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On the Super Bowl's biggest play, Tony Romo freelanced and lost

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On the Super Bowl's biggest play, Tony Romo freelanced and lost

When Tony Romo became the biggest sensation in NFL broadcasting, it was because he was a gunslinger as an analyst, predicting plays with an unconventional style that eventually led to a 10-year, $180 million contract, then the richest known deal in sports media history.

These days, four years into that deal, after all the criticism of Romo, CBS clearly went into his third Super Bowl as a TV analyst looking for a game manager instead of a game changer. But old habits die hard.

On the final call to end the Super Bowl LVIII overtime classic between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers, Romo and play-by-play partner Jim Nantz’s lack of teamwork showed up at the worst time.

At first, Romo did a fine job with the Chiefs down three points and inside the 5-yard line late in overtime, explaining that it did not matter as viewers watched the clock wind down toward zero — the game would not end and would just roll into a second quarter of OT. But Romo kept talking too long.

This blocked Nantz from properly setting up the final play. As the winning touchdown was scored, Nantz said, “First and goal, Mahomes flings it! It’s there! Hardman! Jackpot! Kansas City!”

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Romo first muttered in the background of Nantz’s call as if he were a yahoo on local radio. After Nantz finished, Romo started in, “This was the Andy Reid special. …” And then on and on.

For 30 seconds, as CBS showed reaction, Romo talked about the play when the best analysis would’ve been silence, which would have allowed the crowd and pictures to tell the story. It should have been Nantz’s broadcast moment, if anyone’s.

Nantz and Romo were once supposed to be the next Pat Summerall and John Madden but have fallen so far that their disjointed performance Sunday was one CBS will likely take. Before the final play, the broadcast was far from perfect, but it was mostly manageable. Maybe not one to overnight to the Sports Emmys, but, on the production side, it had its moments.

Nantz and Romo make the big money — a near $30 million a year between them — so, like quarterbacks, they receive the most credit and blame. Their quarterback rating was not high enough, missing obvious big themes.

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The duo failed to ever explain why the defenses — especially the 49ers on Travis Kelce in the first half — were having their way for so long with the offenses. They also were very underwhelming when CBS’s production team expertly spotted Kelce bumping and screaming at his 65-year-old head coach. They rarely spoke about line play. And the overarching themes of the game were often missed. There were no threads.

The grading for the Super Bowl broadcast is the highest level because it is the most prestigious assignment in American sportscasting. Nantz has called the game six times, but his partners, first Phil Simms and now Romo, have regressed under his watch. A bad trend.

Meanwhile, Romo lacks consistency in his thoughts. With 10 seconds left in regulation and the Chiefs at the 49ers’ 11, Romo said, “If you have six seconds, you feel comfortable taking another crack at it.”

After an incomplete pass, there were six seconds left, and Romo opined, “If he had seven, I’d do it,” adding Kansas City should kick.

Umm, but, Tony, you just said …

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Never mind.

The inconsistency happens too much with Romo, causing CBS Sports executives to put on a brave face publicly and privately, defending him, but actions are almost always where the truth lands, and their truest thoughts seemed evident in their approach.

Early, it was clear, CBS’s game plan was to simplify the offense. In the first half, it cut down on the overuse of too many voices, sticking mostly to Nantz and Romo. Romo seemed chilled. It wasn’t bad.

The production team came up big in the second quarter. After Chiefs running back Isiah Pacheco fumbled, it found a sideline shot in which Kelce accosted Reid.

“He goes, ‘Keep me in,’” Romo said, apparently lip-reading. “What happened is, on the fumble, he was not in the game. Noah Gray went in, and he had to block. Noah Gray, the tight end, had to block (Deommodore) Lenoir. Lenoir made him swim and actually created the fumble. And I think Kelce is like, ‘Just keep me in there, even if we are running the ball.’”

