Conacher turning some heads in Norfolk
Any one of them — the vertical challenge, the deadly serious disease, the college off the beaten hockey path, the weight of the family name — could have been the obstacle that tripped him up.
But, where others see hurdles, Cory Conacher sees a reason to soar. And this year he’s really in flight.
“It would have been tough for anyone to foresee something like this,” says the modest 22-year-old Burlington native.
Something like this is 31 goals and 35 assists, and third place in the scoring race in just his first year in the American Hockey League, the NHL’s major teething ring. In the rookie scoring race, the Norfolk Admirals left-winger is a ridiculous 12 points clear of the runner-up.
Conacher is essentially a walk-on, one of those rarer than rare gems who slipped through the cracks of the NHL draft and landed at the feet of the lucky, and eagle-eyed, Tampa Bay Lightning.
After rewriting the hockey record book at Buffalo’s Canisius College, Conacher signed a two-game tryout contract last spring with the Rochester Americans, with the understanding he’d then be sent down to the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones. From there, the Milwaukee Admirals called him up for another dozen AHL regular-season and playoff games.
But neither AHL team’s parent club, the Buffalo Sabres nor the Nashville Predators, signed him for this season and, even when Tampa Bay did, it was only to an AHL deal. But, last week, Stevie Y’s group made it right and inked Conacher to a two-year NHL-AHL contract.
“He is a really, really good prospect,” says Julien BriseBois, the Lightning’s assistant general manager, confessing: “If we knew last season he was going to be this good, we’d have signed him to an NHL contract then. When he showed up this year, he was better than the last time we saw him.”
Conacher credits that to another summer at Burlington’s Twist Conditioning and to the atmosphere at Tampa Bay’s training camp.
“I felt so comfortable,” he said. “Steve Stamkos and Martin St. Louis talked to me like I was one of their friends, and helped me out a lot. St. Louis was one of my idols growing up.”
The overachieving St. Louis is the perfect hockey model for a short (5-foot-8), stocky, scoring winger. But Conacher also likes to get his nose dirty. Nobody among the AHL’s top 10 scorers has as many penalty minutes as he does.
“He’s not big, but he plays big,” Brisebois says. “He’s strong and he goes to the hard places on the ice.”
Conacher, a distant relative of Hall of Famers Lionel, Charlie and Roy, played in the AHL all-star game last month and got to speak with honorary coach Bobby Clarke, but not about one of the things they have in common. Clarke, too, has type I diabetes.
“I got it when I was eight,” says Conacher, who wears his insulin pump 24 hours a day except during hockey games.“My parents really helped me with it, doing the research and keeping up with the newest technology.
“I’m glad I’m getting a chance to play in the AHL, and maybe the NHL, to show kids who have diabetes that you can do well. That, if you get your sleep, eat well and treat it like a serious disease, you’ll be fine.”
While Anaheim was the one organization that scouted Conacher fairly regularly during his four years at Canisius, the Ducks didn’t draft him or sign him as a free agent. And other clubs passed until the Lightning caught some in a bottle. Some teams simply didn’t invest much time visiting a college that has had Division I hockey only since 1998 to scout a 5-foot-8 winger.
“Obviously, size is a difficulty,” Conacher says, “but it’s just another thing to overcome.”