When I spoke to Flames center Craig Conroy just prior to the start of this season, he was as cheerful as ever.
“I’m just glad to be playing another year,” the 39-year-old said at the time. “As you get further along in your career, you appreciate more what you have as a player, especially here in Calgary with the great fans we have. I’ve always tried to be thankful for the chances I’ve been given and how lucky we are to play this game and live the life that we do. And I think that feeling grows every year I’m still around.”
The funny thing is – as Conroy leans toward his retirement from the game after 17 pro seasons – the longer he has been in the public eye, the more apparent it is how fortunate the hockey media has been to cover him. The day after we celebrated the 50th birthday of Wayne Gretzky, it is clear Conroy was The Great One for people who wanted his words and insights for a story – or more importantly, for those folks lucky enough to be one of his teammates over the years.
You could count on one hand, and perhaps on one finger, how many pro athletes have been as amicable with the press as Conroy was. He never ducked out on a media scrum after a game; never tried to leverage a relationship with a writer to make himself look better at the expense of others; never flippantly tossed out cliches and condescending behavior with reporters the way many, if not most NHLers do nowadays.
Conroy was and is in love with the game and wanted to share that affection with everyone who felt similarly. It is no accident that he is so beloved by teammates (including good friend Jarome Iginla) and that the Flames players were so morose discussing his imminent departure.
And if the true test of a man is the manner in which he acts when he struggles through difficult circumstances, Conroy passed it with flying colors this season when Calgary coach Brent Sutter made him a healthy scratch in 28 of the Flames’ past 29 games.
Think for a second of how difficult that was for him – preparing like a pro, yet staying in the dressing room night after night while his fellow Flames headed out for battle.
Moreover, consider what a difficult place Calgary has been this season; the suffocating pressure of a team on the downslide, combined with the icy glares of former GM Darryl Sutter, would be reason enough for any NHLer – let alone one faced with the conclusion of his playing days – to grow surly or silent.
Not Conroy, though. He still was grinning and joking through all the negativity, still agreeing to interviews where he encouraged his teammates to do their best to turn things around, even when he had to know the end (and the waiver wire) was near.
Conroy refused to let his circumstances dictate his outlook and approach to life – and that is the biggest gift he gave to hockey fans and co-workers during his career. As Alex Ovechkin is finding out this year, ebullience is easy to project when the world is your oyster – and not so easy when you’ve been shucked to the side.
But Conroy never lagged in the laughter department; in an often-humorless profession, that counts for quite a lot. Sure, he carved out a 1,009-game NHL career that included 542 points and a pair of nominations for the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward, but that’s not what he’ll be remembered as.
Instead, he’ll be remembered as the best teammate any player could ask for. Being affixed with that label may not measure up with the Stanley Cup that eluded Conroy, but his sterling reputation will reverberate in ways a championship never could.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
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