Editor’s note: Chris Conner was recalled to Detroit this morning, along with defenseman Doug Janik and goaltender Jordan Pearce.
By Kyle Kujawa –
If there’s a sheet of ice in the state of Michigan, then there’s a good chance that Grand Rapids Griffins forward Chris Conner has skated on it.
Conner has had the rare opportunity to play youth, college and professional hockey in Michigan, spreading from his current residence in Grand Rapids, to his college days in the Upper Peninsula and, most recently, with the Detroit Red Wings, the team he idolized while learning the basics of the game from some of Michigan’s most prestigious youth programs.
“I played for Little Caesars, Compuware and Honeybaked growing up,” said Conner, a native of Livonia. “I was jumping around from team to team. I was trying to go to where some of my friends were going.”
Conner noted that many of his lifelong friendships have stemmed from the early morning practices at local rinks and tournaments in multiple states and countries. One of Conner’s closest friends is Vancouver Canucks forward Ryan Kesler, who grew up a few doors down his street.
“Obviously, Ryan’s done really well for himself,” Conner said. “There’s a lot of guys I grew up with who are still playing now. It’s always nice to see them, and you talk about other guys who played with who were good and who got weeded out.”
Competitive programs helped pave the way for Conner’s path to the NHL. He enjoyed having the ability to jump from team to team, while still being able to play a tough schedule with reasonable travel, compared to other states that might not have as many options for young players.
“Michigan’s great for youth hockey,” said the 28-year-old winger. “I think the competition is great. With all the teams, you can tell that it’s growing and getting better all the time.
“There are some teams now that weren’t around when I grew up. I remember the Fraser Falcons were always really good, along with Compuware, Little Caesars, Honeybaked, and even some of the teams from Chicago.”
After his junior career ended and he graduated high school, Conner was looking to transition directly to college. When the opportunity to stay in state and attend Michigan Tech came up, he jumped at the chance.
“They approached me in a very professional manner from Day 1,” said Conner, who tallied 129 points (69-60—129) in 151 games with the Huskies. “Being from Michigan, staying in the state was nice. I wanted to go right into college, too. My time there was great, I was happy with my decision.”
Conner signed a tryout contract with the AHL’s Iowa Chops following his senior season, a decision that eventually landed him his first NHL contract with the Dallas Stars. He remained in their organization for three seasons before latching on with Pittsburgh from 2009-11. He entered this season with 174 points (72-102—174) in 218 AHL games and 40 points (16-24—40) in 139 NHL contests.
When the Red Wings came knocking this July offering a chance for Conner to return to Michigan and play closer to his family, including his wife Lindsay and their two young children, the decision was easy. He started the season and quickly found himself among the AHL’s top five scorers, before getting a shot to prove himself with Detroit, his favorite team growing up.
“I was really excited to get the opportunity,” he said. “You can always dream about how cool it would be to play for the hometown team, but to actually get to do it was a really awesome experience.”
Conner posted a goal and two assists in seven games with the Red Wings before returning to the Griffins in early January. He notched his first goal as a Red Wing on Dec. 10 versus Winnipeg, when a centering feed for Dan Cleary banked in off a defenseman. Although it wasn’t quite the goal he dreamed up playing street hockey in Livonia, the moment will certainly rank among his favorites when his playing days are over.
“They usually don’t ask how it goes in,” he said with a laugh. “I’ll take whatever I can get. We won the game, which was a big bonus. I just want to do anything I can to help the team win. Obviously, you’d like to have a nice breakaway or something, but I was just happy to get one in.”