by Chris Kuc | AHL On The Beat
The question posed to Chicago Wolves players for a social media post was a light-hearted query about their essential items to take on road trips.
The responses as players left the ice following a recent practice included headphones, books, snacks, pillows and decks of cards.
Then there was forward Cory Conacher’s response: “My diabetic supplies.”
It was a stark reminder of Conacher’s continued battle with type 1 diabetes, first diagnosed when he was 8 years old. But the autoimmune disease, which stops the pancreas from creating insulin and prevents the body from self-regulating blood sugar levels, hasn’t stopped Conacher from achieving his dream of playing professional hockey.
Helping along the way were supportive parents, Debbie and Dave, who never discouraged their son from fully participating in whichever endeavor he attempted.
“My parents were always very good with me,” Conacher said. “They let me do the things that all the other kids were doing, so I credit them for that. And then I kind of just learned a lot on my own how to feel the best I can when it comes to a game day.”
Despite having to wear an insulin pump and glucose monitor to regulate his blood sugar levels – sometimes even while on the ice – Conacher continues to excel with the Wolves after signing with the team as a free agent in the summer.
That the 34-year-old has carved out an impressive hockey resume, including 389 AHL games and 193 more in the NHL with Ottawa, Buffalo, the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay, is impressive considering not everyone believed it possible.
“When I was 12 and a triple-A player, I ran into a coach who didn’t like the fact that I had diabetes,” Conacher said. “He didn’t think I’d have the energy to play a full 60-minute game. And I struggled for a few years not knowing if I’d be able to continue at a high level but it fueled the fire a little bit in my belly and in a way helped me make the NHL just to prove that one person wrong.”
It has worked out despite having to wear the glucose monitor and insulin pump on his hip throughout the day as well as monitor everything he puts into his body.
That is a tough task for anyone, but even more so for someone playing a rigorous sport that includes long travel days.
“I was diagnosed 26 years ago now and it’s been a long journey, but the technology over the years has made things a little easier, especially for us athletes,” Conacher said. “Having a glucose monitor that shows my blood sugar 24 hours a day and having the pump, too, makes things a little easier.
“As an athlete, some days you’re skating more or playing more minutes in a game so it’s not very routine,” Conacher continued. “The pump and glucose monitor help me manage that and it’s tough if your numbers are off and you’re low on blood sugar because that’s when you start seeing a little more fatigue and maybe feel a little sick. It can take a toll on you if you’re not taking care of yourself throughout the day.”
The question begs: Why does Conacher continue to pay that toll in his mid-30s? The answer is three-fold, each as important as the next:
He wants to win another championship before he retires. He wants to use his platform as a professional hockey player to educate and inspire those living with type 1 diabetes. And he wants his 5-year-old son, Callum, to be able to see dad play hockey for a living.
During his first full season as a pro, Conacher captured a championship while with Norfolk Admirals as they skated to the 2012 Calder Cup title. The Burlington, Ont., native led the way with 39 goals – 14 on the power play – and 41 assists in 75 games and earned the Les Cunningham Award as the AHL’s most valuable player, the Willie Marshall Award as the league’s top goal-scorer and the Dudley (Red) Garrett Memorial Award as the rookie of the year.
“I was fortunate to win a championship the first full year I played in Norfolk and I still have such a special bond with the players I played with there,” Conacher said.
“I’m in the last few years of my career and all I think about is winning. So that’s the plan. I know this team likes to win and I know this organization is known for winning so I’m hoping to bring that out in my teammates.”
Along the way, Conacher is using his platform to educate and inspire those living with diabetes.
“It’s kind of cool to do events throughout the season and the summer just to meet some of these kids and some of these families that deal with it on a daily basis,” Conacher said. “I tell a lot of kids that we have diabetes and it may be harder for us as an athlete so we have to be a little more focused on making sure on a daily basis that we’re doing the right thing. I tell them that this isn’t a disease that will affect you in any way, shape, or form if you take your diet and exercise seriously.”
Conacher’s commitment to the game and helping others isn’t lost on the myriad of teammates, coaches and team personnel he’s interacted with during his career.
“He could step away, but he wants to play the game and he loves the game,” Wolves general manager Wendell Young said. “It just shows a great example to other people with diabetes that just because you have something hampering you it doesn’t mean you can’t do what you love.”
For Conacher, continuing to do what he loves allows him to enjoy the twilight of his career with his biggest fan.
“It’s fun to be playing right now because Callum is old enough to come to games and see what Daddy does for a living,” Conacher said. “And he’s starting to enjoy it himself – I got him into hockey this year out at our practice facility. He loves to be on the ice and to see me on the ice, too. I’m enjoying my last few years seeing him in the crowd.”