'Dream big' drives Lightning's Conacher brothers

Published September 21 2017

BRANDON — Two words: Dream big.

Cory Conacher includes them every time he signs an autograph for a young hockey fan.

"That's the motto I go by," he said after a recent practice.

The Lightning forward, who is on a one-way contract, stands 5 feet 8, nearly half a foot shorter than the average height in the NHL.

But that is just part of his motivation.

Conacher, 27, was born with bladder exstrophy, a condition in which the bladder is outside the body. He was 10 days old when doctors reconstructed his pelvis. His mother, Debbie, was told her little boy might never walk normally.

Conacher had had two more surgeries by the time was 5. His bladder is one-eighth the size of a normal one, which brings about frequent trips to the bathroom.

Then when he was 8, he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.

"He's a battler. That's his nature," Debbie said. "And always smiling. A pretty special boy."

Cory's younger brother, Shane, 23, is a forward in Lightning camp as a free agent. He, too, dreams big. Shane, who followed Cory to Canisius College, hopes to follow his brother to the NHL.

"He deserves to be at the professional level and deserves at least a chance to play at the NHL level during his career, because he's a good player, a smart player," Cory said of Shane.

This is the first time the two Burlington, Ontario, natives have been on the same team. They have played against each other once, last season in the AHL, when Cory was with Syracuse and Shane was with Toronto. Though Shane played on the fourth line, he was sent out for the opening faceoff so he could line up against his big brother.

"That was a special moment," Shane said.

Cory has played a combined 152 NHL games for four teams over six seasons, including 11 last year with the Lightning. If Shane does reach the NHL, he will continue a Conacher legacy that goes back to the famed Conacher brothers, Charlie, Roy and Lionel. They are distant relatives, cousins of a great-grandfather.

But blood is blood.

Charlie, Roy and Lionel are Hall of Famers. Cory and Shane have skated under Charlie's retired No. 9 that hangs from the rafters of the Maple Leafs' Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

"It's awesome to have that name on the back of my jersey," Cory said. "Hopefully I represent it well. If I could be half the player he was, it would be awesome."

Dream big.

Finding topics for middle school projects was easy, Cory said, when you have three Hall of Fame relatives to write about. Shane was asked about his lineage from time to time last season while playing in Toronto.

Oh, and Charlie and Lionel had sons who played in the NHL, and Roy had a nephew who played in the league as well.

No pressure, though, right?

"No," Shane said. "But it is pretty crazy."

Cory speaks to children born with bladder exstrophy or dealing with diabetes. His message is the same.

"I tell them doctors will say this and that," Cory said. "I'm honored to be able to play at such a high level. I'm able to walk, so I don't have any excuses. I'm not in a wheelchair.

"(Bladder exstrophy is) a severe condition, but at the same time, it doesn't limit me from playing hockey and doing what I love. I tell kids that. It's something you have to take care of, but it won't limit you from fulfilling your dreams."

Just dream big.

Noteworthy: The Lightning made three cuts Thursday, assigning all three players to their junior teams: F Boris Katchouk (Sault St. Marie, OHL), D Cal Foote (Kelowna, WHL) and D Libor Hajek (Saskatoon, WHL).