For many 20 year-olds in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, playing their final season in the league can weigh down on the mind but for Steinbach Pistons defenseman Connor Martin, he knows where his future is and that’s at Marian University of the NCAA Division 3 in Wisconsin.
Now that the matter of where his next steps will be, Martin took some time to talk about where he’s been and remembers fondly of the first time he put on skates. “The first time I put on skates I was 2 or 3 years old, just at a local pond in Owatonna, Minnesota. Growing up, we had this river through town and it had a few outdoor rinks attached to it and the first time I got on skates was down there. I have a pretty clear memory of getting off the little tripod that helps you skate and about 30 seconds later falling and cracking my head pretty good. I had a helmet, but it still hurt.”
By grade 2, Martin got his first taste of organized hockey. “All my friends were playing what’s called Timbits up here,” Martin says with a smile, “So I got a little heat from that. It was fun, I had a blast. I played with guys that were four years older than me and I got a lot of friendships out of it.”
Fans and opponents from across the province know Martin as a rugged, tough checking, hard to play against defender but he didn’t start out that way. “I didn’t start playing defense until my fourth year of organized hockey. I was a forward and, believe it or not, a goal scorer back in the day.” Martin smiles and chuckles as he says “I don’t know where that’s at now, but I used to be.”
As Martin has gotten older, he remembers how many people were there, especially in the beginning. “Lots of people were around, my parents obviously when I was little and growing up the coaches. We had a great Learn To Skate program in Owatonna. I was lucky to have great coaches down there and played 4 years of squirt hockey down in the States, which is considered Atom up here in Canada.”
If you thought that with the style he plays, often winning Crunch of the Game for the hardest check of the night, Martin would have grown up playing with that type of fire and intensity, you’d be very right. “I started body checking before I was allowed,” Martin says with a grin. “I racked up a lot of penalty minutes getting ready for Pee Wee and the body checking. I’ve always been a bigger kid so I think it had something to do with it. I grew up being aggressive, my dad played rugby so I got to watch him play physical all the time and it kind of wore off. I love to hit and maybe started a bit too early but that’s alright.”
His two years of Pee Wee hockey would also be the last two years of hockey in Owatonna. While he was there, his team made it to the State Tournament, an experience he hasn’t forgotten. “It was pretty awesome. We were the first Pee Wee team to make it out of Owatonna. Our banner is still hanging up in the rink and it’s pretty cool to go back and see that and recognize that accomplishment.
Martin and his mother moved to Buffalo where he would play his lone year of Bantam. By grade 9, Martin had the opportunity to play Varsity hockey. He played two years of Varsity in grade 9 and 10 but after his sophomore season, he was on the move again. “My dad got a job at Shattuck-St Mary’s prep school in Faribault, Mn. Guys like Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby and guys like that attended that school. It gave me the opportunity to play down there, it showed me that hockey was what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go to high school and play in college other than baseball or football which I also played.”
After finishing his grade 12, Martin was in a place that many hockey players find themselves, filled with uncertainty and questions about his future in the game. “After Shattuck, I didn’t have a whole lot of contact with many coaches. One of my coaches came up and asked if I talked to anybody and when I said ‘no,’ he said he fix that. A few days later, I had about 15 e-mails from teams and junior programs from across the US and Canada. Paul (Dyck) from Steinbach was one of only two coaches to call me rather than just e-mail. I took it into account and figured he obviously wants me or cares about me enough to call. After a little bit of talk I came up here and as they say, the rest is history.”
Moving to Canada is quite a culture shock for many American born players and Martin didn’t really experience it before moving to Steinbach. “I didn’t realize how flat it was going to be. I also didn’t expect just how awesome the people are. You hear stereotypes of Canadian people being way too friendly and it’s true in the best way possible. I relish every minute up here and it’s going to be tough to leave when the season is over.”
