This is the second of a three-part series that looks at players with local connections trying to carve out a career in professional hockey. Today’s installment deals with Williamsville’s David Leggio and former Canisius College standout Cory Conacher.
By Amy Moritz
News Sports Reporter
Cory Conacher was being a pest in front of the net. While working on the power play he got off a point-blank shot in front of the goaltender. The rebound came out and he emphatically finished off the play, much to the delight of the packed house at the Utica Memorial Auditorium that watched a 4-2 win for the Comets over Rockford on a Saturday night in late March.
This is where Conacher is at his best – when he has the freedom to annoy the ever-living life out of opponents in the offensive zone. Pesky is the word used most often to describe the left winger; he’s the kind of player guys hate to play against.
It also sums up the attitude that has helped create his pro hockey career and perpetuated it through some difficult times.
The former standout at Canisius College is on his fifth NHL organization in four years.
“It’s tough. It’s either no one likes you or everyone wants you, right?” Conacher said. “I try to look at the brighter side.”
Up and down the pro hockey food chain. Change of organizations. Post-college life as an unrestricted free agent comes with possibilities and frustrations. For players like Conacher and Williamsville’s David Leggio, the path to a pro hockey career begins by developing in college, creating a buzz and then searching for the right place at the right time.
Conacher set nearly every offensive record at Canisius and earned Atlantic Hockey Player of the Year honors, and he parlayed that into an impressive AHL rookie season. He won the Calder Cup with Norfolk in 2012 and was the league’s rookie of the year. That earned him a two-year, entry-level contract with Tampa Bay.
He played 35 games for the Lightning with 24 goals. Then came a coaching change. Then a trade to Ottawa. Then a trade to Buffalo.
The Sabres did not make him a qualifying offer and he ended up with the New York Islanders, playing 15 games before being sent down to Bridgeport.
The trade deadline brought another fresh start, this time with the Vancouver Canucks.
“I got stuck in a couple situations where I was a little more uncomfortable than I usually am,” Conacher said. “Obviously, there’s no excuses. You can’t make excuses for anything. I always tell young guys to play the way that got you to this point. I try to repeat that to myself as well. And if I do that, good things will happen in the future.”
Conacher, 25, has found himself mentoring young players while spending the bulk of the season with Utica. He had another shot at another Calder Cup this season, but the Comets lost in the finals to Manchester.
He knows first-hand how a long playoff run can turn the heads of decision-makers in the NHL.
“They really wanted me to come here and be a depth guy for Vancouver and help young guys here in Utica,” Conacher said earlier in the Comets’ playoff run. “Everyone loves a winner and if this team can go far in the playoffs it will help out everyone on the team.
“I got a chance to win the Calder Cup and it helped me with my next couple of contracts just because a lot of GMs like players who know how to win and have been through a long playoff run.”
There was no long playoff run for Leggio this year. The 30-year old Williamsville native didn’t get to play in a game for Portland during the Pirates’ opening round loss to Manchester.
It was an inauspicious conclusion to Leggio’s most trying year of hockey. Last year he was the No. 1 goaltender for the Hershey Bears. This year he started the season with Conacher in Bridgeport and played 23 games, going 7-13 with a 3.93 goals-against average and an .861 save percentage. He played five games with Portland, finishing with a 2.41 goals-against and .908 save percentage.
“The time in Bridgeport was definitely the worst stretch of my career,” Leggio said. “I view it as a failure. But the most important thing is to learn from it.
“There may be a couple of things I’ve worked on since being in Bridgeport that helped my game. I played smarter with my movements, was a little more efficient and not as aggressive. For the most part it wasn’t a great situation there. In Portland, there’s better defense and I’m able to read plays. I got back to some fundamentals and cleaned up some technique that got away from me.”
His route to pro hockey was similar in some ways to Conacher’s – through hard work and good timing he found himself a desirable commodity as an unrestricted free agent out of college.
After a standout career as an invited walk-on at Clarkson, he signed a two-way deal with the Albany River Rats of the AHL and the Florida Everblades of the ECHL. He spent most of the season in Florida, playing 39 games with a 2.26 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage.
That’s where Leggio’s story takes a turn – a hard right across the Atlantic Ocean to Finland.
“I looked at the guys not on NHL deals who had successful seasons in the ECHL,” Leggio said. “The goalie of the year and I had similar numbers and I saw it was very difficult for them to get to the AHL. I thought the best thing for me was to go to Finland to work with one of the best coaches who ever lived.
“I was playing at a higher level than the ECHL. It was one of the top five leagues in the world. That was my thing – to go over there and improve myself.
“There’s nothing wrong with the ECHL route. I could have done that. But I thought this would take my game to the next level. It happened quick. I thought it would be a two- or three-year process but I only had to spend one year there.”
His year in Finland produced solid numbers that earned him an AHL deal with the Buffalo Sabres in 2010 and a chance to pursue his NHL dreams.
There were times when it looked as if Leggio would get his NHL chance, but it never happened. After his contract expired, he began signing one-year deals.
Leggio doesn’t know where he will end up next year. He returns to Western New York to continue his Leggio Goaltending venture that runs youth camps throughout the summer. But he’s not ready to give up on the NHL just yet.
“This year hasn’t been the best for me but my goal hasn’t changed and that’s to play in the NHL,” Leggio said. “I’m 30 years old. I see stories of guys making it late and I hope to be one of those stories. That’s my passion and my vision and my dream – to be playing in the NHL.
“There’s nothing I really regret. I feel like I’ve had a pretty good process. I think I lay it on the line and try to maximize my potential in how I work and how I prepare.
“There are things you wish you learned earlier, but it’s just a continuous process of learning things and tweaking things. …. I still love playing. I still love coming to the rink and practicing. I keep getting better and see how far I can take it.”