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TALL ORDER

12/02/2011 12:04 AM -

Chris Conner exhibits the kind of determination that puts him head and shoulders above most players in the AHL.

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky famously said that the secret to being a great player is skating to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.

The truth is that the puck seems to find some players more than others. Whether they’re quicker, cover more ground, hungrier or just have better hockey instincts, certain players are like magnets when the puck is around them.

Chris Conner is one of those players – a contention confirmed as much by his gap-toothed grin as by his statistics, which show that he’s scored at nearly a point-per-game pace at the AHL level.

Conner has been missing both of his front teeth plus a third tooth almost his entire professional career. After wearing a helmet cage during his collegiate career at Michigan Tech, he lost all three on the same play in 2006. It was only his fifth game as a pro.

“I was thinking I still had the cage. I remember looking at the puck like it was going to hit the cage and there was nothing there,” he said, recalling the cross-ice pass from a teammate that led to his dental disaster.

“I knew the puck had hit me in the mouth, but I still went to forecheck until I felt something come out of my mouth and I started tasting blood.

“I went back to the bench and the trainer looked at me and asked, ‘Did you have any teeth before?’ I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he said, ‘Well, you don’t any more.’”

Needless to say, it hurt.

“It didn’t seem like it at the time, but the whole process was probably the most painful experience I’ve ever been through,” said Conner, who underwent surgery later to have implants put into the bone.

His tale may not rival the story of Washington Capitals center Eric Belanger pulling out his own tooth during a 2010 playoff game (check out the cringe-worthy video on YouTube), but it says something about Conner’s toughness.

Much is made of Conner’s lack of physical stature, but he finds great gratification in proving that he’s capable of playing with the big boys. He may be several inches shy of six feet, but his skills are hardly dwarfed in comparison.

“Obviously if I could be six foot tall, I would love it, but I’m not, so I pride myself on playing as strong as the bigger guys,” he said. “I try not to play my size.

“I want to get into the corners and get the puck first. I’m not afraid to go to the net or take on those big guys. I’ve had to prove myself my entire career. I don’t know any other way.”

Conner long ago found himself an ally in Vancouver Canucks center Ryan Kesler, who grew up in the same Livonia neighborhood not far from the city limits of Detroit.

Today at 6-foot-2, Kesler towers over his pal like characters out of Twins, the comedy starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito. But there was a time when the height differential was much less.

“We met in kindergarten – we were wearing the same Batman shirt,” Conner recalls. “We started talking and then we realized that we lived down the street from each other and we both played hockey.”

The fast friends played together as youngsters and both attended Churchill High School before parting ways for college: Kesler to Ohio State University, Conner to Michigan Tech.

Conner loved his time in Houghton. “I had heard about the snow, but I had never seen that much,” he recalled. “One of the winters I think it snowed like 50 or 60 straight days. You get used to it, and between school and hockey, I couldn’t really complain.”

In four seasons with the Huskies, Conner had 129 points in 151 games. “I wish we would have had a better team and won more games, but as far as a learning experience goes, it was great,” he said. “My teammates were awesome and I gained some friendships that I will have the rest of my life.”

One of his teammates during his freshman year was Griffins defenseman Greg Amadio, who was a senior at the time. “We were actually stall mates,” Conner recalled. “He took me under his wing a little bit and showed me the ropes.”

Undrafted, Conner made his professional debut with the AHL’s Iowa Stars at the end of the 2005-06 season. He subsequently signed a two-year contract with the Dallas Stars, with whom he would see action in 71 NHL games over the next three seasons.

His first NHL goal came on Dec. 27, 2006 against the Colorado Avalanche in Denver.

“It was a great feeling,” he recalled. “I had come around the net for a wraparound and the puck went all the way out to the point. Trevor Daley shot the puck and I went to the front where the puck was bouncing around and I managed to put it into the net.”

Ready for a change of scenery, Conner signed a one-year deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins during the summer of 2009. He spent the majority of the season that followed in the AHL, but played most of the 2010-11 campaign in the NHL after re-signing with the Penguins.

Conner played 60 games in Pittsburgh last season after he was recalled on Nov. 12, 2010. The Penguins subsequently went on a 14-0-1 tear with their newfound sparkplug in place.

As part of the self-proclaimed “Buzz Line” with rookie center Mark Letestu and fourth-year pro Tyler Kennedy, Conner provided a needed boost of adrenalin to the Penguins lineup. Playing third-line minutes, he tallied seven goals and nine assists.

“Last year was a big step for me,” he said. “Playing more of an energy type of role, I learned a lot about playing defensively. It made me a better two-way player.”

Conner enjoyed playing for Grand Haven native Dan Bylsma, who kept the Penguins near the top of the standings for most of the season despite the extended losses of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, two of the team’s biggest stars.

“It was an awesome experience,” he said. “We kept winning games and staying in the race because, although we didn’t have our top guys in the lineup, we played a structured system that kept everyone on the same page.”

Conner had hoped his play had earned him a full-time NHL contract.

“I’ve got nothing but good things to say about the organization,” he said, but once it was clear that the Penguins were not going to offer him a one-way deal, he decided to look elsewhere.

Although Conner knew the Red Wings already had more than their quota of forwards on the roster, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to cast his lot with the team of his boyhood fancy.

“Obviously, Detroit is a great organization,” Conner said. “It really wasn’t that hard of a decision for me.”

He was also swayed by the chance to play close to home. Conner lives in Plymouth with his wife Lindsay, and their two children: son Caden, who turns three in February, and daughter Brynnlee, who will celebrate her first birthday next May.

“Moving is never your first choice,” Conner said. “To get up and move everyone is always kind of a pain, so it was definitely a factor in the decision. I liked the idea of staying close to home.”

Conner would be the first to admit that parenthood gave him a new perspective.

“People tell you how great it is, but when it happens, you discover that it’s this most unbelievable thing,” he said. “It’s nice to come home to them and realize that hockey’s fun, but it’s not everything. They bring so much joy to my life.”

Fatherhood also provided a strong sense of responsibility. “They motivate you to do well, to provide for them and make sure they have a good life,” he said.

Even playing in Grand Rapids, Conner tries to go home as often as he can. “I live near the airport, so they’re only about 90 minutes away. It’s a pretty easy drive and I don’t mind it.”

Conner and Kesler still get together every summer to do offseason training. “It’s nice to know someone who has had the success that he’s had,” Conner said of his friend, the 2011 Selke Trophy winner as the NHL’s top defensive forward. “He works hard, but we definitely push each other.”

Conner got off to a strong start with the Griffins, tallying 16 points in the first 12 games, and his breathtaking speed helped him tie a Griffins record with two shorthanded goals in one game, a 3-0 win at Hamilton on Oct. 18. But he won’t be satisfied until he reaches his goal of returning to the NHL.

“I want to keep improving and do whatever I can to help the Griffins win games,” he said. “When you have success as a team, success usually comes for individuals on the team as well.”

He has accepted the fact that he will have to once again prove that he is worthy of a recall to the NHL. “I’m still learning how to deal with the ups and downs,” he said.

“It’s not easy, but at the same time you’ve got to keep working on those things that will get you to the next level. In my head, I know I can play in the NHL. Knowing that you can is the first step and I know I can, so you have to keep proving yourself until you get there and stick.”



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