Ryan Ufko and Kenny Connors to represent Team USA in World Juniors

Minutemen lose leading scorer and top defenseman for Kwik Trip Holiday Face-Off

Photos+by+Dylan+Nguyen+%26+Kayla+Wong.+Graphic+by+Colin+McCarthy%2F+Daily+Collegian+%282022%29

Photos by Dylan Nguyen & Kayla Wong. Graphic by Colin McCarthy/ Daily Collegian (2022)

By Colin McCarthy, Video Editor

Both Ryan Ufko and Kenny Connors made it through training camp and will compete for Team USA in the 2022-23 World Juniors Championship beginning on Dec. 26. The Massachusetts hockey team will lose both Connors and Ufko for at least the Kwik Trip Holiday Face-Off as a result.

During that time, the Minutemen stars will be honing their game against the best young talent in hockey, and that experience will be valuable as they return to college hockey in January.

“I think you love to see it for the individual, it’s great for their development and it’s great for the program,” UMass coach Greg Carvel said. “The only downside is those handful of games that you have to play without two of your better players, and that’s fine, we’ll find a way to get by without them.”

The Minutemen are sending players to the WJC on a near-yearly basis, and it’s thanks to their quick development at UMass getting them over the hump. In the last four years, Zac Jones, Scott Morrow, Ufko and Connors have all had the opportunity to play for their country.

“The thing that I’m proud of is that the kids we have sent there, I don’t think ever came up through the U.S program or were expected to play in those tournaments,” Carvel said. “I’d like to think we’ve really helped their development to the point that they then are getting asked to come play in the World Junior tournament.”

Ufko is the Minutemen’s top defender this season and plays an important role in every aspect of the ice: offense, defense and special teams. He’s on the top power play and penalty killing unit and is one of the leaders in minutes played for UMass. Carvel described Ufko as having “iron lungs” after the blue-liner had a shift that lasted over three minutes early in the season.

Now the sophomore will take those talents to the WJC, where he’ll be part of an extremely talented backend. Michigan’s Jack Hughes headlines the blue-liners, but Ufko’s mobility and vision should help him see consistent action on the ice. Ufko is taking advice from Morrow, a fellow sophomore and roommate who was on the Team USA roster in the 2022 WJC.

“He said, ‘just play your game and you’ll be fine, you’re obviously a great player,’ so [that helped],” Ufko said.

Connors is making an immediate impact on the ice this season. He’s No. 8 in the country among freshmen in points per game with seven goals and 10 assists in 16 games with the Minutemen. He has been the fastest freshman to develop for UMass in the season and is already playing on the top power play unit alongside Cal Kiefiuk and Reed Lebster.

While he made it onto the 25-man roster, Connors isn’t guaranteed a spot in the lineup on any given night. His face-off ability could be the one thing that holds him back from attaining a spot in the bottom-six, but if Team USA needs a lift in the scoring department, they’ll consider running Connors onto the ice in some capacity.

“Anytime you get the chance to represent your country against other countries it’s a pretty big opportunity,” Connors said. “They let us know that they were going to be watching our games and letting us know in December, and I felt pretty good with how the season was going so far.”

The U.S National Team Development Program produces a lot of WJC talent on a consistent basis, but Ufko and Connors were both able to crack the top-25 without having that experience.

“I don’t think anyone here [at UMass] ever played for the NTDP, a lot of those guys end up going to Michigan or BU or BC,” Ufko said. “So me and Kenny going there, it’s an honor to represent UMass.”

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The temporary losses for the Minutemen are significant, but not coming at the worst time for the program. UMass has played the toughest schedule in college hockey so far this season but is easing back into things following the holiday break.

The WJC tournament runs from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5, meaning Ufko and Connors could both suit back up for the Minutemen at Frozen Fenway on Jan. 7 against Boston College. They’ll only miss three games over that period of time: Clarkson on Dec. 28, Lake Superior State or Wisconsin on Dec. 29, and Brown on Jan. 3. None of those four teams are ranked in the top 20 nationally or have received votes in the USCHO poll, marking three of the easier games on UMass’ 2022-23 schedule.

Still, the lines will be shuffled a bit as a result of the losses, and that will have an adverse effect on the Minutemen’s already thin backend. For those games, Scott Morrow, Elliot McDermott and Aaron Bohlinger will play crucial roles, and three freshmen will fill out the blue-line group. Expect Kennedy O’Connor, Noah Ellis and Owen Murray to be the mainstays, with Mikey Adamson potentially mixing in as well.

As for the forward group, Jerry Harding will likely slot back into a permanent line rather than being listed as the extra skater as he’s been for over half the season. Tyson Dyck could find his way back into the lineup in some capacity as well. Bohlinger will likely replace Ufko on the top power play unit, and Carvel could go in a number of different directions for Connors’ replacement, including Lucas Mercuri, Josh Nodler and Ryan Lautenbach.

Ufko and Connors will be in action when Team USA takes on Latvia on Dec. 26. UMass returns to action against Clarkson on Dec. 28 at 5 p.m.

Colin McCarthy can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @colinmccarth_DC.