Let’s put to the side we needed to consult Google Translate to go from Romo to English to understand what, “(Deommodore) Lenoir made him swim and actually created the fumble” might mean, the story is Kelce nearly knocking down his coach.

It wasn’t Latrell Sprewell on P.J. Carlesimo, but it was Taylor Swift’s boyfriend in front of about, give or take, 115 million viewers. We kind of needed the former All-Pro Cowboys quarterback to weigh in if that was kosher or not.

The best part of Romo is his unscripted fun personality. Non-hardcore fans can like him because Romo comes across as — and from all first-hand reports is — a genuinely nice guy. He would be cool to have a beer with, a good quality in an announcer.

Sunday, the most personality Romo showed was when he sang Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” to break, channeling another Cowboys great turned broadcaster, Don Meredith. Romo would do it again in the third quarter, trying to entice Nantz — who is a broadcaster from a Peter Jennings/Tom Brokaw anchor era — for a singalong to Elvis’ “Viva Las Vegas.” Romo even did a little Beastie Boys late with “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)!”

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As for Nantz, he sounded extra amped to open the game, maybe overcompensating for some less-than-enthusiastic early calls in the playoffs. On the two Romo-isms of the first half, Nantz did correctly challenge him. Romo said a fumble might be a lateral in the second quarter, and then late in the period, with the scoreless Chiefs down 10, he said they might be in four-down territory. Nantz rightly threw the challenge flag on both.

In the end, the problem with the tandem is that despite all their “pal” and “buddy” talk, not to mention their over-the-top, on-air, “I love yous,” they don’t sound on the same page.

That disconnection shows up in the biggest spots, when the world is watching, when what you have done all season is on display.

Nantz and Romo should have the broadcast strategy of that last play down. Romo’s appeal may be that he is like a fan, but he’s doing the Super Bowl broadcast and being paid handsomely to do so.

He just needed to get out of the way to allow Nantz to make his complete call, then wait until after the pictures and sounds had their moment to note that Mahomes is Michael Jordan.

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It wasn’t time for the gunslinger. CBS had the right plan, and Nantz and Romo executed at times. But, on the biggest play of the season, Romo freelanced and lost.

(Photo of Tony Romo and Jim Nantz: Rob Carr / Getty Images)

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

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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.”

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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“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.

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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)

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Winnipeg Jets ownership sounds the alarm on attendance: 'Not going to work over the long haul'

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Winnipeg Jets ownership sounds the alarm on attendance: 'Not going to work over the long haul'

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Behind a large desk in an office tower with a view out over True North Square, Mark Chipman is working the phones.

Chipman is chairman of the Winnipeg Jets. A local businessman who got caught up in the failed movement to save his city’s NHL team three decades ago, he later fixed his gaze on bringing big-league hockey back to one of the smallest markets in North American professional sports and defied the odds by actually making it happen.

On this day, he’s still fighting to ensure the Jets work in Winnipeg by taking on a cumbersome task: making personal calls to those who have let their season tickets lapse.

The organization’s once-solid foundation seems to again be quaking beneath Chipman’s feet. Even playing out of the NHL’s smallest permanent arena, which holds 15,225 fans for hockey games, the Jets are drawing just 87.4 percent of capacity this season, the third-lowest mark in the 32-team league. Their overall average attendance of 13,306 is the lowest of any NHL team other than the Arizona Coyotes, who are playing in a college arena. And that’s despite the Jets being one of the top-performing teams in the Western Conference.

Winnipeg’s season-ticket base has suffered a 27 percent decline in just three years, falling from approximately 13,000 to just under 9,500, according to the Jets.

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“I wouldn’t be honest with you if I didn’t say, ‘We’ve got to get back to 13,000,’” Chipman said. “This place we find ourselves in right now, it’s not going to work over the long haul. It just isn’t.”

One by one, Chipman gathers first-hand information from the people who are no longer walking through the doors of Canada Life Centre after filling the building for 332 straight sellouts upon the Jets’ return in October 2011.

Why did they stop coming?

