On March 8, Cory Conacher pulled on a Checkers sweater for the first time.
It wasn’t just another step in the veteran forward’s pro career - it was the payoff of the tumultuous journey he’s been on over the last year.
“I didn’t know if I was going to be able to play again,” said Conacher.
This path began over the summer when, after spending the last two seasons playing in Europe, Conacher made the decision to come back across the pond.
“I had a fun couple of years there in Switzerland with my wife and son,” he said. “My son started school this year so we decided anywhere in North America would be a better option, so that’s what we did. I did my workouts and skated as much as I could and ended up finding a spot with Belleville.”
It was there that a lingering issue came to the forefront for Conacher.
“Throughout the summer I started to feel a little off but I figured it was nothing,” he said. “I did my physical [in Belleville], played a couple of games, and then after the first two games the doc called me in and said my bloodwork was a little off and my kidneys weren’t functioning properly.”
The diagnosis would put the 33-year-old’s career on hold as doctors attempted to remedy his ailment.
“They did some more digging into it and noticed I had a big bladder stone that was blocking the flow of some things and it was affecting my kidneys,” said Conacher. “They needed to get right on top of it and I had to do four or five different procedures and surgeries. I was pretty much on and off bed rest for three or so months.”
That began what would prove to be a challenging path forward for Conacher.
“If I could get any type of exercise in it would be a good day, but some of those days it was just too much, especially after some of those procedures,” said Conacher. “It was frustrating, it was tough on myself and it was tough on my family. I couldn’t really play or do things with my son. It was a tough three months for me to stay motivated.”
Luckily, that path ultimately led to Conacher reaching the point of recovery.
“As soon as I got through a couple of those procedures I immediately started to feel a little better,” said Conacher. “Finally they got rid of the big bladder stone I had.”
A return to health brought with it a rejuvenated desire to resume his career on the ice - something that hadn’t necessarily occupied Conacher’s mind during this process.
“I got that itch to play back,” he said. “I haven’t had that feeling in a long time. It’s like a second wind I got.”
Charlotte had a spot in Conacher’s mind before his health saga - fueled in part by connections to the coaching staff - and he returned to that option as he marched toward a return.
“I stayed in touch with [Checkers Assistant Coach] Bobby Sanguinetti - I have a good relationship with him - and I stayed in touch with [Checkers Goalie Coach] Leo Luongo as well - he was all over me a little bit in the summer to try and get me to sign here,” said Conacher. “I kind of kept them in the loop and let them know as soon as I was ready to go that I would love to come join this team and hopefully be an asset for them in the playoffs. They thought the same thing and we ended up getting a deal done.”
Sanguinetti’s connection to Conacher goes back to the 2014-15 season when the duo starred for a Utica Comets club that eventually won the Eastern Conference.
“From that year in Utica when we went to the finals, just to see his compete is the biggest thing,” said Sanguinetti on his impression playing with Conacher. “Guys that have been in that moment on a big stage, that goes a long way when you get to the playoffs.”
Conacher, who is in his 12th season as a pro, has spent his fair share of time on those big stages.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to be on some special teams in my career,” he said. “I was with Norfolk my first full AHL season [2011-12] and we won 28 games in a row heading into the playoffs and then we went 15-3 in the playoffs and won the Calder Cup. The reason I know Bobby Sanguinetti is we went to a Calder Cup final as well together - unfortunately we lost - and then I went to another final with Syracuse that we unfortunately lost. I’ve been with Tampa when they made some pretty long runs.”
That pedigree was the first thing Checkers Head Coach Geordie Kinnear pointed to upon Conacher’s signing.
“You look at Cory, he’s been a winner and has probably defied the odds along the way with his career,” said Kinnear. “What I like when talking with him is that he’s hungry. You look at Zac Dalpe and why he’s been successful, it’s because he’s hungry and has a passion to play the game. Cory fits that category.”
Adding another player from that category to the room just reinforces what Kinnear and the coaching staff have been building since day one.
“I know what it takes,” said Conacher. “I hate losing more than I like winning at times, it’s just the way I am - I’m a very competitive guy on and off the ice.”
As far as a veteran jumping onto a team that is clicking and gaining momentum down the home stretch, that’s a scenario familiar to Sanguinetti - who joined the 2018-19 Checkers squad midway through that season and helped guide them to a Calder Cup.
“A lot of it is similar if you look at the years, it’s the close-knit team,” said Sanguinetti. “I look back to that year and it was an easy transition for me because of the core and the leadership group that was here. This is no different. That’s going to make it a whole lot easier to gel with them and find his role.”
“It was pretty obvious from right when I got here that it’s a close group,” said Conacher. “In the room there’s a lot of joking around and everyone is on the same page. It’s been a fun few weeks for me so far getting to know the guys and the coaching staff and getting to know the standards and structure and culture of the team. I can already tell this is a team that can go on a run and hopefully do well in the playoffs.”
Conacher has skated in each of Charlotte’s last five contests - logging a goal and an assist along the way - but after so much time away from the rink, the real work is happening at practice.
“It’s nice to get in those games,” said Conacher. “But at the same time, like today it was an optional off day but I need to get in shape and I need to be ready for those playoff series that are pretty intense. I’m doing as much as I can now to get my legs back and get my strength back and stuff like that.”
“We just want to get him up to speed with the conditioning aspect,” said Kinnear. “When you miss that much time it’s hard, and when you start worrying about your legs, the shots don’t go in. I give him a lot of credit, he’s come in here and worked extremely hard.”
When Conacher hits the ice he continues to work at becoming the impact player that can help Charlotte make a push toward the ultimate prize. Given the year he’s just gone through, he’s also enjoying the ride.
“Every time I come to the rink it’s exciting,” he said. “For a long time it wasn’t, just because I felt off for the longest time. Now that they got that figured out it’s nice to come to the rink without that on my mind and just to be able to have fun with such a good group of guys.”
With the long road to recovery now behind him, Conacher is beginning his return to North America in earnest - with his family in tow.
“My son now is four and he’s finally starting to understand what I do for a living,” said Conacher. “It’s a very cool experience for me, to see him in the tunnel here when I go out on the ice and giving high fives to all the guys and seeing how excited he is. It’s special.”