Coming into the season as a 20 year-old veteran, Martin wasn’t sure really what to expect as far as his future was concerned but a conversation with a teammate quickly changed all that. “During the summer, I had actually anticipated this being my last year of hockey. With things going on in my life, I just kind of figured this was going to be it. I wanted to come up here and enjoy the ride one more time. Focus on my degree and attack that after the season. About a month into the season, I was talking with Jordan Bochinski and he mentioned a coach he played with for a bit last year in Wisconsin had moved to a University. I just so happened to know this coach, I tried out for his teams in the past and he played junior in the town I grew up in. Jordan told me he was coming up for the Show Case weekend in Winnipeg and, unfortunately, I was dinged up a bit and only got to play one of the two games over the weekend but apparently they thought very highly of me in that one game and from the past. We talked a bit in October and they were trying to convince me to go there and convince me what was good about their school and their program. Being two new coaches to the program it was tough, they didn’t know too much about it but the familiarity with the coaches, I knew they wanted me and I knew they wouldn’t recruit me if they didn’t want me.”
After weighing the decision for a short time, Martin made the commitment to Marian University. “It’s been a huge weight lifted off my shoulders and I’ve been able to just go out and have fun. Not worry about what’s going to happen next season and I think it’s benefited my game.”
For Martin, hockey was not the only factor in the decision. Education plays a big role in his life and he knows it’s special that he get’s to get a great education while playing the game he loves. “I was almost going to focus solely on education part and not play hockey but the fact I get to play is a bonus. I’ve decided I want to be a teacher and I think it’s the best career choice for me and I can’t wait, I’m super excited to start.”
It’s not always been an easy road for Martin but he has really taken a lot of pride in becoming a leader not just in the locker room but in the community he cares about so deeply. “Our three words as Pistons are ‘Character, Leadership and Integrity.’ We always talk about how it’s not just on the ice. I’ve really taken it to heart and have taken it to heart my entire career. I’ve never been really a flashy player, except with I was 8 or 9 years old (said with a laugh), but since then I’ve been a nose to the grindstone, lunch pail, blue collar type of guy and I think it shows on the ice but also off the ice. I get after our responsibilities whether it’s being in the community which I really enjoy or talking to younger guys, trying to provide wisdom. I’ve been through a lot in my career, a lot of ups and a lot of down. I’ve experienced what a lot of guys are going through. I’ve embraced it and I’d like to hopefully pass on those traits to the younger guys.”
For players across North America, the dream is to one day play in the National Hockey League but Martin knows that there is a value from the game of hockey without making it to the professional level. “Education is huge. The reality of playing in the NHL is so slim, not to discourage anybody from going out there because it’s a great goal to have, it’s a goal that I had. I believe it’s a goal that has helped me get to where I am now. You also have to have the goal in mind to get your degree and do the best you can in school. Without the grades and the effort, I put in during high school and middle school, I wouldn’t have gotten the financial aid package that I did at Marian. It would have been a completely different story and I wouldn’t be able to go there. Focusing on school while you’re young is huge and it opens up a lot more doors than you may think. I was super skeptical of it when I was younger, thinking parents just say it to make you work harder, but when you’re a 20 year-old, you see the benefits really showing through. You have to put in the work both on the ice and off. You got to put in the work.”
Canada has really become home for Martin but there are things that he’s looking forward to next year when he returns to the United States of America. “I consider Steinbach home and feel complete at home. I’m most excited to play close to my parents. They do a great job of coming up here even though it’s 6 or 7 hours away, 8 for my dad, it’ll be nice for them to drive two hours to see me. I’m a little nervous about playing with a cage on, I’ve gotten pretty used to the visor. I think I’ll miss that quite a bit. It’ll be good to be back home, it’s been a great experience up here. It’ll just be nice to play in front of family and friends. I’m very grateful.
The season continues to wind down with playoffs in the not so distant future and for Martin, he want’s to say thank you to a lot of people that have made him who he is today. “Thanks to everyone who’s helped me get along. It’s a pretty cool opportunity, this is something I set my sights on as a little kid to play College hockey. I appreciate everyone that’s helped me get here. A lot of hard work and a lot of frustration but the fact I’m here and starting in the fall is huge for me. It’s a testament to the people around me because they truly got me here.”