Craig Conroy Recalls Icy Welcome in Calgary as 1,000th Game Looms
"Off the start, (Conroy) says I was a little bit grumpy, but we'd just had a coaching change ... we'd just lost our leading scorer (Cory Stillman),'' said Jarome Iginla. "But it was a good move. He's not only one of my best friends, but he's one of the best passers I've ever played with. I had my best years with him.''
When, as expected, Conroy suits up Thursday night for the visiting Colorado Avalanche, it will be the centreman's 1,000th NHL game. It's been 20 years since he was drafted and 16 seasons since he first pulled on a Montreal Canadiens' sweater and a lot of proverbial water under the bridge for the personable New Yorker.
That first game is etched in his mind.
"In Hartford,'' he noted quickly. "Brian Bellows and Vinnie Damphousse were my linemates. I only got to play with those guys in one game and then I was with (Donald) Brashear and Ed Ronan after that. But I scored with the second guys.''
Conroy was first acquired by the Flames in 2000-01, with Calgary shipping Stillman to the St. Louis Blues.
"It was a big trade,'' Iginla stressed. "We didn't know a lot about him but Stillman was our leading scorer at the time and a big part of the organization. But it was great scouting. It turned out to be a very good trade and it didn't take him long to flourish with more ice time and more opportunity.''
"I remember going to Columbus and it was a bit of a whirlwind,'' Conroy noted. "I know it wasn't the most popular trade in team history at the time. That's when I learned not to read the papers or watch TV.''
Iginla and Conroy traded good-natured barbs on the eve of the milestone night.
"Jarome hated me,'' joked Conroy, with a glint in his eye. "The guy wouldn't even look at me. But he says, with all respect, Don Hay got let go that day and he was pretty upset. I watch the way he treats traded players when they come in and it is much better than he treated me.''
A highlight of their interaction prior to being teammates was a fight they got into, recalled Iginla.
"We were in St. Louis and he was going after Savvy (Marc Savard) and it was kind of a line brawl,'' he explained. "I grabbed him and we got into it. Savvy wasn't in the mood at the time. I probably bested him on that one.''
"He jumped me,'' countered Conroy. "I was trying to get Savard, someone a little smaller, and I turned around and Iggy was right there.''
After signing with the Los Angeles Kings as a free agent in 2004, he was traded to Calgary for a second time three years later much to Iginla's delight, as the latter pointed to Conroy as a large reason he notched 52 goals in 2001-02.
"Absolutely,'' the right winger began. "Playing with him, I got about 300 shots. I'd go to the net and he's obviously always looking for me. He helped me understand the game. He was great to play with and learn from.
"We're excited for him. He's earned it; he's worked hard, he's played a lot of different roles. He's a great team guy. He's a great example for all of us as players. We want him to play longer. It's not a retirement thing.''
Returning to Calgary was akin to rejuvenation for Conroy.
"When they put me on the Jumbotron, and the way the fans responded ... that was a special day,'' he mused. "Obviously the (2004 Stanley Cup playoffs) run was fun ... and all the days in between. You play in 1,000 games, you play with a lot of great people.''
The most amiable Flame and a fan favourite, Conroy has tried to convey that their job as players is to also be ambassadors.
"I remember when (Michael) Cammalleri came in, I said it's going to be a lot of media; take time with them and take time with the fans. This is a great city and if you're good to them, they're going to be good back. Cammalleri did a great job coming here and now he's doing the same thing in Montreal.''
Conroy, at 39 years and 55 days, will become the second oldest player to reach the coveted plateau -- Grant Ledyard was the oldest at 40 years and 23 days.
"Initially, we thought he was the oldest to ever reach 1,000 games but now we've narrowed it down to oldest American,'' laughed Iginla. In fact, Joey Mullen -- another ex-Flame -- was 39 years and eight days.
The fact that the 6-foot-2, 193-pounder has not only managed to crack the line-up this season but has also contributed with a pair of goals -- one a game-winner -- has been a satisfying turn of events.
"I didn't know over the summer if it would happen,'' he admitted, "and to get it tomorrow at home, it's going to be pretty special for me. I didn't know if I'd play in one, five, 10 ... so to play in 1,000 is going to be nice.''