Steinbach Pistons captain Tyson McConnell joined an exclusive group of players as he surpassed 200 games played in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.
The 20-year-old veteran took a little time to reflect after game 203 vs the Winnipeg Blues and started thinking back to when he was a rookie breaking into the league. "When I started out as a 17-year-old, I was just hoping to get through that first year and just see how it goes. To be able to still be here, playing in my fourth year, I consider myself pretty lucky."
After spending the 2014-2015 season with the Pembina Valley Hawks, McConnell got his first taste of MJHL action in 2015/16 and remembers it vividly. "I remember just how fast the game was and how strong they were. You'd look up and down their lineup and seeing all these 20-year-olds who were pretty good players and it was a little intimidating. But, as time goes on you get adjusted to the pace and strength and I was able to grow as a player."
McConnell can also recall what it was like seeing his name on a jersey for the very first time. "It was a pretty unreal feeling. Steinbach's a great organization to play for and it's been an honour to play here for my career."
In his rookie season with the Pistons, McConnell put up 6 goals and 9 assists for 15 points in 48 games while only recording 8 penalty minutes. The pride of Pilot Mound can still see his first MJHL goal. "It was in OCN and I banked it off one of their defenders and in. (McConnell smiles and takes a moment as he thinks about it, laughs and says "yeah".)
The growth of McConnell on the ice is evident in his stats. After 15 points his first year, he increased that total to 27 the next year and 40 the year after that.
It's not just increasing his point total every year but for McConnell, it's growing as a person away from the rink. "I think I've matured a ton since I've got here. At 17, I was that quiet little guy in the corner, I was pretty nervous. We had a lot of older, more intimidating guys in the room but as time went on they welcomed me and I was able to grow. My billets have also been great. I've got to live with great roommates, too. I just can't complain about anything."
Last season, McConnell was part of the MJHL Championship and ANAVET Cup Championship Steinbach Pistons team that went all the way to the RBC Cup. It's something that not a lot of Junior A players get a chance to experience and it's something that McConnell cherishes still. "It was unbelievable. It's something you dream about when you come to Steinbach and play in Junior A. Right from the get-go last year, I knew we had the group to do it. The past couple of years before we fell short, so to finish it off was unbelievable and we're looking to do that again this year."
Heading into his final year, McConnell had played in 168 games, scored 38 goals and 82 points. As he suited up for game 169, he would add something else to his impressive career, the captains 'C'.
After a long road, it was a special moment for McConnell and his family. "It was really special. I've been able to play with some great leaders here in Steinbach and it was an absolute honour to be named by the coaches and the players here to be the one chosen to lead our way back to the Turnbull Cup."
Paul Dyck, the only head coach McConnell has known at the Junior level couldn't say enough good things about the kid who has become one of, if not the best two-way forwards to ever play for the Steinbach Pistons. To the point, when he was asked to talk about the career of his captain, Dyck responded with an "oh wow" and needed a moment himself to reflect on just how great it's been to watch McConnell grow on and off the ice.
After taking a second to gather his thoughts, Dyck smiled and said "I think back to early on, it was evident he had a great mind for the game. He's grown but he's still that tall, lanky guy but the one thing that has always stayed is the relentless work ethic. We knew early he was going to be a good leader for this team. It's really no surprise he is where he is in terms of the role that he plays for us. He grasped the role of penalty killing and he's been a stalwart ever since. His offensive game has grown, he can really bury some pucks but that's going to the hard areas and that willingness to outwork others to get what he wants."
Dyck also has seen that maturity off the ice as McConnell has really ingrained himself in the community of Steinbach and is always willing to go out and do things with many different charitable groups or just spending time with fans. "He's a character guy. A great character guy. We'd love to have him for another 200 games but we'll take him for what we have left of him this year."
The first half of his final year has flown by according to McConnell but he's making sure he takes time to appreciate it. "I take it all in day by day, game by game and it's been a lot of fun. We have a good group of guys here again and we try to get better each and every day. We're working towards the playoffs and another push to the Turnbull.
Often referred to by many as "Kernel" or "Kerns" or a new nic-name given by teammates Brady Tatro and Tanner Mole, "Long Bones Jones", but when past or current teammates hear the name Tyson McConnell, the words they use to describe him are a warrior, a leader and a lot of respect. To have earned that is something the always humble McConnell can't appreciate enough. "It means a lot to me. I take a lot of pride in the way I play and live. Being able to be a leader, means a lot to me. Getting to be a role model to the 17 and 18-year-olds means a lot to me, getting to show them the way and how it should be done."
There's still a job to do this year, McConnell says but he is looking forward to what comes next. "I'd like to continue my hockey career, at what level I'm not sure. I just keep working and seeing what will come."
After spending four years and playing in over two hundred games, McConnell has had a chance to really get to know the people of Steinbach and that's something he'll take with him where ever the hockey road leads him. "I can't thank the people enough. The support has always been amazing. I really can't thank everyone enough for everything."