by Samantha Wood || for NHL.com
Fade in on a hockey rink. An undersized, underrated young player leads his team through a winning streak of historic length.
A classic underdog story, it’s the stuff of which movies are made. And it’s happening in right now Norfolk, Virginia.
The 22-year-old left winger Cory Conacher has become a star on a deeply talented Norfolk Admirals roster, joining them after an impressive training camp showing with the parent club Tampa Bay Lightning in September.
Undrafted, listed at 5-foot-8, a product of a humble Canisius College hockey program – Conacher knew from the start he was playing with something to prove.
“The coaching staff gave me such a great opportunity to play in a couple exhibition games,” said Conacher, who also lives with type 1 diabetes. “That really helped my confidence as well, which made coming to Norfolk an easier transition.”
Conacher distinguished himself right away, with an offensive spark and what he calls his “fearless” style of play, and it has resulted in a historic season. Heading into the final weekend of the campaign, Conacher has registered 35 goals and 40 assists for 75 points, as well as 110 penalty minutes, in 72 games. This week, players, coaches and media from throughout the league voted him both rookie of the year and league MVP.
The Burlington, Ont., native is just the fourth player in AHL history to win both honors in the same season and the first since 1989 – the year he was born.
“It’s definitely a great honor, but at the same time, those awards are team awards – not just individual awards,” Conacher said. “If I wasn’t with the team I’m with and the players I’m with, I wouldn’t get points. It really helps to have solid team members and great group of guys.”
Admirals head coach Jon Cooper says Conacher’s persistent work ethic has been just as important to the team off the ice.
“What he’s accomplished doesn’t happen for too many people. Cory’s one of those kids that movies are made about,” Cooper said. “He always says, ‘How much harder can I work? What can I give back? What can I do to make us all better?’
“I think that’s what’s made him a positive player on our team, as well as really deserving for the accolades he has earned for himself.”
With Conacher’s contributions to both the scoresheet and team morale, the Admirals bring a 25-game winning streak into the final three games of the season – the longest ever in professional hockey history.
But Conacher, humble to a fault, insists on giving the credit to anyone but himself.
“We have an unreal coaching staff and a great management staff that gets the players to our team,” he said. “Our goalies are playing really well right now and we have four solid lines that are kicking in every night.
“And obviously the support from the fans carried the streak as well.”
Like Conacher, Coach Cooper is careful to keep the streak in perspective.
“It’s been just an unreal ride to go through this with these players and watch them do so many remarkable things on the journey to getting 25 in a row,” Cooper said. “But, the playoffs are coming up.
“Ultimately I think our focus has to be on who we’re preparing to play against and how we’re going to play against them, as opposed to spending a lot of time and energy on keeping the streak going.”
Bolstered by their recent success, the Admirals locked up the first place spot in the AHL’s Eastern Conference weeks before the Calder Cup Playoffs were scheduled to begin. They will have home-ice advantage for as far as their postseason run takes them.
But, according to Conacher, none of this is surprising.
“We have such a great group of guys and great chemistry so it makes sense,” he said. “But it’s really a once-in-a-lifetime kind of streak that we’re having. You’ve got to remember these days and enjoy it while we have it, because it probably won’t happen ever again.”
In addition to Conacher earning MVP and top rookie honors, Cooper was named recipient of the Louis A.R. Pieri Award as the AHL’s outstanding coach and second-year Mark Barberio claimed the Eddie Shore Award as the league’s top defenseman. Conacher was also a Second Team AHL All-Star, and was joined on the AHL All-Rookie Team by Admirals teammate Tyler Johnson.
But despite their already crowded trophy case, Conacher, Cooper and the rest of the surging Norfolk Admirals are careful to leave room for one more.
“As a rookie, to win the Calder Cup would just be an unreal finish to the season,” Conacher said. “But I’m going to try to do it for the guys that are looking for contracts.”
Conacher, who has played the entire season on an AHL contract, signed a two-year deal with the Lightning on Mar. 1.
“For a guy that’s looking for a contract like I was, it’s even more important to win. NHL teams want to pick up guys that have had that great experience of winning the Calder Cup.
“The season is a fail unless you end up with a trophy at the end of the year, and that’s what our team is looking forward to.”