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20 to ’20: Calgary's sporting icons of the 2000s so far — Craig Conroy

As 2020 winds to a close, Postmedia’s Wes Gilbertson profiles Calgary’s sporting icons of the 2000s so far …

Just one day after announcing that he was hanging up his skates, a rare mid-season retirement, Craig Conroy had a desk at the Saddledome.

The Calgary Flames provided a password for RinkNet, their go-to software for filing, organizing and tracking scouting reports.

In this sudden transition from veteran centre to rookie staffer, he had no idea where to start.

Or maybe he did.

“They set me up with a computer, and I was just looking at it thinking, ‘What the heck am I doing?!?’ ” Conroy recalled, laughing as he described his first day in the Flames’ front office in 2011. “I didn’t know how to do the scheduling. I didn’t know how to do the reports. I really didn’t know how to do anything. The one thing I was trying to figure out was how to go in and see what people were writing about me in my reports at the end.

“But quickly, I learned that (longtime Flames executive) Mike Burke had called RinkNet and said, ‘Take all of Connie’s reports out.’ I wanted to see who was ripping me, but Mike Burke was one step ahead so I never did get to see those.”

Nowadays, nearly a decade into his second career, the scouting report on Conroy is that he’s an integral part of the Flames’ hockey-ops staff … and still as popular as ever with the C of Red.

Conroy first arrived via trade in 2001. He remembers a lukewarm reception — “another checker” — but eventually emerged as a first-line sidekick and BFF to superstar right-winger Jarome Iginla.

He would log a grand total of 552 games — and 330 points — in the Flaming C, his two stints in Cowtown split by a season-and-change with the Los Angeles Kings.

Now an assistant general manager, he’s trying to help Brad Treliving build a winner.

Among the high-profile pieces on the payroll at 555 Saddledome Rise S.E., nobody has been trying to deliver a championship to Calgary for as long as Conroy has.

“I want to bring a Cup back to Canada. Jay (Feaster) and I used to talk about that,” Conroy said. “That’s the real goal. I mean, there’s really only one goal — ever since that Game 7 in Tampa. It was always one goal, but that one hurt, and it’s hard to forget that.

“So yeah, I’m still going after it, just in a different role. I think you have that love affair with the city and you saw what 2004 did to jump-start it again. I mean, I’ve never seen a city like that, and I want to bring that back. I want to bring it back for our fans. I want our fans to win it probably more than I want to win it, because I think they deserve it.”

It’s hard to imagine the 49-year-old Conroy — originally from Potsdam, N.Y. — could be any more beloved around here, but a Stanley Cup celebration might do it.

In a local popularity contest, he’d rank behind only Iggy, Lanny and maybe Harvey. Nine-plus years after his last game, he is constantly stopped for signatures, selfies and stories.

“We always say he’d talk the chrome off a trailer hitch,” quipped Treliving, who promoted Conroy to assistant general manager shortly after he was hired in Calgary in 2014. “He’s just a good person, and he sees the good in everything. No matter what, he tries to find the good in it or see the good in everybody. And I think that’s what has made him such a popular figure here.

“He was a good player, but he’s always had time for everyone. Whether you’re a young fan, whoever … He’ll talk to anybody. He’ll make time for everybody. He’s personable. He’s full of energy. So how can you not like that?”

Conroy’s impact at the Saddledome goes far beyond good guy.

He was dispatched by then-boss Brian Burke to the 2014 NCAA Championship with instructions to try to convince top prospect Johnny Gaudreau to turn pro. While some were worried Gaudreau would spend another season at Boston College and scoot as a free agent, Conroy returned with the Hobey Baker Award winner under contract.

He is trusted for his evaluations of juniors, college prospects and pros — “he has a really good eye for talent,” Treliving praised — and for his input through the lens of a guy who’s been there and done that.

A year ago, during the Bill Peters saga, he helped out on the bench for a couple of games.

