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Flames' Conroy reveals his hockey secret



With his 1,000th game fast approaching, Craig Conroy admits he's been thinking about the major hockey influences. (Kathy Willens/Canadian Press)

Behind that perma grin, Craig Conroy has kept a secret all these years.

The popular Calgary Flames centre confessed that he did not grow up in Potsdam, N.Y., dreaming about becoming the next Wayne Gretzky or one day playing in the NHL.

Conroy's aspirations were more practical. He simply was content to play hockey for Clarkson University, a school on the outskirts of town that had produced NHLers Dave Taylor and Craig Laughlin before Conroy and Todd Marchant, Erik Cole, Randy Jones and Willie Mitchell, after him.

"Never thought about playing in the NHL," Conroy said. "I never really looked past Clarkson. All I wanted to be was a Golden Knight. My father [Mike] played there so did two of my uncles [Terry and Tom]. That was a big deal for me.

"Then I was drafted in the sixth round by Montreal [in 1990]. When I finished school, the Canadiens just won the Stanley Cup [in 1992-93] and I had my doubts whether I would ever play."

He did play in the NHL, and has been a popular teammate and fan favourite in all his stops - Montreal, St. Louis, Calgary, Los Angeles and Calgary again. If the 39-year-old forward stays healthy, he will become the 254th NHLer to play in his 1,000th game when the Flames entertain the Colorado Avalanche next Thursday, two days after Ottawa Senators defenceman Sergei Gonchar is scheduled to play in his milestone match.

With his 1,000th game fast approaching, Conroy admits that he has been thinking about the major influences he has collaborated with along the way as well as his career highlights.

"There is no way I can narrow my career to one highlight. I've enjoyed so many good times," said Conroy, whose North Bay, Ont.-born father had a tryout with the Atlanta Flames, but spent a few seasons in the minors before retiring.

The younger Conroy remembers fondly his first NHL game for Montreal in Hartford against the Whalers. He played on a line with Vincent Damphousse and Brian Bellows.

Then the next evening at Madison Square Garden, he scored his first NHL goal against New York Rangers netminder Mike Ritchter.

There was the Flames run to the 2004 Stanley Cup final, only to lose to the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games. Conroy scored six times and checked in with 17 points in 26 games, second on the Flames only to his linemate Jarome Iginla in that memorable spring.

There was his emotional return to Calgary on Jan. 30, 2007. After a year-and-a-half with the Kings, he was dealt back to the Flames. Conroy began his second stint in Calgary with a game against Los Angeles and he responded with two goals. His first goal - and the game's first goal - arrived in the first 90 seconds of the second period, surprising even himself.

"It surpassed all expectations," Conroy said. "It gave me goose bumps being out there on the ice. It was a lot of emotion for me."

Where it all started

His time in the NHL all began in Montreal.

Conroy played only 13 games with Habs, honing his skills mostly in the AHL with Fredericton in his first two pro seasons. Then he was traded to the St. Louis Blues with Pierre Turgeon and Rory Fitzpatrick in deal that sent Shayne Corson, Murray Baron and a fifth-round pick the other way on Oct. 26, 1996.

"I owe a lot to Blues GM Ron Caron," Conroy said. "[St. Louis coach] Mike Keenan told me that Ron wanted me included in the trade."

It was in the Blues organization that Conroy exhibited he was more than a defensive specialist. He had a brief five-game stint with Worcester IceCats in the AHL, collected five goals and 11 points for coach Greg Gilbert, and all of sudden, Conroy was more than a role player.

Then Flames GM Craig Button reunited Gilbert and Conroy in Calgary in March 2001. He found immediate chemistry with Iginla and his ascension to a frontline player eventually landed Conroy a spot on the 2006 United States Olympic team.

"I have so many people who helped me," Conroy said. "First, there was Mark Morris, my coach at Clarkson and Claude Ruel, who helped me with the Canadiens in the summer.

"With the Blues, players like Al MacInnis, Brett Hull and Craig MacTavish put me under their wings and taught the importance of hard work. They told me that I could have fun and party, but that I wouldn't stick around very long if that was the case.

"They taught me the importance of respecting and loving the game. It stuck with me. Every game I play I feel it's an honour to be in the NHL."