Lanny McDonald. Mike Vernon. Theoren Fleury. Jarome Iginla. Just a few of the names that come to mind when thinking of the legends of the Calgary Flames that have spanned the franchise’s 30-year history. Who can forget the image of Big Mac and his even bigger mustache lifting the coveted Cup, or a young Theo Fleury’s passionate celebration after scoring an overtime game-winning goal? In the later half of the Flames’ ongoing pursuit of another dance with Lord Stanley, Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff became the franchise’s household names, and although both are no longer represent the flaming ‘C,’ are still engrained in every Flames fan’s memory along with their legendary predecessors.
But out of the spotlight, a constant presence and an undeniable source of leadership stands in a man who has quietly impacted the franchise in numerous ways.
An American-born centerman, Craig Conroy began his professional hockey career in 1990 as a member of the Montreal Canadiens. His rookie year in the NHL was spent mostly with the Canadiens’ junior affiliate (presumably as the result of a rocky relationship with the team’s volatile star goaltender Patrick Roy), playing only six games in the big show.
Struggling to balance his natural offensive skill with the Habs’ intention for him to become more defensive-minded, Conroy failed to secure a permanent spot on the roster, and was traded to the St. Louis Blues in October of 1996.
Craig Conroy, Selke Finalist
Although once again the Potsdam, NY native had to work his way up starting on the Blues’ farm team, Conroy seemed to have found his touch under the direction of head coach Joel Quenneville. A successful marriage of offense and defense made him a finalist for the Selke trophy the following season.
At the start of the new millennium, Conroy was dealt to the Calgary Flames in return for Cory Stillman. Stillman, whose previous two 20+ goal seasons with the Flames had garnered him a lot of attention from the Calgary fanbase, was one of the leading scorers of late for the Flames, and as a result of his trade, Conroy did not receive the warmest of welcomes to the Stampede City.
However, it didn’t take long for the Calgary Flames faithful to become Conroy converts. In Jarome Iginla, Conroy found the perfect match. The two quickly developed a great chemistry off the ice, a relationship that did wonders for the pair’s on-ice chemistry. In their first year playing together, Iginla broke the 50-goal mark (Iginla listed his new friend as one of the main reasons behind his breakout season after reaching this milestone) and Conroy reached a career-high 28-goal season.
In a short amount of time Conroy went from unpopular newbie to one half of a dynamic duo, integral to the Flames’ rising success. So much so that he was awarded co-captaincy the following year along with Bob Boughner.
What followed were the Calgary Flames’ modern “Golden Years,” led by Iginla and Conroy, and solidified by the addition of a stoic yet terrific Finnish goaltender by the name of Miikka Kiprusoff.
The 2003-2004 season quickly went down in franchise history, with the team making a a cup run all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. Second only to Jarome Iginla in playoff points (Conroy had 17 to Iginla’s 22), the 33-year old was unquestionably one of the major factors in the team’s success.
In the span of four years Craig Conroy forged an unbreakable relationship with his teammates and gained the love and respect of the Calgary Flames fanbase. He became an honorary Calgarian and the embodiment of leadership for the team.
But uncertainty caused by the ensuing NHL lockout (among a vast range of other emotions brought about by the third lockout in league history), had Conroy seriously considering his place on the team. In a decision that felt like a slap to the face for pretty much anyone who followed his short time with the Flames, Conroy announced that following the lockout he would be signing with the Los Angeles Kings.The absence of his best bud and a lack of chemistry with his new teammates hindered Conroy’s performance with the Kings, and after playing only two of the four years guaranteed by his Californian contract, Conroy found himself back in the Saddledome late in the 2007 season with a red sweater on.
The homecoming show put on in his second game back with the Flames answered any questions about where Conroy’s heart truly lay. Against the Kings, a visibly emotional Conroy was half the reason (literally) that the Flames were able to beat the visiting team 4-1. With two goals on the night, Conroy brought the hometown fans to their feet, and post-game, the tearful star of the evening said the experience “surpassed all expectations.”
It was clear that Conroy wanted to carry out the rest of his career as a Calgary Flame, but at the age of 36, and plagued by a series of injuries, the next three years did not see much of the veteran on the ice.
One year shy of his 40th birthday, Conroy played his 1000th NHL game, with over half of them being played as a member of the Flames.
With rumors running rampant about his impending retirement, Conroy played only nine more games following the milestone before announcing that he would be hanging up his skates. Easygoing and affable as ever, Conroy teased the media with a back-and-forth on his decision on whether or not he really wanted to retire.
But when all was said and done, it was clear that his playing career was over, and Conroy could no longer join his teammates on the ice as part of a competitive team.
Still, Conroy was not ready to cut ties with the franchise that he had come to love and become an intrinsic part of in the later half of his 17-year professional career. And neither was the franchise itself.
Immediately following his retirement, Conroy was offered a management position, and before he could even hang up his jersey, Conroy was suiting up as a special assistant to the general manager.
Three years later, holding the same position, Conroy is as prevalent to the franchise as ever. Known as a charmer and nothing less than a pure gentleman (hence several Lady Byng nominations throughout his playing career), Conroy’s smiling face is regularly seen in attendance at home games, at every Flames charity event, and often in wards at the Alberta Children’s Hospital, visiting young fans. His opinion was one of the most sought-after in the wake of the Iginla trade to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and it was only Conroy who Ryan Howse would speak to when facing the decision on whether or not to pursue a contract with the Calgary Flames in 2013.
The magnitude of what Craig Conroy is to the Flames is something that can’t be argued. He may not have been the flashiest player to ever play, nor the most skilled, and although his tenure with the Flames may not see his jersey raised to the rafters to join the likes of Lanny and Mike Vernon, it certainly has cemented him as one of the most valuable individuals in the franchise’s modern history, both on the ice and off.
Graduate of Mount Royal University’s Journalism program and a freelance sports writer from Calgary, Alberta.