PERSEVERANCE : continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition
That word could be argued, with conviction, as one of the most underrated personal characteristics of almost every man and woman. The ability to overcome all odds and not let setbacks which do not discriminate and occur in every walk of life stop you from achieving your goal.
In the world of professional athletes, there is no possible way for them to rise to the summit of competitive play without possessing this trait in large quantities.
The early morning wake up calls to get to practice, the effort and dedication both on and off the ice to harness and develop the skills needed to put them over the top, the push from parents, family and friends to never give up and keep going, the ability to get over demotions, demanding coaches and mistaken omissions from teams you knew you were good enough to make.
And that is more than likely just scratching the surface of what it takes to become one of approximately 800 people in the entire world that can play professional hockey at this level.
The story of Cory Conacher, who signed a one year deal with the New York Islanders on the opening day of free agency, is even that much more special when you look back on the odds he has had to face since the day he was brought into this world by parents Dave and Debbie on December 14, 1989.
Born in Burlington, Ontario, Conacher was born with bladder exstrophy, a rare defect in which the bladder is outside of the body. At 5 days old, doctors performed a 10 hour operation in which his pelvis was reconstructed and the bladder placed back to its normal place. After spending 10 weeks in traction, he was forced to endure future operations at the ages of three, five and seven. But that wasn’t the end of his journey. Quite to the contrary, it was only the beginning.
The surgery at three had some unexpected side effects. Cory forgot how to walk. His mother would cry herself to sleep and wonder what else could be ahead for her beloved son.
But it turned out to be just muscle atrophy from being in traction so much and by the age of seven, Conacher was thriving while learning the game of hockey. Things finally seemed to be back to normal. They were anything but.
At age eight, Conacher noticed that he was getting up several times in the middle of the night to quench his seemingly never ending thirst for water. Doctors made the determination that Cory had type I diabetes, which if left untreated or unmonitored, can cause him to enter into a diabetic coma and threaten his life. He has fallen unconscious several times when not at home prior to attending college at Canisius college, which was primarily chosen due to its close proximity to the Conacher’s home.
“It takes a lot of support from family and friends. To have them in my corner and supporting me through my entire career is very special for me” Conacher said when we spoke on Thursday via phone. “It’s tough at times but it’s been such a learning experience and has made me stronger as a person to be able to overcome the physical obstacles. Right now, it’s all about looking forward to the new experience I am going to have with this team”.
Conacher would go on to post 147 points in 129 games over the course of his college career but as a smaller forward (listed at 5’8, 180 lbs) in a game tailored for larger players (2013 average 6’1, 203 lbs) he would go undrafted.
He would present himself to the American Hockey League scene as a regular in 2011-12 as a member of the Norfolk Admirals before moving onto the Syracuse Crunch, a Tampa Bay affiliate. 108 points in 111 games would finally get him his well earned shot at the National Hockey League as the Lightning re-called him after the lockout in 2012-13.
Although he was second in rookie scoring with 24 points in 35 games, he was traded to the Ottawa Senators as part of the Ben Bishop trade at the deadline on April 3, 2013.
He struggled to find his role and consistency after the move however, posting 25 points in 72 games over two seasons before being placed on waivers just prior to the 2013 trading deadline. He would be claimed by the Buffalo Sabres to finish out the year.
Buffalo faced a tough decision and wavered back and forth on offering Conacher a contract extension but ultimately allowed the shifty, crafty forward to become an unrestricted free agent.
“It was a pretty crazy day. To get that phone call from the Islanders and talk to the them, you look for that opportunity to play and prove yourself. They have a very promising team and a great future ahead of them. I cannot wait to go into camp and show them I am ready to play, learn their system and contribute” Conacher added.
With the Islanders using the second day of free agency to sign Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, the competition at camp is expected to be extremely intense as there will be more than enough NHL level forwards fighting for top roles next to the Islanders talented group of core players such as captain John Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen.
“I would love to come in and play a top 6 role. I’m a very versatile player however so if that’s not the case, I will do whatever the team needs me to do. I want to create space for players like Tavares, Okposo, Grabner. Be first on pucks, create turnovers and be solid in my defensive zone. A guy like Tavares, if you give him space he makes such an impact on the game. I take pride in helping my teammates succeed. I don’t use my size as an excuse. There is no reason I cannot play just as big as the larger players in the game.”
Conacher also brings a sense of humor to the club and a willingness to loosen things up whether it be in the dressing room or on the bench. Last season, after taking a penalty, he was mistakenly given Jon Scott’s helmet and proceeded to place it on his head with an ear to ear grin that took the tension right out of the pressure of an NHL game.
“Hockey can be stressful at times for guys and teams in a slump. The situation I was in with Buffalo last year, I had no idea it would be that big of a deal when I did it. To be able to have those little things that brighten the mood up helps everyone. You look to bring a spark in any way and it obviously put a smile on some of my teammates faces. And we ended up getting a win in Edmonton that night. The Islanders are a very young team and even though I am young myself, I can bring some of that experience to the rookies.”
Cory Conacher has already overcome tons of obstacles on his road to the National Hockey League; medically, physically and emotionally. With his drive, passion and level of competitiveness, in addition to some true offensively gifted talents, it really doesn’t matter who Snow brings in at this point.
He will be there in September, skating for a role on the club and doing what he has always done.
I wouldn’t bet against him. Would you?