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‘Passionate’ Conroy sees brighter days ahead steering Flames in new direction

Calgary Flames Craig Conroy Craig Conroy - The Canadian Press

Not long after the Calgary Flames selected Johnny Gaudreau in the fourth round of the 2011 NHL draft, the franchise began the process of convincing the high-scoring Boston College forward to commit his pro hockey future to southern Alberta.

That meant multiple summer trips to New Jersey for then-general manager Jay Feaster to visit with the Gaudreau family. Along for the ride was recently retired Flames forward Craig Conroy, who was then serving as a special assistant to Feaster.

“We were trying to make sure we had Johnny Hockey locked and loaded,” Feaster said in a recent interview. “We knew we weren’t going to get him out after his freshman or sophomore year of school, but we made those pilgrimages on a regular basis in the summer. [Conroy] and I would get on a flight, and we’d go to Jersey and drive to his dad’s rink and be with Johnny and his mom and dad and advisor and try to get them comfortable with what the Flames organization was about.”

Gaudreau won the Hobey Baker Award as the top NCAA hockey player in 2014 and could have played his full college career before signing. Instead, he committed to Calgary after his junior season.

Feaster believes Conroy’s personable nature and passion for the city and organization were vital in that decision. He says Gaudreau’s family felt at ease talking with another American who had played college hockey and forged an NHL career in Canada.

“The biggest thing is he’s an honest guy,” Feaster said of the 51-year-old Conroy. “He’s a good human being. He’s a good family man. He’s a good father. He’s very genuine. Those things come through very quickly when you’re dealing with him.

“…Here’s a family that’s going to be sending their son away. [Gaudreau] hadn’t been as far away from the family as Calgary, Alberta. It’s about them feeling comfortable that this is not just another widget on the assembly line of the factory of the Calgary Flames. This is a flesh and blood human being and somebody the organization cares about and wants to nurture and develop and have in Calgary for a career. Craig is somebody that exuded that.”

A decade after those trips to New Jersey, Gaudreau’s departure from the Flames served as an important lesson Conroy said will shape his first months on the job as the franchise’s new GM.

Conroy, serving as an assistant GM under Brad Treliving, watched as the organization let Gaudreau enter the 2021-22 season without a new contract. The team thought it had a deal done with the perennial all-star after the season, but he ultimately left for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The lesson: Don’t let good players play out the final season of their deals without having extensions in place. It’s a situation he faces in the weeks ahead, with seven Flames players – including top-line centre Elias Lindholm and long-time Flame Mikael Backlund – eligible for extensions on July 1 before becoming free agents next summer. 

"I don't think I would let that happen again,” Conroy said at his introductory news conference on Tuesday. “When [Gaudreau] didn’t [re-sign], it was disappointing. It came right down to the last minute. But then you think ‘Uh-oh, you just lost your best asset, one of your best players of all time and you didn’t get anything for him.’”

Conroy’s enthusiasm for Calgary is a big reason he’s now a general manager. As a Flames player for more than 500 games over nine seasons, he saw almost everything – the low points of the franchise playing in front of empty seats at the Saddledome in the early 2000s, the 2004 Stanley Cup Final run under Darryl Sutter, and seeing his own role shift from checker to top-line centre and back.

Through it all, Conroy remained dedicated to the community and the consummate team leader.

“He’s got everything we’re looking for in terms of character, integrity, passion, knowledge of our organization and knowledge of Calgary, this market, and what our fans want,” said Flames president of hockey operations Don Maloney on Tuesday. 

“I think he’s put in so much time,” said former teammate Jarome Iginla in April, adding that his former linemate was underrated throughout his playing career. “I know what he does behind the scenes. I know how passionate he is, and I think he’d be great for it.”

Conroy retired partway through the 2010-11 season after getting waived by the team and had a conversation with then-Flames president Ken King about his next steps. After pondering coaching and media opportunities, Conroy realized he still wanted to chase a Stanley Cup in Calgary – this time in management.

“I’m ready to accept this next challenge and promise to our fans I’m going to do everything I can to bring another Stanley Cup here,” Conroy said on Tuesday. “I have a passion for this team. I have a passion for this city.”

Brent Sutter, who coached Conroy in 2010-11, said the two spoke about a future for Conroy in the Flames front office during that final season of his playing career.

“He brings the energy, enthusiasm, and he’s looking at [the role] the right way,” Sutter said. “He’s a positive person by nature and yet he can get fired up…I think he’s going to do an awesome job. He has a vision and it’s a real good vision.

“…Connie’s an intelligent person and a very positive guy. He would be a sponge. He would take everything in. He’s been a part of a lot there and that’s how you get groomed and learn.”

Conroy’s diligence and leadership date back to his days at Clarkson University, where he played four seasons (1990 to 1994) and served as a co-captain of the Golden Knights.

“He was a dominant player on the ice, very unselfish. He distributed the puck very well,” said college coach Mark Morris. “He just had a knack for making great plays at the right time. He also was a fierce competitor. When the puck dropped, Mr. Nice Guy went out the window…he played an honest game, and it was easy for his teammates to follow his lead.”

Much has been written about Conroy’s hockey acumen, but it is his character that was the biggest reason Maloney made the pivotal decision to choose him over more than 30 other candidates vying to lead the Flames after Treliving’s departure in April.

Colleagues within the organization were rooting for him because of his positivity and enthusiasm. For a franchise coming off one of its most disappointing campaigns, brighter days seem to be ahead thanks to this new direction. 

“Every day you come into the office, and you want to see Connie,” Feaster said. “You want to be able to talk to him and interact with him and you’re going to walk away from that experience, no matter what the issues are or how difficult it may be, Craig’s the kind of guy that you spend time with him, you walk away feeling good.”