The future was nerve-rackingly uncertain.
Having been placed on waivers earlier in the day, Cory Conacher suited up with Ottawa for the Senators’ game in Edmonton on Tuesday night. It was likely his last game with the Sens. It could have been his last game in the NHL for a while. There had been promising talks, but nothing was certain. Nothing until Wednesday just before noon when the former standout at Canisius College landed, for all intents and purposes, back home.
The Buffalo Sabres claimed Conacher off waivers, ending the 24-year-old’s 24 hours of emotional upheaval.
“That was one of the tougher games I’ve played in based on the circumstances,” Conacher said of Tuesday’s game against the Oilers. “I felt sick to my stomach at points. Even right now, I’m shaking and nervous but excited at the same time. I’m just trying to pinch myself that this is happening.”
The native of Burlington, Ont., grew up a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, but he also grew up watching the Sabres. When he came to Canisius for his collegiate career, he had the opportunity to watch the Sabres more closely. And now to have the opportunity to play for the organization, well, that’s almost too special for words.
“Any player always has a number of teams in the back of his head he wants to play for at some point in his career,” Conacher said. “Not that Ottawa wasn’t one of them, but Buffalo was definitely near the top of the list for me. To be able to go there and try to make an impact with them and be part of the process and what Tim Murray is building is really exciting for me and my family.”
Murray, of course, is familiar with Conacher. He was the assistant general manager for the Sens when the team acquired Conacher last year in a trade that sent Ben Bishop to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
What did the new Sabres general manager like about Conacher? First of all, he was free – a pickup off waivers that cost the Sabres nothing in return. But there’s a huge upside Murray sees in Conacher, not just in skills but for the culture he wants to create in Buffalo.
“He cares,” Murray said. “He’s a good person. He’s a competitive guy. He can skate. There’s lots of things I like about him on the ice. He’s what I like to call a good complementary player and if we had better players here around him he’d be a better complementary player, as most complementary players are.
“I’m trying to establish a certain culture and that’s you earn what you get. And his work ethic is terrific and he’s got character. I want competition. I want one of our draft picks to say today that they’re pissed off the Sabres went out and got Cory Conacher.
“That’s how you create competition.”
In 107 NHL games between Tampa Bay and Ottawa, Conacher has 49 points (15 goals, 34 assists). He was the Most Valuable Player of the AHL while leading Norfolk to the Calder Cup in 2012. At Canisius, he remains the all-time leader in points (147) and goals (62) while holding 10 other school records.
His hockey career has always been about proving people wrong – people who thought he was too small to play (he’s listed at 5-8) or who were concerned about his Type 1 diabetes.
Although he didn’t find the right fit with the Senators, Conacher had nothing but good things to say about his teammates and the organization in Ottawa. But the Sens juggled lines and his playing time was inconsistent.
“There were times it felt like a fit,” Conacher said. “Then other times it didn’t seem so right. … It might have been time for a change.
“I’m going to get back to the way I played to get into this league,” Conacher said. “I may have started to get away from that in Ottawa. … I wasn’t confident in the plays I was making. I need to be controlling the puck more and continue to drive to the net and be around the net with the puck to get more shots. I have to want the puck a little more and not be afraid to make a mistake here or there. Take risks.”
And what better place to take risks than in a city that feels like home? Conacher is close to his family, still based in Burlington, while his younger brother, Shane, is a freshman at Canisius College.
While there may be some nerves about joining his new team, which, with immigration paperwork, may not be until Friday, there is a definite comfort level for Conacher in Buffalo and an opportunity to be part of the Sabres’ future.
“The fans are obviously very passionate about the game and that’s one of the good things about Buffalo,” Conacher said. “There are lots of great things about the city of Buffalo. … I talked briefly with Tim Murray and he told me he’s going to give me the opportunity to be a big player and hopefully be part of the process of what he sees for the team. And I want to be part of that. I want to be in Buffalo and hopefully I will be for a long time.”