No Coincidences for Conacher

By Jeremy Houghtaling

Cory Conacher tries to not think about what could have been.

With the National Hockey League and the players’ association still working to resolve the lockout, the 5-8, 179-pound winger, who was expected to be a candidate for the Calder Trophy, knows that nothing is guaranteed.

"Even if the NHL figures it out and I get a chance to play in Tampa, I can't expect to be the best player and get all the points," Conacher said. "I have to do the little things that will help Tampa Bay win, and that's what is most important."

One season removed from hoisting the Calder Cup and being named the American Hockey League's Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player – the fourth player to achieve both in the same season – the 23-year-old Syracuse Crunch forward still doesn't take anything for granted.

Less than five years ago, there were doubts as to whether or not he would play once his four years were up at Canisius College.

Conacher averaged just under a point per game in his first two seasons, but everything clicked his junior season, when the Burlington, Ont. native posted 53 points over 35 games and was named the Atlantic Hockey Association's Player of the Year.

"I had a good junior year and that's what put it in my mind – maybe I do have a chance to continue my hockey career," he said.

Conacher finished up his senior season, becoming the school's all-time leader in points (147), goals (62), and game-winners (12), and set his sights on the professional ranks.

In two games with the AHL's Rochester Americans, Conacher scored his first goal, but as agreed upon before he came, was sent to the ECHL.

"It was a dream come true…and I got to get my feet wet," he said. "I scored a goal or two and it was a good experience after college."

Conacher tallied four points in his first ECHL game, and was eventually called up for a playoff run with the Milwaukee Admirals.

Conacher's coach from Canisius helped get him an AHL contract with the Norfolk Admirals and a shot in Tampa Bay's training camp. Conacher was able to play side-by-side with his idol – another undersized forward – Martin St. Louis.

"A lot of people say I play like him or that I'm just like him, but I've got a ways to go if I want to be considered in the same picture as him," Conacher said. "That's the reason I keep going and keep working hard, because you look at how small he is and what he's done."

Inspired, Conacher registered 95 points over 92 contests in his first full pro season, earning a slew of hardware and a contract with the Lightning.

"It's really easy to play with him," said linemate Pierre-Cedric Labrie. "You just put the puck in a soft area and he'll go grab it. He's always first on the puck and he has a lot of skill."

After a successful rookie season, Conacher has put up 12 goals and 15 assists in 32 games this year. It's not quite the pace he set last year, but the points that matter to Conacher are the two in the standings.

"That happens, guys get in slumps," he said. "Luckily for me, I've been in a slump here and there, but our team has been winning."

Conacher has continued to work on those little things that will get him to the next level, whether it's blocking shots, finishing checks, or occasionally dropping the gloves.

The multiple marks on his nose are evidence of the last item on that list. Conacher finished off a Gordie Howe hat trick Dec. 29 against St. John's.

"The second fight didn't go as smoothly as the first one," Conacher said while smiling.

Despite being caught with a hit up high late in his shift, Conacher engaged the IceCaps player.

"Last year, I'd get hit like that and wouldn't do anything," he said. "This year, I have that element in my game where if something dirty happens, I'm not scared to drop the gloves anymore."

Even with all the success and his game rounding out, Conacher still doesn't look back on what could have been – whether he had been drafted, signed by a different team or if he was in the NHL now.

"Everything happens for a reason," he said.