What would convince them to return?

It’s difficult to imagine another member of the NHL’s Board of Governors rolling up their sleeves to this degree, but failure to turn the situation around could threaten the 2.0 version of the Jets’ ability to remain healthy and competitive in the long-term, Chipman said.

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The Jets’ health, on and off the ice, is an extremely sensitive subject in a city where heartbreak has been felt before. The Jets left town once already — for Arizona, perhaps the ultimate symbol of hockey’s southern expansion — only to be reborn with a second chance. Losing the team again would likely mean the end for top-tier pro sports in Winnipeg.

So Chipman is looking for opportunities to win back business by offering invitations to former ticket buyers to return for a game of their choice before the end of this regular season.

“They’ve been really very friendly,” Chipman said of his calls during an exclusive interview with The Athletic this week. “When I first started making them, I wasn’t sure what I would encounter, but they weren’t hard calls. They were, ‘Look, I want to come back, but I’ve got two kids, 9 and 11. They’re playing hockey. I can’t come to that many games.’ And I get it. We understand.

“Had another guy annoyed over the fact that we had a discounted ticket and beer offering last year. Fair enough. You’re a full-season ticket holder. Somebody in your section got in on a promotion we did. Our bad.

“It’s a whole range of stuff, but pretty much everyone I spoke to today is coming back to a game.”

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Mark Chipman greets fans at a game in 2013. (Marianne Helm / Getty Images)

Amid the swirl of excitement that accompanied Winnipeg’s return to the league after a 15-year hiatus was a warning from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

“It isn’t going to work very well unless this building is sold out every night,” he said.

That statement didn’t initially pop the way it does when read in the current context, because in the spring of 2011, there was a fervor around the reborn Jets. When it was announced that the Atlanta Thrashers were migrating north to Manitoba, 13,500 season tickets were sold in 17 minutes on a Saturday.

Much had changed since the original Jets left town, starting with the construction of a well-appointed downtown arena and the introduction of a league-wide salary cap that tied player salaries to overall revenue.

What remained the same was the fact that Winnipeg would need to punch above its weight to compete with teams based out of much larger markets like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Toronto. With a population of 749,607, according to the 2021 Canadian Census, there’s a friendly feel in the air here: the kind of place where Chipman routinely hears opinions on the team’s roster while pumping gas and where, yes, you may end up receiving a phone call from the NHL franchise’s chairman about renewing your season tickets.

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Chipman said he feels “indebted” to the NHL for the city’s second chance.

He first made a presentation to top league officials in January 2007 during a meeting that included representatives from Las Vegas, Seattle, Houston and Kansas City, and ultimately saw Winnipeg pushed to the front of the queue when the Thrashers came up for sale and relocation four years later.

While NHL officials continue to believe in the viability of the market — “We wish all of our clubs were selling all of their tickets for every game, but I can’t say there’s a level of concern,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Athletic during the NHL’s Board of Governors meeting in December — Chipman acknowledged that the Jets are on the radar at league’s head office for reasons they’d rather not be.

“They pay attention,” he said. “They see the numbers. They see where the league’s at and where we’re at. And we’re an outlier right now. So, rightfully, they want to know, what are you doing? What’s going on? What happened and what are you doing about it?”

Bettman is scheduled to visit Winnipeg on Tuesday and get a firsthand look at the situation, meeting with key corporate sponsors and potentially even addressing fans directly before that night’s game against the St. Louis Blues.

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That comes as the organization’s sales team has started shifting its attention to the 2024-25 season. For the first time this season, the Jets will give priority on playoff ticket purchases to those who put down a deposit on season seats for next season. And they’ve grown more flexible with options covering a select number of games.

Currently, the team has a season-ticket base of roughly 9,500 — an unsustainably low number, according to Chipman. The team saw a big decline in renewals when the pandemic hit and has endured subsequent drops after the past two seasons.

They are now feverishly trying to reverse the tide.


