As a two-time Hobey Baker Award finalist, two-time First Team All American, and college graduate, Ty Conklin has had success follow him around as though he were a magnet. Three very successful years at the University of New Hampshire led to a free agent signing with the Edmonton Oilers in 2001. Once inside the Oiler organization, Conklin carved out his niche as the starting goaltender for its top pro affiliate, the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs.
A fantastic year in which the Bulldogs reached the Calder Cup finals has opened the door for Conklin to finally make his mark in the NHL. When he reports to his third Edmonton training camp this September, it will be with renewed confidence and drive because for the first time it appears the 27-year-old goaltender is virtually a lock to be an Oiler.
But try telling him that.
“Conks” has been around long enough to know that you get nothing handed to you in professional hockey. If he wants the job supporting Tommy Salo this year, he knows that he is going to have to earn it. And that’s fine with him.
Speaking from his fiancée’s home in Maine, Ty Conklin reflected on his career thus far and also looked ahead to the upcoming season.
Q: You’re from Alaska, how long did you live there?
A: I was born in Phoenix, Arizona actually but immediately my family moved to Alaska. My dad’s from there. I left home at about 16 or 17 to play at a high school in Minnesota then I played junior in Wisconsin for a couple of years.
Q: It’s a relatively small club of Alaskan NHLers, how familiar are you with the other players?
A: Well yeah, (laughs), it’s not like Toronto or anything but for its size, there’s been some pretty good players come out of Alaska. Brian Swanson in Edmonton all year last year, Scotty Gomez (New Jersey), Scott Parker I think is originally from Alaska, Barret Heisten (Dallas). There’s a good group.
Q: Your path to professional hockey took you through the University of New Hampshire. Why did you choose to go the college route and how was it advantageous to you in a hockey career?
A: I don’t think that the opportunity was ever there for me to play major junior. I’d wanted to go to college for a while and my folks wanted me to go too. That was kind of the goal going from high school to junior, that’s what you’re looking to do is to get a college scholarship and I was lucky enough to end up at UNH.
Q: What did you study?
A: I took business administration. (laughs) It wasn’t easy but I’m glad that I got my degree, it was pretty important to me and to my family.
Q: You had a great career in college and earned lots of awards.
A: I was surrounded by a lot of great guys and good players. Darren Haydar (Nashville) was there for three years with me and he was rookie of the year in the AHL. I played with Jason Krog (Anaheim). There was great leadership from the coaching staff right on down. It was a fun four years. I only played three, but it was fun.
Q: With all of the accolades you earned, how is it that you went undrafted?
A: I was older then! I think I started to mature goaltending-wise when I was past my 18-year-old draft years. The year I had off, I couldn’t play because I transferred from Anchorage, and I think that that helped me out a lot too. Just working a lot on my game before and after practices. I think that year was pretty instrumental in moving on and getting into a starting role.
Q: So then you are done college and you’re an unrestricted free agent eventually signing with the Oilers. How many teams were in the running for you and why did you decide on Edmonton?
A: There were a couple others but I was pretty lucky because Brian (Swanson) was in the organization. I called him up and asked him and he had nothing but great things to say. I’ve found a lot of those things to be true, I’ve been treated really well and I’ve been given an opportunity. The Oilers were the most interested and I’m glad I ended up there. It’s a great organization to start out with and with guys moving around all of the time. I’m feeling pretty happy where I am that’s for sure.
Q: I’m guessing for people in Alaska, the Oilers might even be the home team?
A: (Laughs) It is pretty close, yeah! When I started playing that was when the Oilers were winning all those Stanley Cups, so they were the powerhouse when I first started watching.
Q: You mentioned Jason Krog; did you talk to him during the playoffs?
A: No I pretty much left him alone. We were in the middle of the playoffs and they were in the middle of the playoffs so we kind of left it alone. He was up here a couple of weeks ago because we both had a wedding to go to and we played golf one day. He had a great year and he said it was all pretty exciting being in the playoffs and being in the finals. That’s the good thing about UNH, all the guys stick together and keep in touch and everybody’s happy for everybody else’s success regardless of whether it is hockey or otherwise.
Q: This will be your third Oiler training camp. In the first two, you were really close, in many people’s opinions, to earning the back up role. How hard is it to be cut?
A: It’s tough. I mean, I went there and I played well but… the spot wasn’t open. You know, I knew that going in. You go there with the intention of making the team. And when you don’t, after you play well, it’s really tough. But that’s just the way it is. It’s the same mentality going into next year; play as well as you can with the goal of making the team and that’s really all you can control. You know, your first emotion is to be pissed that you didn’t make it but you don’t control the decisions you just play as well as you can and whatever happens, happens. I know it’s a cliché but really that’s all that it comes down to, to be honest with you.
Q: You are 27 now. Has there ever been a time when you’ve been so frustrated that you felt you’d never play in the NHL, or have you always believed all along that eventually you’re still going to make it?
A: I think that’s the mentality that you have to have; I mean everybody takes their bumps. It’s just something that’s part of being a professional hockey player. You know there are going to be disappointments but you hope those disappointments will eventually be rewarded.
Q: Speaking of Hamilton, was last year odd in any way being that it was a split affiliation with the Canadiens?
A: It was a bit, especially because the guys spoke French… even though everybody spoke English, there’s still that divide. There were so many good guys, from both organizations and leadership from Claude (Julien) and Geoff (Ward) when he came in. The coaches did a great job of meshing everybody together right from the outset, it wasn’t Montreal and Edmonton; everybody was on the same team. Obviously guys are watching different things and there are different guys you have to impress but still every night we were just one team. In some respects it was tough but it turned out pretty well, obviously we fell a bit short but it was a really good year.
