No Stopping AHL MVP Cory Conacher
Hockey parents are usually the first to see their child’s strengths, the skills — real or imagined — that make them special.
Dave Conacher admits he wasn’t quite sure what coaches meant when they said his son Cory was fearless until he saw it first-hand on a late November night in Mississauga. The 16-year-old, who was two months into his rookie season with the Burlington Cougars, used his speed to create a two-on-one with teammate Tim Carr. As his father watched from behind the glass at the opposite end of the ice he thought ‘Cory, you have to stop. You’re going to go right through the net.’ However, his son continued to drive his 5-foot-8, 155-pound frame at full speed toward the opposing goal.
Carr sent a pass across but it was slightly ahead of Conacher. It should have been out of his reach, but he dove head first to redirect the puck into the net before crashing into the netminder and ripping the net from its moorings.
“He overlooks the fear,” Dave Conacher said. “That’s what sets him apart from others his size. He’s got that determination, he’s got grit and he’s not afraid to go into that dirty area. That’s what the coaches saw.”
It’s what Norfolk Admirals fans have been seeing a lot of this year. Conacher put the finishing touches on an unimaginable rookie season Sunday, scoring with two minutes to play, breaking a 2-2 tie with his league-leading 38th goal. He completed his hat trick with an empty-net goal to seal a 4-2 victory for Norfolk, extending the Admirals’ winning streak to 28 games, the longest ever in pro hockey.
Conacher’s 39-goal, 80-point season not only earned him the AHL rookie of the year award, he also received the Les Cunningham Award as the league’s most valuable player. The Nelson High School graduate is just the fourth rookie to claim the MVP award and the first since Stephan Lebeau in 1989.
Like Lebeau, Conacher was never drafted by an NHL team. The 22-year-old came to Norfolk after signing a free-agent deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning last July after finishing college. He arrived at the Tampa Bay Lightning’s training camp as perhaps one of the most unheralded players.
Competing against Tampa’s top prospects, Conacher impressed the Lightning enough with his play at both the development camp and rookie camp to earn an invitation to the main camp. There, it was Conacher, not the first-round draft picks, who earned the coveted spot alongside Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos for an exhibition game against St. Louis. He scored and drew rave reviews throughout camp.
“He’s proving he can play,” Lightning coach Guy Boucher told the Tampa Bay Times. “He’s adapting every day. Usually when guys adapt that quick, there’s a lot more coming. But he has to keep showing that he can be reliable to be put on the ice on the NHL level.”
Conacher was assigned to Norfolk but he didn’t let it bother him. Even as other players got the call to the Lightning — in part because he was on a minor-league contract — Conacher just kept on producing.
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Conacher didn’t necessarily have pro hockey aspirations when he was cut from the Burlington Eagles' minor bantam AAA team. Still, being cut is never easy.
Conacher simply went to the Eagles’ AA team and helped it win the OMHA championship. There was interest in him for the AAA team the next year but he decided to play AA again where the Eagles defended their title.
“He thought it would be best for his game (to stay in AA),” said Jeff Lyons, who coached Conacher for five years early in his minor hockey career.
The following year the minor midget AAA team was also interested in Conacher.
“Justin Howard, who was coaching them, came to me and said ‘It’s down to these two players,’ and one of them was Cory,” Lyons recalls. “I said, ‘If you take Cory, he will be your top scorer.’ And he was.”
Burlington Cougars coach Wes Wiseman had watched Conacher and saw him make him strides throughout his minor midget season. Yet, when he came into his first junior camp, he got off to a slow start.
One day he approached the veteran coach after practice.
“Mr. Wiseman, if you want to send me back to midget, I’ll understand,” he said.
“Do you want to go back to midget?” Wiseman asked.
“No, I want to play for you,” Conacher answered.
Conacher stopped to see his coach the next day to make sure he understood his position.
“I want to play for you but I understand if you don’t think I’m ready,” he said. “I’ll go back to midget and work harder and get ready for next year.”
Conacher made the team and produced consistently throughout the season but really took off in the last quarter of the season. He racked up 23 points in 12 games as the Cougars finished on a 10-2-0 run. His 62 points for the season were third on the team behind a pair of 19-year-olds.
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Conacher’s season with the Cougars earned him a scholarship to Canisius College. The small Buffalo school had just 10 years of Division I hockey under its belt when Conacher joined them.
Going to school in Buffalo served a practical purpose for Conacher’s parents. Conacher was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a child, which should help explain his fearlessness — he started giving himself twice daily injections when he was just eight years old. While the disease hasn’t prevented him from participating in sports, he must carefully monitor his blood-sugar levels.
“He can be fine and then two hours later be in a diabetic coma,” Dave Conacher said.
Going to school in Buffalo allowed the Conachers to remain close to their son and, if need be, get him to an Ontario hospital quickly.
Technology has made it much easier to monitor his blood sugar. From pricking his thumb up to six times a day, he went to an insulin pump and now can get a reading at the push of a button. Still, monitoring is critical.
“He went down on us twice at Canisius,” his father said.
Wiseman said he was aware of his condition but not because Conacher ever mentioned it.
“He never held it as a crutch,” Wiseman said.
Despite missing half of his freshman season due to an injury, Conacher graduated from Canisius with 12 team records, including the Golden Griffins marks for career goals (62) and points (147).
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While it is not uncommon for NHL teams to sign undrafted college players, Canisius has yet to produce an NHL player. When Conacher signed a two-year contract with the Lightning in March, he became just the second Griffin to earn an NHL contract.
An AHL MVP award is no guarantee of NHL success, though. For every Jason Spezza, there’s a Don MacLean (41 games over 10 seasons) or a Darren Haydar (23 games in 9 seasons), players whose skills didn't translate to the NHL or were never given an opportunity. Wiseman, whose own son Chad is a veteran of more than 500 AHL games, said the only surprising aspect to Conacher’s season was that he was able to make such a smooth transition from a 35-game college season to a long, 78-game AHL grind.
Canisius coach Dave Smith had no doubt Conacher could handle the longer season.
Now tipping the scales at a solid 180 pounds, Conacher’s strength is a big part of what allows him to flourish against larger opponents. He’ll need every ounce of that strength to compete at the highest level but Conacher’s former coach wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss his chances of making it to the NHL next season.
“Until he shows me he can’t make it at the next level,” Lyons said. “I’ve watched him do it enough times that you just never bet against him.”