Best wishes to RJ

Cory Conacher made his Senators debut Friday. ©2013, Dan Hickling, Olean Times Herald

Former Canisius star Conacher thrilled to play in Buffalo again

Bill Hoppe     Olean Times Herald
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BUFFALO – Cory Conacher’s family and friends all had their tickets for April 14, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s first visit here this season. The homecoming promised to be a special night for the former Canisius College star, the first Golden Griffins product to crack the NHL.

The 23-year-old’s parents reserved a suite inside the First Niagara Center. The Sabres plan to honor Canisius’ recent NCAA Tournament team that night, Conacher said.

Then, in one of the more intriguing and surprising trades prior to Wednesday’s deadline, the Lightning dealt the slick rookie to the Ottawa Senators for goalie Ben Bishop.

“It’s tough, for sure,” Conacher said Friday prior to making his Senators debut in the Sabres’  4-2 win. “I got messages saying, ‘Why did this have to happen? I mean, I bought tickets already.’”

Even though it was unexpectedly moved up nine days, Conacher called his return to Buffalo “very special.”

“I have a lot of fans and family in the crowd,” he said. “It’s going to be fun for all of us.”

Conacher began Friday with nine goals and 24 points in 35 games, just a point behind Florida’s Jonathan Huberdeau for the rookie scoring lead.

The 5-foot-8 center has earned what he called a “dream season” the hard way.

Forget about going undrafted, the Toronto native received scant attention from major junior teams or big NCAA programs because of his size.

He wound up at Canisius, compiling 62 goals and 148 points in four seasons.

Despite playing in Buffalo, the Sabres never invited Conacher to one of their summer development camps, which usually has a couple of local youngsters. His roommate even participated one year.

Conacher eventually signed with Tampa Bay, quickly becoming an AHL star.

He enjoyed one of the most prolific AHL campaigns in recent memory last season, earning MVP and rookie of the year honors while scoring 39 goals and 80 points for the Norfolk Admirals, who won the Calder Cup.

The Lighting summoned Conacher from the Syracuse Crunch when the NHL lockout ended.

Playing with 5-foot-8 Lightning star Martin St. Louis, Conacher’s idol, was special. Both endured similar paths to the big leagues.

“He’s a guy I would call out in road hockey or mini-stick games to be him as a player because he’s done it all,” Conacher said. “He had to work so hard when size mattered in the league. He’s just as tall as me. So he had to battle through. He had to do a lot things to impress the coaching staffs and the GMs of the league, and he did that. He overcame a lot of adversity during his career.”

So has Conacher.

Notes: According to capgeek.com, the Sabres retained $795,000 of Pominville’s $5.5 million salary next season in Wednesday’s trade with the Wild. … Rochester has signed forward Justin Kea, the Sabres’ third-round pick in 2012, to an amateur tryout.

Related: Sabres’ Rolston impressed by Canisius product Conacher

Sabres thinking long-term after trading captain Pominville to Wild

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