Approaching the massive gang of media gathered in front of the Calgary Flames dressing room, the colour drains from Craig Conroy’s face.
He takes a step back and turns away. The words that usually flow freely from his mouth stick in his throat. He takes a deep breath and exhales loudly.
He’s speechless. And that doesn’t happen often.
Those gathered there — broadcasters and a dozen or so television cameras, with just as many shooting stills, plus the regulars from the print world — were all warned the previous evening that Conroy wasn’t about to announce anything new.
After clearing waivers Wednesday morning, the 39-year-old centre is contemplating retirement now that the Flames have decided he won’t get another chance to play with the big club.
He will take the weekend to think things through and explore every option with his wife and three daughters.
But Conroy is such a great guy that, in the moment he caught his breath before stepping in front of the lights, cameras and microphones, he must have seriously considered retiring on the spot just to save people the trouble of coming back.
“I guess I’m overwhelmed right now,” he said, his eyes scanning every face surrounding him. “Now I’m embarrassed I came down. I feel like I’ve wasted everyone’s time.”
His time is what helped make him so popular with teammates, with fans, and with the media.
He never turns down a request.
Hence the thrown-together availability Thursday during which he intended simply to re-iterate the fact he was going to take the weekend to decide whether to join the AHL Abbotsford Heat for the rest of the season or hang up his skates.
“I thought there might just be a couple of people. I just wanted to clear things up,” Conroy said. “I will be honest, though, I am leading towards retirement. That’s where I’m headed.”
Heat head coach Jim Playfair has made his pitch, saying Conroy would be a big part of the team, playing on the powerplay and penalty-kill units and helping the kids down there progress.
But as much as being a player has been ingrained in his DNA, Conroy had already settled on the idea this would be his final year.
Ending it a little early won’t be the end of the world. He’s played 1,009 NHL games.
Still, he’s not going to commit to retirement. Not yet.
“Would it kill me to go to the minors? Is my heart in that? Could I help them there? Those are the kind of questions I ask myself,” he said.
“You don’t want to go down there and not be fully invested in what you’re doing, and that’s all it comes down to.
“There’s always that inner drive that you’d like to play.”
But that drive doesn’t have to take him to Abbotsford. He has nothing left to prove. There’s no dangling carrot, no promise he’d be recalled in case of injuries. It’s time for kids to be rewarded, time to see what the Flames prospects can do in limited action up in the bigs.
As for Conroy, the idea of joining the Flames front office in another role — something he’s already talked about with president Ken King — might be more attractive. That’s if the television networks don’t offer him something first.
The only thing certain at the moment is his playing days are done at the Saddledome.
“I’ve had a great run here in Calgary and it’s been fun. The overwhelming support that I got, that’s what makes me emotional,” Conroy said.
“I can go out with my head held high.”
When he officially announces his retirement next week, that’s exactly what he deserves.