CALGARY – Craig Conroy came to the Calgary Flames’ training camp with no guarantees he’d even make the team.
The 13-year NHL veteran accepted a one-year, two-way contract that pays the NHL minimum of US$500,000. Conroy is playing on Calgary’s fourth line doing mostly grunt work.
If it sounds like he had to swallow his pride, the eternally sunny and chipper Conroy doesn’t see it that way. That attitude has brought the 39-year-old forward a game away from the 1,000th of his career.
“I still love the game,” Conroy said. “I’ve seen guys over the years, they can’t wait until their last contract is done and they’re out. They’ve been hurt, they’ve been injured and it takes a lot to get them going in the morning and get on the ice.
“For me, when I come to the rink, I’m here to have fun. I’m here to enjoy myself. I always said if it wasn’t fun I would quit.”
Conroy is expected to be in the lineup Thursday against the Colorado Avalanche and will join 33 others currently playing in the NHL who are in the 1,000-game club.
Conroy’s teammates Jarome Iginla and Daymond Langkow were awarded their silver sticks last season. Ottawa Senators defenceman Sergei Gonchar played his 1,000th on Tuesday.
Conroy was drafted 20 years ago by the Montreal Canadiens, but played only 13 games for the Habs before moving on to St. Louis, Calgary, Los Angeles and back to Calgary again during the 2006-07 season.
The Potsdam, N.Y., native has 182 goals and 360 assists in his 999 games. While never a prolific scorer, he’s had a pair of 20-goal seasons for Calgary and another for Los Angeles during his career.
He’s been that necessary player in the lineup who wins faceoffs, kills penalties and chips in the odd goal. Often overlooked is the fact Conroy played for the U.S. at the 2006 Olympics when he was having a strong season with the Kings.
The 2009-2010 season was disappointing for Conroy and the Flames as they missed the playoffs. Conroy didn’t want to leave the game that way and was willing to scratch and claw his way back onto the team in order to keep playing.
“It was like being a rookie trying to make the team in the Montreal,” Conroy said. “I’d had a bad year, the worst year of my career and I wanted to come back and prove something. I was injured, I didn’t play well but I had more to give.
“I wanted to go out making the playoffs and being part of something that had a chance to win a Stanley Cup. That was my main focus and in there was ‘I’ll be able to get 1,000 games too’ which would be unbelievable.”
Conroy, who has flipped between wing and centre in his first seven games, has scored two goals for Calgary. He jokes that it took him 39 games last season to get a pair.
He playing alongside tough guy Tim Jackman and youngster Stefan Meyer. If not for injuries to Flames forwards Langkow, Ales Kotalik and David Moss to start this season, Conroy might not have reached 1,000 games this quickly or at all.
Should those players return to health, Conroy could find himself a healthy scratch in the press box or faced with the decision to report to Calgary’s AHL affiliate in Abbotsford. B.C.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen when Moss, Langkow or Kotalik comes back,” Conroy said. “If they come back, it’s a battle. You want to stay in the lineup.
“You know it’s going to be hard when you’re only going to play eight to 10 minutes. It’s not a lot of ice time, but you have to do something to contribute whether it’s penalty kill, faceoff, if you can score a goal, just something to give them a reason to say ‘Craig’s doing what he needs to do to stay in the lineup.'”
Flames coach Brent Sutter appreciates what Conroy has done to get to 1,000 games having played 1,111 in the NHL himself.
“You don’t play that many games in the National Hockey League without being a pretty consistent player,” Sutter said. “You look at so many guys where they’ve been pretty good players throughout their whole career and they get into the last couple years of their career and their role has changed and they had to accept that. You have to keep a good attitude doing that.”
“It’s acceptance or not accepting. Not accepting, you’ve probably played your last game.”
Conroy is an articulate extrovert who attracts reporters in the locker-room. This is likely his last season in the NHL and many have him pegged to move into the broadcast booth when he retires.
Flames fans give him some of the loudest cheers at Scotiabank Saddledome. They remember his contribution of six goals and 11 assists in the Stanley Cup final of 2004, when Calgary lost to Tampa Bay in seven games. They seem to appreciate his positive personality and his loyalty to their club.
“It’s just like when I came back the second time,” Conroy said of his trade back to Calgary from the Kings in 2007. “That first game when I was sitting on the bench and they put me on the Jumbotron and the reception the fans gave me, it gives me goosebumps to think about it now.”