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Conklin flying high -- literally -- off the ice

by Marcie Garcia
Ty Conklin is often seen flying from one side of his crease to the other as goaltender for the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings. Yes, his job keeps him steadily in anticipation of the sharp-shooting opposition or any unfortunate bounce, yet there is nowhere else he'd rather be -- unless it's 1,000 feet above ground.

Conklin, 32, who signed with the Red Wings as a free agent in July, not only holds off opponents, he also holds a steady hand as a licensed pilot when flying his Piper Super Cub -- a two-engine, two-seat aircraft -- whenever time allows in the offseason. Conklin says floating above clouds and picturesque landscapes is relaxing, and while he admits it's not the usual hobby, like his teammate's golf obsession or fast rides, it's what works for the Alaska native.

"It's exciting," Conklin said. "It is very therapeutic, but it’s also something I love doing. Everybody's got their hobbies -- they like their sports cars or whatever -- but for me it's flying my airplane. I get just as much enjoyment flying on your average day than the very first time I flew."

Born in Phoenix and raised in Anchorage, you can say that piloting was in Conklin's blood. His grandfather, a former military pilot, later took a job at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and was stationed in Anchorage. Adopting the Alaskan traditions as a youth, Conklin remembers going on hunting and fishing trips often, but instead of the usual road trip, airplanes were and remain the most convenient and common form of transportation due to Alaska's few road connections.

Despite leaving Alaska to play his college hockey with the University of New Hampshire and later with the Green Bay Gambles in the United States Hockey League, Conklin's interest in flying continued to grow. He enrolled in flight school in 2001 and got his private pilot's license in 2004.

It took longer to earn his wings due to his real job -- making the jump into the professional ranks between the American Hockey League and NHL, a fair tradeoff that made him less and less available for flight school.

"School could be difficult at some times, but if anything, it's more time consuming," Conklin said. “You have to go through stages, work and complete certain aspects, before you can move on to the next stage of training. Training is pretty rigorous. I think the minimal number of hours to get your private pilot's license is 40 hours of flying, but I'm sure the average is well over 50 or 65 hours. I think I did mine in 60 hours or so, but the reason it's so much higher than that is that everybody learns at a different pace. 

"I think a lot of people fall under the category that I do where you can't do it in one quick hit. I did three or four hours here and then I wouldn't get to fly again until a week or two, so I’d have to re-learn the things I had already learned."

Last summer, Conklin was only able to log around 20 hours of flying time while in Maine, where he and his wife reside with their three children, compared to 50 hours the summer before.

"Most of my flying I go out for an hour or hour and a half and fly around the area and land on small strips," he says. "That's what I like doing. But you have to take care of the itch. You go out flying and I’m alright for four or five days and then I fly again. Its not like I'm going on these long 10-15 hour trips or anything, but I wouldn't mind doing that either."

For now Conklin will just have to deal with getting his fix on Red Wings' road trips. At least his teammates can rest easy knowing there's a licensed pilot on board in case of an unforeseen emergency.

On second thought…
"It's not an inherently dangerous hobby, but I follow safe guidelines.  I think my wife realizes that more than likely, I'll end up coming home." -- Ty Conklin

"I wouldn't have the first clue what to do if I got in that cockpit," he says. "Maybe I'd have a better idea of what I'm looking at compared to someone who hasn't had any experience, but to be honest with you, I'd look in the cockpit and I'd see the same thing as everyone else, a bunch of lights, and buttons and knobs. I don't really know what everything is there for, but my planes a lot more simple as far as airplanes go."

With a 10-4-0 record this season, the only concern Conklin must continue to face are those flying pucks headed toward him at sometimes faster speeds than his 85-mph Super Cub. But he knows facing a pretty wrist shot is less frightening than piloting his small plane through nature's unforgiving elements, like a lightning storm.

"That would be a little more nerve-wracking, absolutely," he said with a laugh.  "I don't think I'm going to kill myself if a guy scores on me, but you certainly have to be aware of your surroundings when you're flying and you'd probably get yourself in a little more trouble if you get in those situations, than you can on the ice.

"It's not an inherently dangerous hobby, but I follow safe guidelines.  I think my wife realizes that more than likely, I'll end up coming home."

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