YOUNGSTOWN - Very few players get the chance to represent their country at any level of competition, but even fewer can say they've scored gold-medal winning goals.
The Youngstown Phantoms' Kyle Connor can say just that. The 6-foot-1, 175-pound center participated in the 2013 World Junior A Challenge, an annual under-20 international hockey tournament held in Canada (this time in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia) as a representative of the United States. With the score tied at 1 late in the second period of the championship game, Connor broke the deadlock with a goal that proved to be a game-winner, as the Stars and Stripes beat the Russians, 4-1.
"It was kind off a rush," said Connor, who finished that tournament with two goals and three assists. "Chipped the puck in deep, and one of my linemates grabbed the puck and moved it to me. I was kind of like at the dots, and I just tried to get the puck on the net. The next thing you know, it was in and we were all celebrating.
"It was a feeling that I'll probably never feel again for a long time. It was great."
Since returning to the Phantoms (7-17-5) in early November, Connor has built upon this performance.
Despite missing four games, the Shelby, Mich. native leads Youngstown in points with 35, while his assist total of 22 is the fifth-most in the United States Hockey League. Youngstown coach Anthony Noreen, who was a member of the U.S. coaching staff, said he's noticed the difference in the center.
"I think since he's come back from (Canada), he's been on another level," Noreen said. "I think he learned when he went up there against some of the best players in his age group that he's right there or ahead of a lot of them. He's been arguably one of the best players in the league, night in and night out."
With these performances, scouts have taken notice. Many websites rank Connor, who is eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft, somewhere in the late-first-to-early-second-round range, and Connor said while this adds a little pressure, he doesn't think too much about it.
"Maybe a little bit (of pressure), but (I'm) just trying not to focus about it too much," Connor said. "I'm trying to worry about what I can control, and just trying to get better every day."
Connor has come a long way from when he first joined the Phantoms for the 2012-2013 season, when he struggled through the first 20 games to adjust. Still, Connor managed to finish the regular season with 17 goals and 24 assists, adding another three assists during the Phantoms' Eastern Conference Final run.
"Kyle's a guy who, when we signed him two years ago, was a 15-year-old, went through and struggled early in the year last year," Noreen said. "But then he really turned it around and I think this year, he's proved to be, as a junior in high school, one of the elite players in this league."
Although Connor's play has been a bright spot, those have been few and far between for Youngstown so far, as the Phantoms sit in last place in the Eastern Conference and 10 points behind Chicago in seventh. The 17-year-old said the team is trying its best to buck the downward trend.
"Our coach was telling us to keep believing," Connor said. "We just have to buy into our coach's system and do whatever they tell us to and try to focus on getting better - each individual."
No matter how this season ends in Youngstown, Connor will have plenty of good memories, including playing for Team U.S.A.
"Every time you get to put on a U.S. jersey, you feel extremely honored and blessed," Connor said. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience."