When a teammate found him, Cory Conacher was dragging his feet down the hotel hallway, walking aimlessly and speaking nonsensically. He was in his underwear and sweating. It was the middle of the night.
Conacher, a then-21-year-old at his first pro hockey camp, looked like someone who’d been partying too hard.
In reality, the situation was much more serious. He was a type 1 diabetic with dangerously low blood sugar.
Fortunately, his teammate acted fast to call the team trainer, who then called 9-1-1. Conacher received an emergency shot of glucagon and, within 10 minutes, had snapped back into a state of normalcy.
It was a reminder about how difficult — and relentless — his disease is.
“There’s times where I don’t want a test or I don’t want to do something that I should be doing,” said Conacher, a 10-year pro with 191 NHL games played. “Now, I realize diabetes is a 24/7 disease. You can’t slack; you can’t take time off.”
Still, Conacher doesn’t want it to dominate his life, or the lives of other diabetics. That’s why he starred in and co-produced a documentary called “Miracle, Baby” (available now on SUPRE’s YouTube channel), which details his journey as a pro athlete with type 1 diabetes.
“I try to just reiterate my story to other people,” he said. “And show them that, as long as you take care of yourself…you can be what you want to be when you grow up.”
From early childhood, Conacher wanted to be an NHL player. When he wasn’t playing outside with friends in his Burlington, Ont., neighbourhood, Conacher was rollerblading inside his house.
“I pretty much had roller blades on more than shoes back in the day,” he said.
But as he grew, something strange happened. Conacher began to prefer video games and movies over road hockey and manhunt. He started taking naps in the middle of the day and required as many as seven bathroom trips in the middle of the night.
At eight years old, Conacher was diagnosed with T1D, an autoimmune disease that destroys the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas and prevents the body from self-regulating blood sugar levels.
No one in Conacher’s family or friend group had diabetes, which was isolating for him. That is, until Conacher’s hockey team was invited into the Hamilton Bulldogs’ locker room (an American Hockey League team at the time) and Conacher met Bulldogs forward Ajay Baines.
“I saw how he had his little testing kit and his insulin and stuff like that right in his locker,” Conacher said. “And I was intrigued by that. I didn’t know anyone who was a professional hockey player that had diabetes.
“I knew if he could do it, I could do it.”
After finishing his junior career in Burlington, Conacher played four years of NCAA Division I hockey at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y. He left as the school’s all-time scoring leader and, after a half-season on a minor league tryout, signed as an undrafted free agent with the Tampa Bay Lightning organization.
In his first full year as a pro — which began with the hotel hallway scare — Conacher became AHL MVP with the Norfolk Admirals.
That earned him an entry-level deal with the Lightning, after which he bounced around five organizations (including one in Switzerland) before returning to Tampa, where he has flip-flopped quite a bit between the NHL club and its AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch.
Conacher hasn’t had a blood sugar scare in years, thanks in part to technological advancements. Attached via tube on either side of his hip are an insulin pump (the size of an iPod) and a continuous glucose monitor (the size of a coin). The devices work together to keep his insulin and glucose levels steady.
If his blood sugar gets too high, the pump provides insulin; if it gets too low, the monitor tells him he needs glucose, which he can acquire from numerous sources (e.g. a sports drink or slice of bread).
On road trips, Conacher brings a bag of needles, tubes, insulin and an extra pump. He’ll take a pre-game nap and eat a peanut butter sandwich to ensure his blood sugar starts high (it will drop throughout the game).
He rarely wears his insulin pump during games, but it stays nearby with the Syracuse trainer just in case. When Conacher does wear the pump, he tucks it into his hockey pants, where it’s hardly noticeable.
What is noticeable, however, is the cost. Not everyone has the same equipment, routine or needs, mind you. But a month’s worth of diabetic supplies can easily cost hundreds of dollars — in addition to an insulin pump, which can be thousands.
“I’ve run into people that can’t use the pump because of how expensive it is,” Conacher said. “There’s stories out there and it’s tough to hear those. Diabetes is definitely a very expensive problem to have.”
Conacher does his part to assist and inform. In the off-season, he hosts a charity golf tournament, as well as a skating event for diabetic kids. He attends a variety of camps and other events to share his story with anyone who wants to listen. The documentary helps, too.
“I just wanted to reach as many people as possible,” he said.
On the ice, his goals haven’t wavered: stick in the NHL and win a Stanley Cup.
Both tasks are growing more difficult for Conacher, a 5-foot-8 forward who turns 30 next month and has played just three NHL games in the past year and a half. He was called up Tuesday by the Lightning for an injured Nikita Kucherov and got in assist in Saturday’s game.
Still, Conacher is running low on time. But he’s never been low on motivation — thanks to T1D.
Back in youth hockey, Conacher was cut from Burlington’s ‘AAA’ team after a coach doubted he could keep up with everyone else. That memory stuck with him.
“(The coach) told me he didn’t think I could play a full 60 minutes because my energy levels might not be effective — because of my diabetes,” Conacher said. “And so that coach, to this day, brings a fire in my belly to prove him wrong, and to prove to a lot of people that diabetes isn’t in the way of me making it to the NHL.
“And it never will be.”