflect blame onto others and showed little accountability. But even that parsing is unlikely to bring true clarity for teams debating whether they should select Connelly at the June 28 draft in Las Vegas. When a prospect’s misconduct falls into a different category than, say, Mitchell Miller, when the wrongdoing takes place during a prospect’s teenage years (or younger), when teams are trying to decipher whether wrongdoing is a sign of a real behavioral problem, a clean evaluation of Connelly and players like him in the future may not be possible. Especially as teams factor in what adding a player of his talent can mean for a franchise.

“I believe in a path to redemption but it’s not my job to provide it,” said one scouting director. But another evaluator predicted Connelly will be chosen, just not as early as the rankings portend. “At one point the difference between him and the next guy will be too big,” said the scout. “All it takes is one team.”

(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic. Main photo courtesy Dan Hickling / USHL; other photos courtesy Tri-City Storm / USHL)

Source link


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here