Q: During the season, were you expecting to get called up and was it frustrating that you didn’t get into any NHL games?
A: Well you hope to get called up and get an opportunity but it just didn’t happen this year. It’s just like training camp and you can’t control those things. I got up a little bit and backed up a couple games but my focus was in Hamilton last year.
Q: Game 2 of the Calder finals was quite the marathon. Where does that game rank in your list of career highlights?
A: (laughs heartily) It pretty high, gosh I thank God that we won that one! I tell ya; if we had lost, that would be a career low! It was exciting and we needed that game because we were down 1-0 in the series and if we didn’t get that one it was looking bleak heading back to Hamilton for three games in a row. I thought it was going to be the biggest turning point in the series but it ended up the other way around but it was an exciting game to be a part of that’s for sure.
Q: It must have been an absolutely exhausting game to play, especially for the goalies because you guys don’t get to sit.
A: Yeah well we’re just standing there half the time too though! (laughs) Just standing and staring at the other end of the ice! It was just one of those things where everybody’s jacked up, the adrenaline is going, but it was the first time in a game where you really think “God, I’m starting to really get tired!” just because it went on for so long. I mean, in a regular game you’re just so fired up you don’t really get too tired.
Q: How did you maintain your fluid intake?
A: Oh geez, you just drink as much water as you can. I actually didn’t lose all that much weight. I was eating power bars and drinking as much water as I could find, I was going through two water bottles a period. It was hot in the building. I’m sure some guys lost ten pounds out there.
Q: What was your first reaction to the news this summer that Edmonton had traded Jussi Markkanen?
A: Hopefully it was a vote of confidence for me but to be honest with you, as excited as I’d like to get it doesn’t mean that I can have anything less than a great camp and still make the team. That’s my only focus right now is to have another good camp, hopefully get a chance to play a couple games and just prove that I can do the job. I don’t think by any means that it says that I’m on the team.
Q: I think most people have you penciled in as the back-up but your mindset isn’t changing over the summer and you’re still going to come in and earn it.
A: That’s how you have to do it.
Q: How well do you know Stephen Valiquette?
A: I don’t know him at all actually. I just know that they signed him but I don’t know him. I’ve played against him a couple times and he’s played well every time we’ve played against him so he’s a good goalie.
Q: How difficult of an adjustment do you think it will be making the jump from the AHL to the NHL?
A: I’m sure that there will be a learning curve. Assuming I get a chance in the NHL with Edmonton., I think my two years in the AHL will help me a lot. There’s so many good players in the American League, obviously they are not the caliber of the guys in the NHL but they’re still good players. The jump from college to AHL was pretty substantial and I’m sure the jump to the NHL will be just that much more. I played a couple games in Edmonton a couple years ago and the speed is noticeably different. Things are just done so well, people don’t make as many mistakes and when someone gets a chance to score, you really have to make a good save. It’ll be exciting and I’m looking forward to it.
Q: Of your former Bulldog teammates, whom do you expect to seriously challenge for a roster spot with the Oilers this year?
A: I think there are a lot of guys. Bergie (Marc-Andre Bergeron) came up last year and did really well. I got to see him play against St. Louis and he had a goal and an assist I think. Jarret Stoll obviously had a great year. He’s just an extremely solid player; he’s good in every area of the ice.
Q: I’ll be talking to Jarret later this afternoon.
A: Oh are you? He’s a great kid, a great guy. Make sure he’s got a haircut; make sure he cut that mop of his!
Q: Jani Rita’s been taking a little heat this year because his totals were down and he was slumping a bit, what’s his demeanor like?
A: I think Jani Rita is extremely talented. He’s a really level-headed kid; he doesn’t get too high or too low. He is one of those guys who works through those slumps too. Everybody goes through those slumps where nothing is happening for you. I think Jani did a pretty good job this year when he was in those situations.
Q: Raffi Torres?
A: Oh man, that guy has a big hit every other shift! We had a pretty young team and he was a pretty calming influence in the room because he’d been in the playoffs the previous year. It was really good to have him.
Q: What number will you wear this year, will you stick with #1?
A: No, I’m #29. They stuck me with #1 and every time I’m up there I have it. Hopefully I’ll be #29 wherever I play next year.
Q: I think Kari Haakana had #29 last year; you might have to fight him for it if he comes back.
A: I don’t want to fight him for it. (laughs) He can have it if it comes down to that!
Q: So what are you doing in this off-season?
A: Trying to relax, we’ve only been off for just over a month now. Trying to stay in as good shape as possible, I’ll start skating again here pretty quick. I bought a new house so I’ve been trying to fix it up, there’s a lot of yard work. I never knew that owning a house was this much work, if I knew I’d be renting still!
Q: Where’s you new house?
A: It’s in New Market, NH right outside of Portsmouth. It’s the next town over from where I went to college so it’s pretty convenient to go and get a workout there.
Q: When will you be coming to Edmonton?
A: I’ll be there right around the first of September.
Q: Do you have any concerns at all about the coming CBA negotiations affecting your career?
A: I sure hope there’s no stoppage in play. To be honest I don’t know all the details. There are a lot of people that it’s going to affect that’s for sure.
Q: Finally, what would you consider to be a successful 2003-04 season for you?
A: Having a strong camp, earning a spot on the team and playing well when I get the opportunity to play. There is a number one goalie there and it’s not me, I know that. If I can give the coaching staff the confidence to put me in, that’s my first goal.