"STICK IT TO CANCER" MORE THAN WEEKEND MOTTO FOR CONACHER, THUNDER
Photo: Andy Camp

December 31, 2018: Another game, another point. It had become the standard for Shane Conacher, who has recorded 97 points in 111 career ECHL regular-season games.

But unbeknownst to many, there weren't many days around that period that were standard for Conacher.

"I felt uncomfortable," Conacher recalled. "I wasn't in pain - I didn't feel any different physically than I had a few months prior - but I finally had to speak up and say something about it."

At the advice of team doctor Erin Morine, Conny, as his teammates, coaches and admirers all lovingly call Conacher, played through the 2018 calendar year before knowing that something else was needed. The 24-year-old returned to the medical staff seeking more assistance with his discomfort.

"She [Morine] got me in for an ultrasound at Glens Falls Hospital right away on that Wednesday, January 2," Conacher remembered. "I got to the rink the following day and headed straight for [Thunder Athletic Trainer] Aisha's [Visram] office to see if she got the results."

It was the worst news delivered thus far to Conacher. Visram told the forward that the scan found something of concern and he needed to see a urologist in Saratoga, NY. While still not thinking too much of it, Conacher left for the doctor that afternoon.

Conacher delivered his disk with the ultrasound results to the doctor's office.

"When the nurse practitioner came back, she told me, 'There's a 95-percent chance this is testicular cancer and we're treating it as testicular cancer until proven otherwise,'" he explained.

The third-year pro hockey player was referred to Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo to get his surgery completed to remove the mass. The hospital is close to home for the Burlington, Ontario native and the 30-minute drive was an easy one to make.

It was just the news you don't really expect and it rocked my world. I'm lucky I had a good support team behind me the whole way, especially at the beginning. Conacher

While a large portion of that support was from his blood family and girlfriend, Sierra, another part of that support team came from his actual team and teammates within the Adirondack Thunder organization. While in constant contact with Head Coach Alex Loh, who was aware of his situation, Conacher wanted to tell the rest of the locker room what was happening before he departed home.

"That was the hardest conversation I had through it all, everyone was really emotional," Conacher drifted. "I didn't really make it through what I was trying to say before breaking down and giving everyone a hug."

Coach Loh was one of Conacher's biggest supporters, but far from the only one.

"There was a lot of shock. Obviously, Shane is a well-liked guy in there [the locker room]. For him to get in front of the group and have to go through that was really tough and there were a lot of shocked faces in there - a lot of support, too, though," Loh explained. "A lot of guys were giving him all the support he could use and that has carried through the whole time he has been dealing with his diagnosis."

The process moved quickly from there for Conacher. Within a week, the forward was admitted to Roswell Park and had his procedure done to remove the mass.

The lump that was removed was small - but it was accurately deemed cancerous. While the mass was positively diagnosed as Stage 1 testicular cancer, the actual surgery gave Conacher a clear mind.

"The waiting was the worst part - the waiting to have surgery, the waiting to get my ultrasound report, the waiting all December when I was worried about it," Conacher went on. "To get that over with, it made life a lot easier for me, it was just more of a recovery."

While away from the team, his Thunder teammates made sure Conny was a part of their thoughts, sending him texts and calls on a daily basis. They refused to move Conacher's locker-room stall, even when new acquisitions had to sit in the center of the room, as the roster built to 26 and 27 members.

"That was something we didn't even need to talk about," Thunder captain James Henry insisted. "His stuff was staying there and he always had a spot with us on the road."

Conacher put that last part to the test when he surprised the team by showing up in Florida during their seven-game road trip in early February. When the forward appeared to read the pre-game starting lineup, the locker room exploded with cheers, and Conacher saw his stall set as if he were playing.

These guys are my family. To know that I was still a part of the team when I wasn't around, it was great to hear. I've been sitting beside Hank [Henry] for two years now and he was texting me every day. He's the best captain, the best leader, I've ever been around. I can't say enough about him. Conacher

The road to full health has been a lengthy one for Conacher, but he can now shift his focus back to doing what he loves most: playing hockey. No longer is fear the first thing on his mind.

"Every time Roswell Park called, I would think 'What now? What's next?' It would freak me out. When they called, sometimes I was too scared to answer the phone. It was a terrible feeling."

That feeling is now long gone for the forward who led last year's Thunder team in scoring with 63 points. For now, it's a day-by-day, week-by-week progression.

The hope is for Conacher to join the Thunder's "Stick It To Cancer" festivities on the ice this weekend. But no matter when his return is, one goal hasn't changed from the beginning of the season.

"I just want to get back to playing and hopefully get into some games soon. And help the boys win a Kelly Cup."