Craig Conroy's first day on the job as a professional hockey player was a memorable one - but for all the wrong reasons.
There was Conroy, on the ice at the old Montreal Forum, attending his first training camp with the Canadiens, and performing a rudimentary shooting drill. Fuelled in equal parts by his trademark qualities - excitement and enthusiasm - Conroy launched a rising slap shot at net - and accidentally plunked goaltender Patrick Roy smack in the face.
Roy was the Habs franchise back in 1994-95, as temperamental as ever, and didn't like a raw rookie using his noggin for target practice, even inadvertently.
"He stormed out and punched me in the head," the now Calgary Flames centre recalled. "I mean, both teams came after me. There was a big melee at centre ice; everybody was yelling at me; and I'm trying to apologize the whole time. I'm thinking: 'This is crazy, this is not the way I want to start my career.' "
Perhaps not. But from that inauspicious beginning, the sixth-round pick in the 1990 draft forged an unexpectedly successful career in which he will play his 1,000th NHL game Thursday against the Colorado Avalanche.
Fifty-four days past his 39th birthday, Conroy will become the fourth-oldest player in NHL history to reach that milestone.
As a player, Conroy constantly needed to redefine his role to stay in the game. A scorer at the U.S. college level and a defensive specialist when he first broke into the NHL, Conroy eventually had a four-year run as one of the Flames' go-to forwards. Now, in the twilight of his career, he is a part-time fourth-liner, playing largely because of the team's early season run of injuries.
What sets Conroy apart from his peers, however, is the genuine and unbridled enthusiasm with which he plays the game. In the increasingly cynical world of professional sport, he is a refreshing exception - a bubbling cauldron of positive energy. In an organization not always known for the lightheartedness of its approach, it is difficult to measure exactly how important that has been to the Flames' success.
"You could be in a slump, or having a hard time, but once you talk to him, you're ready to go again," said Jarome Iginla, Conroy's long-time friend and teammate. "It's always, 'the next one's going in' or 'the last one was close' - and it's not just with me, he does it with all the guys, the younger guys, and it's contagious."
Conroy was the 123rd player chosen in 1990. Of that 252-player draft class, only he, Martin Brodeur (New Jersey Devils) and Doug Weight (New York Islanders) remain in the NHL. Conroy was a much-longer shot than the other two and admits there were moments, after he'd graduated from Clarkson College, that he wondered if an NHL career was in the cards; or if he was destined to be a career minor-leaguer.
It was in St. Louis, where the Canadiens traded him in 1996, that Conroy established himself as an NHL regular. The Blues used three head coaches that year - Mike Keenan, Jimmy Roberts and finally Joel Quenneville. Ultimately, Quenneville turned Conroy into a defensive and faceoff specialist; and he received the first of two nominations for the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the NHL's leading defensive forward on a star-studded Blues team that included Brett Hull, Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger.
The second Selke nomination came after he joined the Flames late in the 2000-01 season, a deal that effectively changed his life again.
Early in Conroy's first full season with Calgary, Iginla's regular centre, Marc Savard, injured his knee. Conroy was promoted to the top line and the two developed instant chemistry. Iginla won the scoring title that year and Conroy finished in a four-way tie for 12th alongside perennial point-per-game players Keith Tkachuk, Brendan Shanahan and Alexei Yashin.
"I'd always say to Jarome, 'I'd love to be a natural,' " Conroy revealed. "But Jarome says, 'It's always hard work, there's nothing natural about it.' And it's probably true. It is hard work. But some guys do have a gift.
"Watching Brett Hull shoot, some of the things he'd do, the way he could score goals, you'd just think 'wow.' Pierre Turgeon making plays. Jarome scoring goals and his physical presence. Al MacInnis with his shot, but he was so much more. Chris Pronger. Grant Fuhr in net. Kipper [Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff] They have a little something different than everybody else.
"That was always the thing for me. Hard work was the only way I was going to get there."
Get there he did - and Conroy stayed longer than most.
"I was hoping for one game," he said. "Then, when I became a regular, I was hoping for 400 games - because that was the pension [threshold]at the time. So to be sitting here now, at 39, this close to 1,000 games, it's special. Because I didn't know if I'd even play one."
Conroy's CV - Facts about the veteran Flame
- Age: 39
- Born: Potsdam, N.Y.
- NHL teams: Montreal, St. Louis, Calgary, Los Angeles
- Resume: 999 games played; 182 goals; 360 assists; 542 points
- Career highlights: Twice a Selke trophy finalist as the NHL's top defensive forward.
- Drafted: By Montreal, 123rd overall, 1990 entry draft.
- Education: Attended Clarkson College in his hometown of Potsdam, N.Y., where he studied business administration; his father and two uncles also studied there, and it was his dream to follow in their footsteps.
- Quotable: "I watched Montreal and Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday growing up, but that just seemed so far away to me. My goal was to get a scholarship at Clarkson, get my education, have some fun and then start my next life, whatever that might be."