When the coach of the Norfolk Admirals gathered his players to tell them one had earned the American Hockey League MVP award, Cory Conacher got excited immediately. Not for himself, though. The former Canisius College standout was certain teammate Mark Barberio had won the honor.
"When coach started talking about it, I thought it was going to be him with the season he had," Conacher said of the All-Star defenseman. "When I got it, it was a good surprise."
It really shouldn't have been. Conacher had a season to remember, leading the league in goals (39) and finishing second in points (80) as a rookie. The 22-year-old made a stunning leap from undrafted and unsigned free agent to minor-league star and NHL prospect.
Over the weekend, the dream season reached its conclusion with the AHL championship. Conacher and the Admirals completed a series sweep of the Toronto Marlies, a four-game victory that saw the team finish with 43 wins in their final 46 games.
"The streak we had really built relationships for a lifetime amongst the guys, and hopefully this Calder Cup run will as well," said Conacher, whose team closed the regular season with 28 straight victories. "It's been incredible. The awards I got were all team awards because this team has been absolutely amazing the whole year. That streak we went on was just a lifetime kind of treat. No one is going to experience that for a long time."
Conacher, who had four assists in the clinching game, is striving to make sure the good times are just starting. The left winger hopes next season is spent with the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Admirals' parent club.
He signed an AHL contract with Norfolk last summer after Canisius coach Dave Smith talked with friend Pat Verbeek, the former NHLer who is the assistant general manager and director of player personnel of the Lightning. Conacher attended Tampa's training camp and impressed many while playing with on a line with superstars Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis.
He was sent back to Norfolk without an NHL contract, but Conacher and the Lightning agreed to a two-year deal in March worth $1.7 million.
"It's going to be a shorter summer, so it's going to be a lot more intense this summer just to be sure I'm ready to go next year," Conacher said in Toronto's Ricoh Coliseum. "I want to show my stuff again at their camp and get that opportunity to step in the lineup. If not, if I need to come back here and play another year in the AHL, that's what it's going to take.
"Steve Yzerman [Tampa's GM] is a man of his word. He tells the young guys that he wants them to develop, and he doesn't want us to rush into things. I'm fine with playing another year in the AHL if it takes that. When I get that opportunity to play with Tampa, I can't take that for granted."
Conacher has become a bona fide prospect by overcoming a series of potential obstacles. He was diagnosed with Type I diabetes as a child and has an insulin pump attached to his hip when he's not playing. The Burlington, Ont., native didn't play major junior hockey. Although Canisius is Division I, it's a small school that doesn't have the draw of the Boston Colleges of the world. Finally, Conacher is small, listed at just 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds.
"The buildings where the scouts are, Cory didn't play in any of those buildings," Norfolk coach Jon Cooper said. "What I always say about Cory is you can't measure the size of the man, you've got to measure the size of his heart. If you have that inside you, it's limitless what he can do, and he's proven that right now.
"He's a little man but plays a big man's game. When you're small, you have to separate yourself in something you do. He's tenacious, and he has speed. He's fearless. He goes into corners and takes on big men. When you have that in a player, guys like that are hard to defend. He makes skill plays at a high speed.
"He's got all the makings. I don't anticipate him being in this league much longer."
Conacher credits Canisius for allowing him to become a complete player. Conacher set nearly every Golden Griffins record during his four seasons on campus while learning to become a two-way, go-to guy.
"The coaching staff showed a lot of confidence putting me in key situations on the ice, and being able to play in those situations really helped my game," he said. "Going into Canisius, I was mostly just an offensive player. I wasn't really good defensively, and it was important for me to learn that coming into pro because if you're only a one-way player you won't go far. Coach Smith taught me a lot defensively about being in the right lane and being in the right place in the D-zone and just taking care of the puck in the D-zone. I learned a lot from that."
With all the accolades he earned this season, Conacher showed he's a fast learner at every level. There's only one league left to reach, and he is ready to take his blossoming game and driven mind-set there.
"He's a smaller guy just like me, and I think we have the same attitude," said Tyler Johnson, Conacher's linemate and roommate. "We're competitors. We don't just give in to the bigger guys. We play with a chip on our shoulder, an edge. He's an unbelievable player. He's quick and skilled and has good vision on the ice. He's helped our team a lot this year."
Said Conacher: "It really has been a fantastic year."