Connor Brown picked major junior over the NCAA but ended up spending a couple of semesters at the school of hard knocks.
The first points of reference for the Erie Otters' season are two other Connors — the time centre Connor Crisp gamely went in as an emergency goalie one Sunday against Niagara and the fact winning only 10 games all season made the team the winner of the Connor McDavid derby. Junior hockey fans probably also got some mirth out of the fact that Brown had an OHL-worst -72 plus/minus rating, which could be put down to being a rookie playing top-six minutes for a team that was outscored 2:1 (335-167).
Ultimately, the 18-year-old shone through it, counting 25 goals and 53 points in 60 games while improving his offensive touch and skating. Brown is undersized but could make for a good pick in the middle rounds of the NHL draft. He was ranked 110th among North American skaters in NHL Central Scouting's final ranking. Otters linemate Dane Fox was 46th.
"It's hard but it's something you have to battle through because all you can do about it is play hard," Brown, who was listed at 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds this season, says of staying positive despite Erie's on-ice growing pains. "It was a tough year for us in the loss column because we were a real young team, but I think I learned a lot there. Robbie Ftorek is a real good coach. He's good at teaching individual skills. I learned a lot defensively and a lot about how to score, because he [Ftorek] is someone who scored at the National League level. He taught me how to score around the net."
Brown, whose father Dan Brown is a well-regarded coach with the Toronto Marlboros minor hockey organization, produced at a near point-per-game clip despite a rotating cast of linemates. He looks at that as a positive; it was part and parcel of the Otters shuffling the deck as they began rebuilding. He did find chemistry with Fox and Luke Cairns late in the season when Erie was playing for pride.
"I started out with [Chris] Marchese and [Toronto Maple Leafs pick Sondre] Olden and then Marchese got traded," Brown says. Then I was with [veterans] Greg McKegg and Mike Cazzola and they both got traded [to London and Ottawa]. I finished with Luke Cairns and Dane Fox, so I had a couple different linemates, but all those guys were easy to play with."
1. Apart from the obvious such as skating and building strength, what area of your game do you really need to improve before you can turn pro?
"It has to be getting more skilled defensively. Getting stronger is a big part of it, but defensively for sure. Obviously, though, I need to improve in every area."
2. Whom in the NHL do you watch closely and think, "I need to play like him to get to The Show" or "I see what he did there, I need to do that?"
"Definitely a guy like [Philadelphia Flyers centre] Claude Giroux. Obviously, he's on another level from me right now. I like to model after [Chicago Blackhawks star] Patrick Kane. We're both similar sizes. I like to model my game after them but I also have to be more defensive-minded, because obviously those guys are ridiculous offensively."
3. What teammate has had the greatest impact on you in the OHL?
"When I first came in, it was Michael Cazzola. He was one of the smartest players I ever played with. He was just a little guy [5-foot-7, 175 pounds] but he knew how to play the game and put up a lot of points [198 in 158 games over his final three seasons]. I definitely learned a lot from him. He did a lot of subtle things on the ice."
4. Your parents are each in the University of Western Ontario's sports hall of fame (father Dan for hockey; mother Anne for cross-country and athletics). What did each parent in particular give you, as a competitor?
"My dad played high-level hockey. He tried out for the Winnipeg Jets after he played at Western and then went over to Europe. He was really competitive and a skill player. My mom, she gave me a lot of my competitiveness and my good endurance."
5. In 2011, you were in the stands in Erie as an Otters draft pick cheering for your brother Jeff Brown with the Windsor Spitfires in the playoffs. How awkward was that, especially when he scored a double-overtime goal at Tullio Arena?
"It was different. At that point, I wasn't sure if I wanted to go to the OHL or NCAA, but I definitely wanted to cheer for my brother. I wasn't exactly cheering against Erie, though, the same way I would have if Windsor had played anyone else. The one game, it was double overtime and my brother scored and I jumped up out of my seat. Then I realized maybe I shouldn't be cheering."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.