NHL's Cory Conacher
Do hockey pucks and insulin pumps mix? This Buffalo Sabre says yes
It’s impossible to miss Cory Conacher on the ice, though because he’s 5 feet, 8 inches tall, no one could fault you if you did. He’s a good deal smaller than the average National Hockey League player (taller than 6-foot-1 and weighing more than 200 pounds), but the Buffalo (N.Y.) Sabres forward makes his size work by being one of the fastest guys in the rink. He’s a scrapper for sure, and that’s in part because he’s had a history of working harder to be a pro than his teammates and opponents: He has type 1 diabetes.
The Ontario-born Conacher, 24, played with the NHL’s Ottawa Senators for most of two seasons before being acquired by Buffalo. We were eager to hear what he had to say about life with diabetes on and off the ice. He settled in for a phone conversation with us after the 2013–2014 regular season.
Tell me about your diabetes diagnosis.
Basically, I was the crazy kid growing up: I liked to be with my friends, play tag, play road hockey. But then for a month, I just started to feel less energetic. I would rather play video games and watch movies than go outside. I was peeing a lot at night and putting my head under the [faucet] to drink water. My mom decided to take me in to see the doctor, and that’s when I was diagnosed, at the age of 8.
I was 39 mmol/l [in the international measurement for blood glucose, the equivalent of more than 700 mg/dl]. Here [in Canada] you’re supposed be between 4 and 8 mmol/l [72 and 144 mg/dl]. So it was pretty obvious that I was diabetic. No one in my family had diabetes, but with my parents, it was pretty easy to manage. I found ways to help with my diet, and how much I’m sleeping and working out. It was obviously a pretty big change, but it ended up being a pretty easy transition.
Were you already playing hockey by then?
I probably started around the age of 5. My dad played hockey when he was younger. And Charlie Conacher and Roy Conacher, ex-[Toronto] Maple Leaf guys from way back, they’re my relatives. So I had a bit of it in my blood.
So, did diabetes affect your game?
I played AAA hockey [the most competitive level of youth hockey in North America] with my friends in Burlington, Ontario. When I got diagnosed, I had to take a couple weeks off, but then I got right back into it. When I was 14, I actually got cut [from a team] because I ran into a coach who didn’t like that I had diabetes, and I was 4-foot-nothing. He cut me down to AA, and that put a fire in my belly. I played through 16 with the AA team, and it was a really good team. We won a couple of championships, and then I ended up making the AAA team, and then I played junior hockey and then I went to college [with the Burlington Cougars and at Canisius College, respectively] before I went to the AHL.
The American Hockey League! So you played for a few different NHL feeder teams before your NHL debut with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Then you were at Ottawa for a while, before you came to Buffalo after the Olympic break this year, right?
I was picked up off waivers and stayed the rest of the year here in Buffalo. It’s been fun! I’m only an hour away from my home, and a lot of family and friends are coming to my games.
So how do you manage your diabetes on the ice? What’s a typical day like for you?
I generally don’t eat a huge breakfast. I’ll have a bowl of cereal and a banana, or a protein bar and a banana. Then I’ll have a salad, with maybe a sandwich for lunch, or a soup and a sandwich. And then, if it’s a game day, I’ll usually do pasta and chicken as an early dinner before the game, with a salad and a bunch of water. And then a nighttime snack, so I don’t go low at night.
It’s a luxury to be in this league. You get all the food and drinks you can ask for in the [locker] room. If I’m starting to feel low, I’ll grab some type of granola bar or protein bar between periods, and water or Gatorade on the bench.
You’ve got to make sure you test your blood sugar a lot. I wear a continuous glucose monitor sensor, and I’ve got that on me all the time. I tend to run a little higher on game days. I try to run between [162 to 180 mg/dl] when I start the game, so I don’t go low. If I go a little lower, I tend to take my insulin pump off. For practices, I’ll always leave it on, because it’s not as intense of a workout.
I didn’t know you wore a pump! With all of your hockey padding, and the hits you take, where’s the safest place to wear the pump and CGM sensor?
Both in the hips and on my butt, pretty much: One side’s the sensor, and one side’s the pump. It was the stomach, but I don’t want people to notice it if I take off my shirt, so I wear it just below my belt.
Do you talk to your teammates about diabetes?
I get asked about it once in a while. A lot of the guys don’t understand it, but some guys have brothers and sisters [with diabetes]. I try to teach everyone on the team. And I go out with the guys, but I won’t be the drunk one. I’ll still have fun with them, but I have to make sure I’m in control of my own body and test my blood sugar at the end of the night. Traveling a lot, I’ve had a couple of scary lows, or in long games going into overtime. Especially on the road, you want to teach your roommate about it, especially if you go low [at night].
And you’ve played with other players with diabetes, right? I’m thinking specifically of B.J. Crombeen on Tampa Bay, whom we interviewed for the May issue. Do you look up to him and other players?
Yeah! B.J.’s old school. He tests his blood sugar about 15 times a day. Bobby Clarke [a Philadelphia Flyer and the first NHL player with diabetes], I actually got the privilege to meet him in my first AHL season. We talked about how he managed. Obviously, he didn’t have the technology that we have these days. He’s one of those guys that you look up to. And I was a big Martin St. Louis fan, just looking at size. [St. Louis is a New York Ranger who is 5 feet, 8 inches tall.] It’s always nice to go into a game and look across the rink and see your idols.
He’s kind of a small guy like you.
I got to the NHL by working as hard as I can. I try to be as humble as I can, but I got here by working my butt off. Some guys got there by being the best guy on their team, and being 6-foot-5. I think it does help in some ways to be a bit of the underdog. As a small guy, you can’t out-battle; you have to always keep moving. As long as I’m skating and doing the little things, hopefully I can stay in this league a long time.
We talk a lot about having a team in your corner when it comes to diabetes. Who’s your support system?
I’ve had so much help with doctors and nurses and new technology. My parents are very humble. They’re great. My fiancée [Shannon Chadwick] really takes care of me. She knows everything about diabetes. She’s also a bit of a health nut as well and knows what I should eat and shouldn’t eat. It’s nice to have her in my life.
That’s awesome. And I know you pay it forward, with your golf tournament to benefit JDRF. Tell me why that’s important to you.
I try and give back as much as possible. I work closely with JDRF and do a lot of events throughout the season. I do camps here [in Ontario] in the summer at the hockey arena, and I get to see some of the kids that play hockey and have diabetes. I try to do as many talks as possible, with families and kids who have just been diagnosed. Parents think they have to shut their kids down and they won’t get to play hockey, but diabetes has almost made me stronger. It basically makes sure that you’re taking care of yourself. I always tell kids, “Dream big, because you can go a long way if you work hard and do the right things.”
The Buffalo Sabres’ 2014–2015 season starts in October.