When Jets fans fill Canada Life Centre, as in this playoff game against the Golden Knights, it’s a formidable place to play. (Jason Halstead / Getty Images)

To understand how the Jets got here, you must first understand what made their lengthy sellout streak unique to begin with.

They managed to fill the building for more than a decade despite having just 15 percent of their season seats purchased by businesses. That lags well below the norm in a league in which some teams sell 50 percent of their tickets to corporate interests, according to Chipman.

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What that means in practical terms is, in Winnipeg you need real people to spend real money on 41 home dates per year. And the way they did that initially was through a significant number of individuals going in on shared season-ticket packages with friends and family — a market reality that Chipman viewed as a strength until seeing what happened when a member or two of each group moved out of town or ran into a situation in which they could no longer afford to keep up their end of the arrangement.

“It was like a bubble that burst on us,” Chipman said. “We had what I thought was this strength in numbers that didn’t turn out to be.”

In response, they’ve tried to rally local business leaders.

The Jets have recently recruited 34 well-connected men and women and asked them to tap into their networks to try and generate new business. Chipman said he’s been extremely forthcoming with that group about the challenges of operating an NHL team. The idea is to not only tug at civic pride but also reinforce the positive economic and psychological benefits that the presence of the Jets brings to the community.

“What we try to convey to those people is, we’re trying to win,” Chipman said. “And in order to win or be competitive, we’ve got to keep up. We will never match the Leafs’ gate. It’s really remarkable. We can’t match that. But Edmonton really outperforms us, and that’s harder to accept, right? Because we think of ourselves as equals.

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“I know Edmonton is a bigger city and they have that pedigree of all those Stanley Cups, but I think most people in Winnipeg and most people in Edmonton look at one another (with) a healthy respect.”

There’s a natural inclination for him to look around the league and draw these comparisons. Unlike the NFL or NBA, which have massive national television rights deals, the NHL remains a gate-driven league. And elsewhere, business is booming.

Chipman specifically mentions the success of markets that were once referred to as “non-traditional,” like Nashville, Dallas, Carolina, Florida and Las Vegas.

“The game’s growing,” he said. “You’ve seen it. You’ve had a front-row seat. Those markets in the U.S. that we used to look down upon, they’re fun, and they’re alive.”

To some degree, the lingering effects of the pandemic and an inflationary environment account for what’s happened in his own backyard, but that doesn’t tell the entire story. The Jets have the second-cheapest tickets in Canada, according to Chipman, and they plan to institute only a negligible bump in cost for some sections, with a decrease in others, next season.

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Chipman doesn’t shy away from the organization’s role in the current state of affairs.

They’ve heard complaints from customers ranging from the high costs associated with transferring tickets between members of a group to frustrations about the Jets’ previous unwillingness to sell smaller packages. They’ve also had to build up a sales staff that wasn’t needed in the days when the tickets basically sold themselves.

“We’ve had to reinvent ourselves,” Chipman said. “For 10 years, we weren’t a sales organization; we were a service organization, and I’m not sure we were that good of a service organization, to be honest with you.”


As the Jets’ business took a turn in recent years, one of the toughest parts about addressing the problem has been talking about it at all.

There’s a sensitivity to the fact that people in the community are struggling. There are more important things than professional hockey. And as the team found out when it evoked images of the 1996 Jets departure as part of a ticket-selling campaign dubbed “Forever Winnipeg” last spring, even the vague notion of a looming threat to its viability wasn’t received well.

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“Because of the history, it’s a bit of a tinderbox,” Chipman said. “In retrospect, we weren’t trying to be dramatic, but it got people’s hair up. That wasn’t the intent, but our bad. So it is not just the issue of not wanting to appear to be whining about this or evoking sympathy, it’s also the issue of not wanting to appear to be in any way threatening.

“And that’s hard given the history.”

Chipman himself is still searching for the right words here. He remembers first-hand the emotional roller coaster those involved with the “Save the Jets” campaign rode in the mid-1990s and said, “I can honestly say to our fan base, I understand whatever that is — whatever that feeling is.”

