He's 23 and it's still like a dream.
Lightning rookie and Ontario native Cory Conacher is playing on a scoring line with Vinny Lecavalier and Ryan Malone. He sits next to Lecavalier in the Lightning dressing room, not far from Marty St. Louis, whom he pretended to be during pick-up games as a kid, one mighty mite saluting another.
Recently, coach Guy Boucher threw Conacher out there with Marty and Steven Stamkos.
"That was a definite 'wow' factor," Conacher said. "But you stay focused. I can pinch myself in the summer."
The 5-foot-8 Conacher has burst on the scene as the Bolts have broken 5-1, displaying speed, fearlessness and a buzz-saw intensity. He scored in his first NHL game. Tuesday against Florida, Conacher scored his third goal and added an assist — already his fourth multi-point game. He leads all NHL rookies with nine points.
And when he gets in his first NHL fight (and that is coming, because the kid will go) he should attain cult status at the Forum. It nearly happened Tuesday after Conacher battled in front of the Panthers' net. Battling, always battling, is how Conacher got here.
"A guy on their team wanted to fight me," Conacher said with a smile. "He was on the bench and he said he wanted to fight me next shift."
We're not quite sure who is taller, St. Louis or Conacher. They joke about it. Conacher isn't joking when describing what St. Louis' star means to him
"I say it all the time — he was the guy I wanted to be," Conacher said.
We need some perspective here. St. Louis is one of the league's elite, a former MVP, a career. Conacher isn't even two weeks in.
But in many ways, it all fits — undersized, underdog, the college route (in Conacher's case, Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y.), never drafted, free agent, always with something to prove.
St. Louis' road was harder because it's a speed game today. Small guys have a built-in niche. Back then, it was jersey pulling, a stick between your legs, it was mayhem. Enter Marty.
"He came into the league when size did matter," Conacher said.
Boucher added, "I don't want to take anything away from Cory, but Marty St. Louis did it at a moment when almost no small guys could make it. What he did back then was unreal."
"As a small player, you didn't have to prove you were good enough, you had to prove you could play with the big boys," St. Louis said. "... In Calgary, I was a checker, killing penalties. One game I had eight hits against Chicago, because that's what I had to do just to stay in the lineup."
He still knows how Conacher feels as an underdog. And he loves Conacher's game. The Bolts knew the kid had something in training camp before last season. Then Conacher tore up the AHL as part of the Calder Cup champion Norfolk Admirals, with 39 goals, 80 points. It was enough to be named rookie of the year and league MVP and earn a nickname from a team trainer that has stuck: Honey Badger.
Conacher gives some credit to some St. Louis advice.
"He told me to just keep my feet moving and don't be afraid to go in those dirty areas," Conacher said. "That's where Marty goes. I like to play in those corners and go in front of the net, stir the pot a little bit, be a little Honey Badger."
But there are other inspirations.
"I know there are people upstairs who are helping me through this career," Conacher said.
There's his grandfather, Dave Conacher Sr., who always told him to follow his dream. Dave Sr. died about 10 years ago, from a heart attack, as he was leaving one of Cory's games. And there's Tom Neziol, one of Conacher's coaches from junior days for his hometown Burlington Cougars. Neizol died in 2006. He was 39.
"Those are definitely two people I like to talk to every once in a while, especially before games," Conacher said. "They've been there for me."
Now Cory Conacher is here, there, everywhere.
"He's earning it," St. Louis said. "He's earning everything."
You're going to love this kid, Lightning fans, if you don't already.