TAMPA, Fla. — Cory Conacher unlaced his skates, and he spoke with mixed emotions.
More than seven hours before puck drop, he prepared for another game at Tampa Bay Times Forum in an unfamiliar, cramped visitors dressing room. His black undershirt, stained with sweat, read, “PROPERTY OF SENATORS.” Ruffled Ottawa Senators jerseys were tossed into a large black hamper near the center of the space. Down the hall, his former team — the lone NHL franchise he had known for the first 35 games of his career — carried on without him.
Conacher sat at his locker Tuesday, shortly after addressing a large media contingent, and he continued a morning of change. Six days had passed since the 23-year-old center was traded from the Tampa Bay Lightning to Ottawa in exchange for goalie Ben Bishop and a fourth-round pick in the upcoming draft. Memories of his former home remained fresh.
“I’ve got to give credit to Ottawa and all the players on Ottawa for helping me feel at home and feel like I’m wanted here,” Conacher told FOXSportsFlorida.com. “They’ve done a good job of doing that. There are a lot of great leaders on this team and a lot of good people. It’s important to have that on a team in order to have that chemistry.”
Conacher was honest and revealing about his Tampa Bay return. He said he had built solid relationships with some Lightning players, but he looked forward to developing new connections in Ottawa. He said that off the ice, he had friends wearing the Bolt, but within the rink, “it’s just going to be a battle.” He said that there were no hard feelings between him and his former franchise, but he wanted his current team to win all the same.
His return to Tampa Bay Times Forum, for the Senators’ game against the Lightning, represented the continuation of a new chapter for him. In the first two games since the trade, he had earned one goal and a plus-minus rating of plus-3.
Conacher’s Lightning career was brief. Tampa Bay signed the 5-foot-8, 179-pound native of Burlington, Ontario, as a free agent on July 5, 2011. He had nine goals and 24 points and was considered one of the franchise’s rising young talents.
To him, the trade came as a shock. He learned of his departure from media reports before Lightning vice president and general manager Steve Yzerman relayed the news.
“It will be a little surreal,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper, also Conacher’s coach in the American Hockey League, said Tuesday morning. “I’ve gone to war with that kid for a year and a half. It was one of those trades, I just think that was a hockey trade. It helped both teams. I don’t think there will ever be a winner or loser out of that trade. I think it was a win-win. But it hurts.”
That’s the takeaway from Conacher’s departure. Sometimes, pain is necessary to move forward. The trade was needed for Tampa Bay to secure a talent like Bishop, who the Lightning hope can add depth in an area of their greatest weakness. Sometimes, hard choices must be made.
Still, the differences were stark. On one side of the hall at Tampa Bay Times Forum — in a small room where Cooper stood — there were words of praise, nostalgia and thanks for Conacher’s impact. On the other — where the young player’s new life was found — there were words of anticipation for where this partnership could lead.
“His offensive ability and his upside are unbelievable,” Ottawa winger Chris Neil said. “To see a guy at his size, how he works and he competes, he’s never down and out. He reminds me a lot of (Martin) St. Louis and his competitive level. He has always been told that he’s never going to make it. He has proved everyone wrong.”
“He adds speed and skill,” Ottawa coach Paul MacLean said. “He has good vision with the puck. We think, right now, the chemistry developing with (winger Jakob) Silfverberg and (center Mika) Zibanejad has been very good. That line has been very good in the two games that he has played. They have the ability to hang onto the puck. With the three of them, they are very skilled, and they see the ice well. So far, we like the way that it has gone.”
Both Conacher and the Senators will learn more about the other in future time spent together. But for a moment Tuesday, with memories of a former life fresh, the young player was given a chance to look back.
“That was the first time in my life that I got traded from a team,” Conacher said, dressed in his new colors. “It’s definitely hard to leave some of those guys.”