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Islanders' Cory Conacher overcomes health issues to live his dream

Cory Conacher of the Islanders celebrates his first-period

Cory Conacher of the Islanders celebrates his first-period goal against the Carolina Hurricanes with teammates Nick Leddy and Kyle Okposo at Nassau Coliseum on Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Dream big.

Cory Conacher has written the words countless times in the course of his hockey career. The Islanders' 24-year-old center has scrawled it on sticks and programs and whatever else he has been handed to autograph. It is a fitting motto for a man who stands 5-8 in a league in which the average height is a little more than 6-1.

Yet a lack of size isn't the biggest hurdle Conacher has faced in his improbable journey to the NHL. He has made it to the pinnacle of his profession despite having to manage two serious health conditions, diabetes and bladder exstrophy, a rare and serious condition in which a baby is born with the bladder outside of his body.

Dream big? It hasn't always been easy to do.

Conacher has had to endure multiple surgeries, including, he said, a 10-hour procedure just five days after his birth in which doctors reconstructed his pelvis.

He has lived with a bladder that he said is one-eighth the size of an average person's, meaning that as a child, he frequently had to leave class to go to the bathroom and still gets up several times at night. His toughest challenge, however, may have been learning how to deal with adults who didn't understand his condition and with coaches who didn't want to have a player with health challenges on their team.

That's why Conacher said he wants to tell his story and reach out to kids with similar challenges and let them know about the power of dreaming big.

"I want kids to know that the sky is the limit as long as they take care of themselves," said Conacher, who signed a free-agent contract with the Islanders in July. "Some kids don't have understanding teachers. Or there's bullying that can go on. I want to share my story with them and encourage them to do whatever they want to do."

Conacher's story began in Burlington, Ontario. Shortly after giving birth to her son, Debbie Conacher was told he had a condition that affects only 1 in approximately 45,000 births and that he was going to need multiple surgeries.

"We were told that he might never walk normally because of damage to his pelvis," Debbie said. "He was in traction, he was in an L shape where his legs were up, and couldn't be picked up for nine and a half weeks. It was horrendous."

Cory had two more surgeries at ages 3 and 5, she said. The one when he was 3 left him having painful, labor-like bladder spasms for three weeks. Debbie and her family would take shifts in the hospital rubbing Cory's feet because it was the only thing that took his mind off the pain.

"It was the worst three weeks of my life, and then when he got home, he had forgotten how to walk," she said. "His legs were like spaghetti."

Conacher's legs had atrophied because of the traction, and it took him months to regain his strength. Once he did, however, it seemed there was little stopping him.

Hockey in his blood

Conacher is a famous hockey name in Canada. The Conacher brothers -- Hockey Hall of Famers Lionel, Charlie and Roy -- are cousins of Cory's great-grandfather, he said.

Cory began playing organized hockey at age 5, and after that, he always seemed to have a hockey stick in his hand. There was little doubt what his big dream was.

And then he started to get thirsty, waking up several times a night to ask for a glass of water.

That's when, at age 8, Conacher was diagnosed with Type I diabetes, he said.

He had to learn how to test his blood sugar several times a day and give himself insulin shots. At 12, that was replaced by an insulin pump, which is attached to a permanent port in his abdomen.

"Getting diagnosed with diabetes, a lot of kids think their athletic life or passion to play hockey has to be over," Conacher said. "But as long as you take care of yourself, you get through it. I wanted to play and my parents have always been so supportive, they've never said no to anything."

Not everyone has been equally supportive. When Conacher was 14, he said he was demoted from AAA, the highest level of youth hockey in Canada, to AA because the AAA coach didn't like that he was small and had diabetes.

"There's a lot of coaches out there who don't understand what diabetes is and don't want to deal with it," Conacher said. "I ran into a tough coach like that, but it turned out to be all right. I liked AA a lot and I think it really made me more determined.''

Conacher is not the first NHL player to have diabetes. Bobby Clarke, the Flyers' captain in the 1970s and 1980s, played with diabetes. Currently, Arizona winger B.J. Crombeen also manages the disease.

Conacher believes the disease might be partially responsible for getting him where he is today because he has always had to pay such careful attention to his body and diet.

"I obviously have to take off a lot of the partying,'' Conacher said. "As a teenager, when people started getting into those things, I was always the designated driver. My friends always liked the fact that they had me to drive, and I could tell them all the stories about what happened the next day.''

Conacher has a quick sense of humor and often uses it to explain some of the things he has gone through. His early surgeries left him without a belly button, which he says was a "great ice-breaker'' when he was learning how to talk to girls. He also jokes that hockey is the perfect sport because it has two intermissions, which helps him deal with his bladder exstrophy.

"The best thing about Cory is he lives his passion and doesn't let anything or anyone negative hold him back,'' says Dave Smith, who coached Cory at Canisius College and coaches his younger brother, Shane, there now. "He's a great kid who loves hockey.''

And dreams big, despite having to fight every inch of the way.

Conacher ended up at Canisius after every Ontario Hockey League team passed on him in the bantam draft. Once again, what initially appeared to be a setback turned into something good as Conacher became the school's all-time leader in points, goals and assists.

His parents assumed that this would be the pinnacle of his career.

"When he got a scholarship, we thought he we had won the lottery,'' Debbie said. "We never dreamed he could do this.''

"This,'' of course, is carve out a professional career at the sport's highest level. Though Conacher went undrafted, he managed to land on the Norfork Admirals -- the Tampa Bay Lightning's American Hockey League team -- in 2011-12. The Admirals won 28 straight games that season, and Conacher was named the league's MVP.

After the lockout during the next season ended, he was called up to Tampa Bay and finished second in NHL rookie scoring before he was traded to the Senators.

Conacher played last season for the Senators and Sabres before signing a one-year, $600,000 deal with the Islanders this past summer. He started the season on John Tavares' line, but after failing to produce offensively, he was moved to more of a grinder's spot on the left side with Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck.

"Cory is a guy who didn't get drafted and then went to the American Hockey League to prove everyone wrong,'' Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "Offensively he did what he had to do. He knows what it takes to get here.''

Conacher says he would never be where he is today if his parents hadn't supported him in following his dreams despite his health challenges. Now he wants to provide the same kind of encouragement for children with similar health challenges.

"I want them to know that if they take care of themselves, they can do things other kids do,'' he said. "You can go on camping trips and not have your parents worry about you. You can play sports. You find what it is that you like to do and do it.''

In other words, dream big.Cory Conacher said that children with bladder exstrophy or diabetes who would like to contact him can do so through his website, Cory Conacher.com.

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