Staying his Master plan

RANDY SPORTAK, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 6:12 AM ET

DALLAS -- Craig Conroy was on the verge of becoming an unrestricted free agent last summer.

A two-year deal with the Flames worth US$2.1 million was in his hands and Conroy was making sure all the paperwork would be filed before leaving for vacation.

He could have waited a few days for a more lucrative offer that certainly would have arrived, but the veteran centre had other thoughts.

"I didn't even want it to come to that. My initial thing in the summer was to get it done," said Conroy, who scored the game-winning goal last night in Dallas.

The decision to stay in Calgary paid off. Conroy has had a rebound season, with 11 goals and 45 points, and it will be announced this morning he is the Flames nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey, as voted on by the Calgary chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association.

"It makes me feel good," Conroy said yesterday upon hearing the news.

"To do it in Calgary is more special for me, because this feels like my team. This is where I belong."

That attachment to the Stampede City played a big part in his decision to re-sign and take a sizable pay cut in the process.

It wasn't all that long ago he left the Flames in the summer of 2004, signing with the Los Angeles Kings, but returned to Calgary via trade late in the 2006-07 season.

"When I came back, the first game, that made me never want to leave again," Conroy said. "The way the crowd responded, the national anthem, stuff like that. Those are big things I remember that nobody else might think about, but when you're making decisions, that came back up in my mind -- how it was when I left, and how it was when I came back.

"It's great to make a lot of money ... but for me to be able stay and have my family in a good situation and friends, that's all that matters. At the end of the day, I'm getting older, and I think this team has a chance to win, and I enjoy it here."

Conroy has twice been a finalist for the Selke Trophy as top defensive forward, and he continues to make his mark for the Flames in that manner, but it's been a rewarding season at the other end of the rink, too, for the 37-year-old fan favourite.

Although he was inked to be mainly a checker, Conroy again found himself on the top two lines for much of the season under head coach Mike Keenan and recorded the 500th point of his career.

It didn't start too well, however.

His plus-minus was in negative territory through the first couple of months (he was plus-18 after last night's clash with Dallas), he wasn't producing offensively and was taking bad penalties.

Eventually, he turned the corner using simple perseverance to push through the tough time and find his form alongside good buddy Jarome Iginla.

"Going in, I had in my mind I'd be the third-line guy, and all of a sudden, I'm on the first line, and it wasn't going the way I wanted," Conroy said. "I was trying to put numbers up, started to put pressure on myself, and it didn't go the way I wanted.

"After a while, I realized that's not the way I am and needed to relax. Jarome said the same thing, 'Let's just play and half fun,' and then things started to turn around."

The Masterton Trophy commemorates the late Minnesota North Stars forward who died Jan. 15, 1968, after an injury sustained during a hockey game. Two Flames have won the trophy: Lanny McDonald in 1983 and Gary Roberts in 1996.

RANDY.SPORTAK@SUNMEDIA.CA


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