Sunday, March 24, 2013

Conacher has overcome many obstacles to get the NHL

By Larry Wigge

Cory Conacher's all-time wish list included: a plea for someone to believe in him as a hockey player.

That's not so much. But ...

Everywhere Conacher played people kept telling him he was too small at 5-8, to play hockey. But, in each case, Cory had Marty St. Louis in the back of his mind to make things feel right.

St. Louis succeeded in the NHL as a 5-foot-8 player ... it took time, however. When Marty, who played at the University of Vermont, he too went undrafted. He was cut by the Calgary Flames, but then he went on to star with the Tampa Bay Lightning beginning in 2000, winning a Stanley Cup and being named the Art Ross winner as NHL Player of the Year in 2004.

To every too small hockey player, St. Louis has become a bigger than life hero. 

The Burlington, Ontario, native, has another thing working against him -- he had been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was 8 years old.

Too often a disability like that can be maintained, but Conacher has to be fastidious in taking care of the diabetes.

The Lightning were gathering for training camp in this lockout-shortened season, Conacher has finally gotten his chance to meet St. Louis. He had finally gotten a chance to play in the NHL.

This was more than just an introduction for Conacher, who owns 12 records at Canisius. Last year while playing for the Norwalk Admirals of the American Hockey League -- he scored 39 goals and 41 assists to win the Dudley 'Red' Garrett Trophy as the Rookie of the Years and also captured Les Cunningham Plaque as the Player of the Year.

Once St. Louis had felt Conacher's feelings, he knew then to be genuine.

"My whole life, he's a guy who has kept me motivated," Conacher said. "He's a guy that I look up to so much. Coming here, he was the first guy I wanted to talk to, just to get an idea of what I had to do."

Said St. Louis, "I love his game. I love his energy. It's not because he is small. People compare him to me and it's not like I try to talk to him more because of that. Every guy that comes in here, if I see something, I want to help."

For St. Louis, it's all about doing what a veteran is supposed to do.

"When I was a young player in this league," St. Louis said, "I had players to help make me see things. When you get older, you should pay it forward."

Finally, Conacher had gotten his plea ... for someone to believe in him.

"You can't really expect the start that I've had," Conacher said. "It's been kind of a dream start. ... Maybe in the summer, I'll pinch myself and say, 'Did that just happen?' But not now."

St. Louis wouldn't mind seeing Conacher puff out his chest a bit.

"There is nothing wrong with having a swagger and believing in yourself," St. Louis said. "Eventually, people will believe in you because they see that you believe in yourself."

Call it little brother and even littler brother, although both will tell you that size has nothing to do with this working relationship. So what is it? Why have these two become so close? Mostly, it's a veteran wanting to pass along all that he knows and a kid thirsty for whatever scraps of knowledge he can pick up. Here's what the two mean to each other and the Lightning.

Conacher had one goal and one assist in his first NHL game in a 6-3 victory against Washington January 19. He had two game-winning goals against Carolina January 22 and against Winnipeg on February 1. The diminutive one had eight goals and 14 assists in 31 games in late March -- and he ranked first among rookies with 22 points.

Always following St. Louis advice.

"Move my feet, go into the dirty areas, do the things that coaches like," Conacher said. "That's what I've focused on."

"It's a little easier to fight off a check than it is to fight off diabetes, so that's how that's how I take it," Conacher continued. "When I'm in the corner I want to come out with the puck, do the little things that will help my team. A lot of people in my past said I was too small to make it, and that's just another motivator that kept me driving the net, kept me doing the little things to fight off those big defensemen and big forwards."

His father Dave is an accountant, who just happens to own a couple of ice skating rinks -- one is Twins Rinks is Burlington. If he couldn't be a hockey player, Cory once told a counselor at Canisius he wanted to be an accountant.

"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."

Cory is a distant relative of Hockey Hall of Famers Charlie Conacher, Roy Conacher and Lionel Conacher, which shows the genes run through his blood.

Dave 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, when he was 16 playing for the Burlington Cougars.

At Canisius, coach Dave Smith had no doubt Conacher could handle the rough going.

"His passion is through the roof," said Smith. "And when you love the game as much as he does, you look forward to getting up and playing every day."

Through the junior hockey and into the pros, Conacher has also elevated his game when necessary. 

Conacher said. "I'm still just the little guy and trying to make a name for myself, and I do that by working hard.

"My size is a disadvantage, but I just try to come back with speed, intensity and what the coach likes is relentlessness ... and I think that is what is going to open the eyes of the coaches."

Guy Boucher, the former Lightning coach, fell in love with Conacher, "He's got the speed, the drive -- he's relentless. Those guys, they manufacture things. It's the guys that have skill that play on the outside usually their adaptation period in the NHL is longer.

"He's at the right place, doing the right things -- and he keeps going at it. He's a relentless guy that gets knocked down and nobody knows he's knocked down because a fraction of a second after he's right back up going at it. He just keeps coming, keeps coming, keeps coming. That's why he's had success wherever he's been."

Yes, Cory Conacher has often gotten knocked down, but he keeps on getting up.

"It's been a dream ever since I skated at Twin Rinks," Conacher said of his father's rink in Ontario "Playing with guys I idolized my whole hockey career. Especially a guy like Marty St. Louis."

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