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Tech's Conner relished GLI games

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
Red Wings forward Chris Conner played in eight GLI games for Michigan Tech, scoring four goals with four assists and 31 shots on goal.
DETROIT – He was never the tallest or strongest boy in his suburban Detroit neighborhood, but what Chris Conner lacked, he more than made up for with speed, determination and hard work.

The son of Scott and Tami Conner, both blue-collar workers in Detroit’s once vast automotive industry, Chris Conner learned about drudgery and sacrifice at an early age.

“They’ve instilled hard work in me, and I’ve instilled it in myself as well, because I don’t want – 10-15 years down the road – to say that if I had worked hard I might have made it,” said Chris Conner, who was called up from Grand Rapids by the Red Wings at the start of the month. “I don’t know if I would be able to live with that. I just want to make sure that I do whatever possible to do the best that I can to further me career.

“My parents have done a lot, especially with time when I was younger, going to tournaments every other weekend, taking work off, and then money, too. Hockey is a pretty expensive sport growing up and so there were sacrifices that I’ve seen, but at the same time if you were to ask them they wouldn’t change a thing that they’ve done.”

Officially listed now at 5-foot-8, Conner, who was the shortest of his hockey friends during his school days in Livonia, a western suburb of Detroit, occasionally heard naysayers discount his chances of reaching the next level.

“I never heard it directly, but I might have blocked it out as well,” said Conner, of previous doubters. “But it kind of drives me and motivates me to keep going. I want to prove to those who have always said that I can’t play. It doesn’t matter what size you are, you want to come to a team and help them out and prove that you can play, and it’s certainly something that I always had to do at every level growing up.”
And that included college hockey, where there weren’t all that many options for a forward, who in most cases, was giving up nearly a foot in height to other much taller candidates.

But it wasn’t long after arriving on the Michigan Tech campus in the state’s Upper Peninsula that Conner answered his skeptics and played much taller than the measuring stick indicated. In four seasons in Houghton – situated on the banks of Lake Superior –
Conner was among the Huskies’ top offensive performers from 2002-06, scoring 69 goals with 60 assists in 151 games.

“It’s a small town, but personally I wish hockey would have gone better as far as the win-loss column,” said Conner, who is a semester short of graduating with a mechanical engineering degree. “The people that I met there are people that I’ll never forget, the friendships that I’ll have for life. It’s something that you can’t ever regret or take back and that’s the important stuff.”

Some of Conner’s fondest memories of playing collegiate hockey were the four Great Lakes Invitational tournaments that he played in at Joe Louis Arena. And though MTU didn’t win a single GLI game during that stretch, Conner was clearly the Huskies’ most dominant forward, collecting four goals and four assists in eight games at JLA.

Conner grew-up with Vancouver's Ryan Kesler as a neighbor in suburban Livonia, Michigan. The two friends still train together during the off-season.
This year’s GLI features Conner’s Huskies (9-9-1), who open the tournament against Michigan State (10-6-2) this Thursday at 4 p.m. EST. The second game features Michigan (9-8-3) taking on Boston College (12-6-0) at 7:30 p.m. The championship game is set for Friday at 7:30 p.m.

His first GLI game was against a Michigan team that was stacked with future NHL talent, like Jeff Tambellini, Jed Ortmeyer, David Moss, Al Montoya, and Andrew Ebbett. Yet while UM clobbered the Huskies 5-2 in the 2002 tourney opener, Conner scored twice and added an assist with a plus-3 rating. He also showed his feisty side, receiving a second-period roughing penalty for a skirmish with Montoya, the Wolverines’ goalie.

“I remember the goals,” Conner said. “The first one was at the end of the first period that tied it up. The puck just came loose in front and I went five-hole. The second one was late in the game when it was already out of reach, but that ended up being a five-hole goal as well. I certainly remember those.”

Current Wings teammate, and former MSU standout, Drew Miller, played two times against Conner and the Huskies – both times in the GLI – and saw first-hand just how talented Conner was.
“He was their best player, but he played in a different league than us,” Miller said, “so I would always check the stats to see that he was doing well for them and always leading their team.

“I remember him always using a tall stick in college, and I think it was taller than him, so he would be able to push the puck ahead with that good, long stick and score a lot of breakaway goals. I remember him doing that. He used to use his speed and skill with the puck, which is almost identical to what he brings to the team now – speed and skill and hockey smarts.”

Conner used that long stick with great success with a third of his collegiate goals being game-winning tallies (8) and short-handed (15).

But what Conner remembers most about playing in the GLI was that it allowed him to return home and sleep in his own bed for a few days.

“It was pretty special for me, obviously coming into a place like Joe Louis where you’ve watched games your whole life, I was pretty excited with plenty of adrenaline going on in that first game,” he said. “It was a pretty good experience, I wish it would have been a different outcome, but it was just good to play in that kind of atmosphere.”

A lot of Conner’s hockey skills and sense came from playing youth hockey in metro Detroit against local talent like Miller, Justin Abdelkader, Corey Potter and Ryan Kesler.
He used to use his speed and skill with the puck, which is almost identical to what he brings to the team now – speed and skill and hockey smarts. - Wings forward Drew Miller on Conner as a college player

But it wasn’t always about hockey with Conner, who spent plenty of time in his father’s garage tinkering with car engines as a young boy and teenager.

“He’s a hard working guy who loves his cars and loves working in his garage,” said Kesler, the Vancouver forward, who grew-up a few doors from the Conners’ Livonia home. “Just a really down-to-earth guy, and you wouldn’t know he was a hockey player just by the way he acts, and the so many different hobbies that he has. He loves the game but doesn’t talk about it too much.”

A self-described introvert, Conner still enjoys working on automobiles, particularly his favorite Ford Mustang that he occasionally races at Milan Dragway during summer months.

“Hockey was my main love and when I wasn’t doing that my dad and I were messing around with cars,” he said. “Cars are just something that I’ve grown up around.”

While Conner and Kesler are a year apart in age – Conner’s 28, Kesler’s 27 – and weren’t classmates, though they went to the same Livonia public schools, the two were inseparable as young boys playing on local youth teams and on the makeshift rink in Kesler’s backyard.

“We had good times when his dad would build the rink in the backyard,” Conner said. “We were pretty competitive, I would say. I would have a bloody nose or he would go home with a bloody nose, but it was good. We’ve been friends for a long time, and it’s been fun to see both of us do good and stick with it.”

The two neighborhood friends have always gotten along like brothers, and even resorting to fisticuffs from time to time, but always reconciling.

“We’ve definitely had some bruises and there was the one time that he cross-checked me across the face and gave me a nice shiner, so boys will be boys, right?” said Kesler, the Best Man in Conner’s wedding five years ago. “We were together all of the time; we would fight all of the time, but we still had each other’s backs, and he was my best friend growing up, and we’re still extremely close.”

Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @RooseBill

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