If not by his words, he should be judged by his actions.

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In the face of declining ticket revenues, the Jets have continually upgraded and modernized Canada Life Centre and have now invested as much in building improvements as they spent on building it, according to Chipman. They also handed out $119 million in long-term contract extensions to Connor Hellebuyck and Mark Scheifele in October. They extended Nino Niederreiter in December. And they got a jump on the competition by trading a first-round pick to Montreal for Sean Monahan during the All-Star break.

They are a team spending to the salary-cap ceiling and turning over every rock necessary to build a Stanley Cup contender. They’re doing so with the belief that fans will see the promise in what they’re building and start returning in greater numbers. And they’ve been encouraged by some recent numbers, including 13,786 against San Jose on Feb. 14 and 14,707 against Minnesota on Tuesday.

“I would hope that if you walked around any one of the four floors here or over in hockey ops and said, ‘What is it? What is it you are trying to be? What is True North and the Jets?’ I would hope that without much hesitation, most people would say, ‘A source of pride,’” Chipman said.

“That’s what teams ought to be, and that’s what we’re trying to convey to people. We’re trying to be something you can be proud of.”

(Graphic: Daniel Goldfarb / The Athletic, with photos from Trevor Hagan / Associated Press and Darcy Finley / Getty Images)

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Jordan Chiles stepped up at the Tokyo Olympics — now it's time for Paris

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Jordan Chiles stepped up at the Tokyo Olympics — now it's time for Paris

Jordan Chiles is smiling, the beam nearly as bright as the green sweatshirt she’s wearing and the Olympic ring flex of a necklace dangling at the base of her neck. This is not necessarily a departure. Effervescence tends to be Chiles’ default position.

Except there are smiles, the ones presented to the public as either a mask or an indulgence of politeness, and there are smiles. This one, bouncing from Chiles’ face a full 25 minutes into a video call, is accompanied by crinkling eyes and hands moving a mile a minute and cheeks soaring toward her ears. This is the genuine artifact.

The timing of this particular blast of joy is ironic. This weekend, she was supposed to be returning to competition for the first time since the Pan American Games in October, but she had to withdraw from the Winter Cup in Louisville, Ky., because of a shoulder injury. It is less than ideal, four months out from the U.S. Olympic Trials and five months from the Paris Olympics, but Chiles dismisses it with a wave of her hand, promising it won’t cause her much issue.

At 22 she is, as she aptly describes, young in the eyes of the world yet ancient in her insular world of gymnastics. Her body has been battered and restored, her spirit treated the same by the sport she has alternatively loved and detested in equal measure. But she has emerged on the other side as something more than just a wizened athlete; she has come into her full self.

“My motto these last two months is ‘I’m that girl,’” Chiles says. “I have nothing to prove to anyone. It’s about myself. I have nothing to prove, but I believe I have more to give.”

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Chiles will be the first to admit she doesn’t have it all figured out. She does not want all the answers. The vagueness of possibility — of what her life might look like someday when gymnastics isn’t the central focus — makes her start riffing like a little kid at career day. How she could be anything she wants — a nurse, an architect — or do anything she wants. Maybe play an instrument one day. She shares her hopes to get into real estate and use it to help pull people out of difficult circumstances; she envisions a future where she gets married, has kids, gets to be a grandma. Seconds later she expands to a dream in which she takes a world that everyone says is faulty and instead finds a way to make it better.

It is exactly how you might expect someone to be talking while embracing the newness of adulthood, mixing simple goals and big hopes and trying to figure out exactly where she fits in it all. For much of her life, though, Chiles didn’t have the luxury to consider such normalcy. Her life was gymnastics.

“Gym, house, school,” she jokes. “There was only so much I could see.”