“Everyone thinks being in the front office means having the corner suite but you have to grind, and he has no issues and enjoys the grind and loves being in the rink,” said Treliving, whose management team also includes Don Maloney, Brad Pascall and Chris Snow. “He’s not afraid of the hours. He’s not afraid to put the work in.

“It’s almost like you start over again, right? So you need to build your book of business. And in our business, it’s knowing the players. It’s knowing the players in the league, knowing the young guys coming up, who the top kids are from each organization. You can only get that knowledge from putting in the work, from seeing the games. He’s dug in, really, from the time he left the ice.”

In his current role, all that time on the ice remains a major asset.

“Playing as long as I did, I’ve experienced everything,” Conroy said. “I’ve been in the minors. I’ve been healthy-scratched. I’ve been traded. I know what that feels like. Everything that these guys go through, I’ve experienced it. So it’s easier maybe for me and the guys when we’re talking. We relate to each other.

“Because I know what it feels like. I’ve touched every little bit of this — the good, the bad, at the end of my career, when you’re on waivers and you have to make a decision … ”

Indeed, this could have been a sour ending.

In the opening month of the 2010-11 campaign, Conroy had marked a significant milestone, earning a silver stick with his entry to the NHL’s 1,000-game club. Then 39, he suited up for only nine more — and was scratched for three times that many — being before placed on waivers in late January and going unclaimed.

The Flames told their former captain that he could continue to skate with the farm club, but the idea of bumping a youngster “didn’t feel right.”

The always-talkative centre had opportunities on TV.

He had an offer to become a coach in the NCAA ranks.

Or he could stick around the Saddledome for a front-office intro as special assistant to the GM.

“Ken King was really the driving force,” said Conroy, crediting the longtime team president who passed away earlier this year. “He told me, ‘I know this is a whirlwind, but we want you to be a part of the organization.’ ”

The proud father of three remains an important part of the organization, remains a fixture on Calgary’s sports scene.

Last week, during the United by Community radiothon, Iginla summed up Conroy as a great friend and teammate and “a guy who is in a very good mood 99% of the time.”

His pal can perhaps pinpoint that 1%. Admittedly, Conroy struggled with the switch from skater to superior.

“I think what made it more awkward is all your buddies are sitting in the room and for me, how do you handle that?” Conroy said. “So at the start, I just didn’t talk to them. You’d walk through the locker-room, head down, and not talk to anybody.

“I remember walking in one day and that’s when Jarome is like, ‘Hey, what’s wrong with you?’ He was like, ‘The one thing you have to be is yourself, Craig. Right now, you’re acting maybe a little bit like Darryl (Sutter).’ I’m thinking, ‘Jeez, I can’t do that.’ ”

“When he said that, that made it a little bit easier. I just had to be myself.”

He still is.

And around these parts, they love him for it.

“I always say there are juice-givers and there are juice-drainers,” Treliving said. “There are guys that walk into a room and they cancel happy hour. (Conroy) is the complete opposite. And you need that energy. This business can be a grind, and he’s a guy that brings energy and every day is a good day. And those guys are so valuable in the good vibe.

“The energy-killers and the energy-drainers, they’re downers. He’s up. He’s full of life. Every day is a good day for him. And that’s such a great quality to have.”


Remember me for …

Conroy was a fan favourite as the Calgary Flames’ first-line centre, striking up chemistry with superstar right-winger Jarome Iginla and playing an important role on a fairytale run to the 2004 Stanley Cup final.

Oh and another thing …

Although he never scored a league award, Conroy was a two-time finalist for the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward.

Staggering stat …

1,000 — There are still only 349 gents in NHL history who have reached quadruple digits in regular-season games played. Conroy’s name is on that list. He totalled 1,009 appearances with the Canadiens, Blues and Flames.

These days …

Conroy didn’t even take a day off after announcing his retirement, transitioning to a front-office job at the Saddledome. He is now an assistant general manager and as popular as ever in this city.

He said it …

“Everywhere I go, it’s ‘Hey, Craig!’ People want to talk hockey. They’re passionate. They ask for pictures. My daughters roll their eyes, but it makes me feel good.”

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Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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