The education of Ty Conklin - hockey goaltender - continues. Capping a whirlwind year in which he garnered first team All-American and Hobey Baker finalist accolades in March, Conklin signed a three-year contract with the Edmonton Oilers of the National Hockey League in April, got called up to the parent club in October, and notched his first two big league wins. Less than two weeks later, he was sent to the Oilers top farm team, the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League.
"It's part of the life, and part of the development," says Conklin in the same quiet, understated style that marked his UNH playing days.
Outside the Bulldogs' locker room at the Worcester Centrum following a 4-4 tie with the Worcester Ice Cats, Conklin laughed about giving up a goal to another former UNH star, Eric Boguniecki (Class of '97), and acknowledged the roller coaster ride that his first 10 weeks as a pro hockey player represented.
"I knew I wasn't going to play in Edmonton a lot, and they wanted me to get some work. So I'm excited to be down here. And, you know, playing in the second best league in the world isn't bad."
Conklin's play hasn't been bad either. Instead, it's been exceptional. That's no surprise to UNH supporters, who were routinely treated to Conklin standing on his head to keep the Wildcats among the elite Hockey East teams for the past three years. What may surprise college hockey fans is that Conklin didn't register on the screens of NHL talent hawks, and he was never drafted ("I really wasn't good enough to get drafted when I was younger."). There's likely dozens of NHL general managers shaking their heads about the oversight.
"As thorough as the scouting is in the National Hockey League, there is the occasional player that slips through the cracks," says Kevin Lowe, the Oilers general manager and former All-Star defenseman with the Oilers and New York Rangers. "Fortunately for us, Ty came here."
An admitted "late bloomer," the 25-year-old Alaska native signed with the Oilers as a free agent. He impressed Oiler coaches and management during training camp, and they called Conklin up to the Oilers in mid-October. In four NHL appearances, Conklin posted two wins while only allowing four goals, for a meager 1.62 goals-against average and sparkling .939 save percentage.
"He's just gotten better and better," says Lowe. "It looks like he's a quick study. Like a lot of guys, he looked like he didn't belong the first few days. Then, as our training camp went on, he just kept getting stronger and stronger."
Oiler head coach Craig MacTavish agrees. "The way Ty was playing, he deserved the opportunity to stay (in the NHL). He played two games for us, and gave us great goaltending. But at this stage of his career, he's a guy that needs to be playing regularly."
Conklin's professional reality is this - while he's still Number 1 in the hearts of UNH hockey faithful and Number 1 on the Edmonton Oiler roster, he's Number 2 on the depth chart behind All-Star goalie Tommy Salo of Sweden. And with Salo's reputation for durability, and the Oilers' schedule, Conklin wasn't going to see much game action. But he's learning. And learning fast.
"I've been lucky to hook up with a good organization, with good guys," says Conklin. "It's the type of organization that's willing to give young guys a chance, to show what they can do. I was given a chance, and they've given me the opportunity to play at this level. I'm pretty lucky to be where I am."
The Oilers, apparently, feel the same about Conklin.
"We certainly would have no hesitation to call Ty back, and put him in the net," says MacTavish. "He's shown us, through his play, that's he's ready to play at the NHL level."