Great article from Jim Hodges that appeared in the Virginian-Pilot.
Friday in Albany, Cory Conacher was named the American Hockey League’s Most Valuable Player.
Saturday in Binghamton, he was benched in the second period of a game the Norfolk Admirals went on to win 3-2 in overtime, their 27th victory in a row.
Sunday in Adirondack, Conacher scored three goals to give him 39 and make him the AHL scoring champion.
Just another weekend in the maturing of Conacher, who came to the Admirals from Canisius College as an unheralded, diminutive winger who had impressed Tampa Bay in camp. And who, six months later, is taking away what coach Jon Cooper calls a “wheelbarrow of awards.”
That did not keep Cooper from sitting Conacher because of a bad penalty Saturday, a period after he had given the Admirals a 1-0 lead.
“He’s growing as a player, he’s maturing as a player and part of that is his ability to keep his emotions intact,” Cooper said. “Cory thrives on emotion, and you don’t want to take that away from him. But sometimes where he channels his emotions derails him.”
It did just after a whistle Saturday, when he pushed a Binghamton player into goalie Mike McKenna and was whistled for roughing.
“I get in a zone, and I’m too intense sometimes,” Conacher said. “I’m not really thinking at the time it happens, and that’s why I took that penalty.
“I knew going to the box that it wasn’t the right time to take that penalty. It was a stupid penalty.”
Binghamton’s Mike Hoffman scored on the resulting power play, and Matt Puempel continued the momentum with a goal 1:56 later to give the Senators a 2-1 lead. Winning streak notwithstanding, Conacher was a spectator the rest of the night.
“Sometimes he has to make a statement,” Conacher said of Cooper.
The statement was that players who take selfish penalties hurt the team, even a player who has piled up individual awards.
The lesson was that the playoffs, which begin Friday at Scope with a game against Manchester that starts a best-of-five series, magnify everything. Power plays are nothing to give away.
“Here in the playoffs, I’m going to have to take some slashes, some punches to the head just to stay out of the box and help the team,” Conacher said. “I’m going to have to put some things aside and concentrate on the team. I’m sure Manchester’s going to try to get under my skin. It’s going to be hard for me not to give them a whack back, but it’s playoffs and I’ve got to do it for the team.”
But there’s only so much he can take. Or should have to take.
“I can live with some of the stuff he does because it’s part of his DNA,” Cooper said. “If you take that away from him, he wouldn’t be as effective a player. And the stat that nobody sees is how many penalties he draws. It would far exceed what he takes. We’ve been up power plays countless times because of the way he plays.
“He has an impact on the game, and 99 percent of the time, it’s a positive impact.”
That is why Conacher is with the Admirals and the Tampa Bay organization after professional tryouts last season in Rochester and Milwaukee, and with Cincinnati of the ECHL.
“It seemed that everywhere he was playing, we had a scout,” said Pat Verbeek, the assistant general manager of the Lightning who signed Conacher to an AHL contract that brought him to Norfolk.
He has since signed an NHL contract with Tampa Bay and will get a long look at training camp in September.
Conacher has struggled for everything he has gotten in hockey, primarily because he is 5-foot-8. That struggle manifests itself in the way he plays.
“He plays with an edge,” Verbeek said. “That’s how I had to play.”
A 20-year NHL player with 522 goals, Verbeek is 5-9. His nickname: “Little Ball of Hate.”
Whether Type I diabetes scared off some teams from giving Conacher a look is another matter. Conacher was diagnosed as a youngster.
“Bobby Clarke had diabetes,” Verbeek reminded, “and he was a pretty good player.”
Clarke, who is in the Hockey Hall of Fame, led the Philadelphia Flyers to two Stanley Cups and was a three-time NHL MVP.
“In a strange way, I guess, it might help Cory,” Verbeek said. “He knows he has to live a certain way if he wants to play hockey. He can’t go to the bars and do things like that.”
Conacher’s parents invested in a state-of-the-art insulin pump that monitors blood sugar. Teammates and especially Admirals trainer Brad Chavis have learned signs of low blood sugar.
“It controls the way I do things,” Conacher said of the diabetes. “I can’t drink and eat whatever I want and sleep as much as I want. I have to keep a full schedule, and if I don’t follow the schedule, that’s when things get rough.”
He follows a rigorous routine, and has had no episodes during the season.
It’s a protocol he’ll follow into the playoffs. His pregame routine won’t change either.
Fans filing into Scope early can see him alone in a sweatsuit on the Admirals’ bench with pucks stacked in front of him. He’s visualizing what will happen in the 2-1/2 hours after the puck drops.
“I’m trying to go through the things that may happen in the game,” Conacher said. “Line rushes. Plays on the power play. I’ll take looks at the net, pick corners where I might be able to beat the goalie. Sometimes in the (defensive) zone, getting pucks out.”
The scenes have been prescient. Conacher has awards to support that. And on Friday, there will be an addition to the visualization regimen.
“I’m sure in this series, I will be visualizing the Calder Cup and what it would be like to win the Calder Cup,” he said, then added with a laugh, “it might be harder to visualize scoring, because it’s going to be harder.”
That’s because he’s part of every opponent’s game plan.
“Teams are definitely aware of him now,” Cooper said. “They know when he’s on the ice, and they really try to get under his skin. Now it doesn’t work nearly as often.”
And when it does, Conacher is sitting in front of Cooper, watching instead of playing.
“Coop really does keep you humble,” Conacher said.