At some point, though, what once brought her joy — tumbling and bouncing through the gym — brought her only anguish. Chiles refers to her early relationship with the sport as being shoved in a black box — “Just walls, no light.” She has spoken previously about a coach, whom she chooses not to name, who subjected her to the sort of emotional and verbal torment that young girls like Chiles once thought they had to tolerate. Belittled for not being the picture-perfect pixie, she lost more than her confidence.

“I lost my voice,” she says.

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She rediscovered it with an assist from Simone Biles, who suggested Chiles relocate and train with her in Texas. That move, in 2019, saved Chiles’ career and restored her joy, but it did not remove the singularity of focus. Hellbent on realizing her Olympic dream, Chiles, who was left off the world championship team three years running, poured everything into that goal. The COVID-19 pandemic, which pushed the 2020 Tokyo Olympics back one year, upended her timetable but not her intention.

“I was the underdog,” she says. “Everyone said, ‘Can she make the team?’ You can’t help getting those thoughts in your head, too.”


Jordan Chiles looks on with Simone Biles during the team final at the Tokyo Olympics. “I was the underdog,” Chiles says of that Olympic cycle. (Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images)

She did, by finishing third at U.S. trials in the summer of 2021, behind Biles and Suni Lee, and by essentially training to near perfection. For a full season heading into the Tokyo Games, she was the only gymnast to hit every one of her routines in the four major domestic competitions — 24-for-24.

That the mistakes came when the entire world was watching seemed incredibly cruel. Chiles faltered on her beam and bars routines, failing to qualify for a single individual event final. But when Biles withdrew with the twisties, Chiles, who planned to compete only in floor and vault in the team finals, was pressed into service in the other events.

In the team final, she came through with better scores. The performance wound up helping Team USA to a silver medal. A year later, she finally earned her spot in the world championships, helping the United States to a gold medal in Liverpool.

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Afterward, Chiles went out and had herself a life. She signed with a marketing company, landed endorsements with Urban Outfitters and Pottery Barn Teen, worked on her clothing line, bought her parents a house and herself a car and, after deferring for two years, finally enrolled at UCLA. She went to class, made friends and tried to be as normal as a world-famous Olympic athlete can be on a college campus. She also toyed with her routines, welcoming the shift toward team success that NCAA gymnastics allows. In 2023, she won NCAA titles in the bars and floor and finished as the runner-up in the all-around.

The irony is that collegiate gymnasts compete more — there are meets nearly every weekend — and yet as the demands increased, Chiles made a blissful discovery. Her life didn’t have to be an either/or.

“My sport and my life can be separate,” she says. “I can have fun within my sport and outside of it as well. Not everything has to be about my sport.”

That, of course, becomes a far more difficult pursuit when the dangling carrot is a spot on the Olympic team. It is, currently, all about the sport, and Chiles’ epiphany should not be misconstrued as a de-emphasis on competitiveness. Once her shoulder injury is mended, she has every intention of approaching her training with the same gusto she always has and setting the same standard of excellence. That, Chiles says, needs to be clear.

“I didn’t come back to put on a face,” she says. “I came back because I have more to give.”

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At various times in her career, Chiles has carried the torch as a Black woman and powerful athlete in a sport that lacked color and favored litheness. She has fought as an underdog to quiet the dissenters and find her spot on the U.S. team. And on gymnastics’ biggest stage, she has risen above her mistakes to deliver what her team needed.

She is an Olympian. She is a world champion. She is a daughter, a teammate, a friend.

And she is only getting started.

“I’m ready to go for the next six months with everything I’ve got,” she says. “And I know it’s going to be great no matter what because this time I’m going to do it for myself.”

At this, Jordan Chiles smiles.

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Jordan Chiles

Jordan Chiles competes on the balance beam during the team final at the Tokyo Olympics. Simone Biles’ withdrawal pressed Chiles into additional duty. (Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images)
go-deeper

GO DEEPER

How Simone Biles came all the way back for another shot at the Olympics

(Top photo from a Team USA photo shoot in November: Harry How / Getty Images)

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