September 30, 2014

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Monday, September 29, 2014

Former UMass hockey player Conor Allen embraces NHL opportunity

Courtesy of Chris Rutsch

Courtesy of Chris Rutsch

It was just an ordinary Friday night.

Conor Allen was sitting on the couch in his Hartford, Conn., home, playing cards with a group of friends, when he received a phone call from an unfamiliar number around 10:30 p.m.

He answered suspiciously. Initially, he thought it was a prank call because he didn’t recognize the voice on the other end. That mystery voice actually belonged to Ken Gernander, Allen’s coach for the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack.

Gernander wasn’t just looking to chat, however. He had with him the most exciting news of the 23-year-old’s hockey career: Allen was being called up to the New York Rangers.

Next thing he knew, he was on a flight to Washington, D.C., where the Rangers played the Capitals that night, to meet his new teammates.

“It was a weird feeling knowing I was getting called up,” Allen said. “You try not to think about it. Everyone just tells you to take care of business in the AHL and if you do that the NHL will figure itself out.

“Once it happened I didn’t know what to do. I had to start packing, I called people. It felt like the first day I signed my contract last spring. I had that same sort of butterfly feeling.”

At this time last year, Allen was a junior defenseman on the Massachusetts hockey team, competing against the likes of Boston College, Maine and Vermont. He wasn’t drafted out of juniors, and a future in hockey beyond his senior season was far from a given.

However, Allen started to establish himself as one of the premier blue liners in Hockey East by the middle of the year. And it all came to fruition on March 29, 2013 – just two weeks after the end of UMass’ season – when he signed a professional contract with the Rangers, forfeiting his final year of eligibility at UMass.

Exactly nine months later, he was in Tampa Bay making his NHL debut.

The experience

Allen was more prepared for his first NHL game than one may think. He played with the Rangers during the preseason, so his nerves were calmed.

However, this was the regular season. The game was faster. The stakes were greater. Skating with the likes of Rick Nash and Ryan Callahan, his desire to make an impression suddenly intensified.

“You see these guys on the ice and you get this feeling like you have to play well,” Allen said. “Not that I didn’t feel that in college, but it was a little more magnified when it’s these NHL superstars.”

Allen’s first two games were certainly memorable. In his debut against the Lightning, Allen was on the ice in the game’s final two minutes to help preserve a one-goal lead. Two nights later, Allen and the Rangers held off the Florida Panthers for another one-goal win.

But Allen’s most unforgettable moment came in his third game against Sidney Crosby and the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins. Crosby was trying to play the puck when Allen came in and pinned him up against the wall to make a defensive play.

It wasn’t something that will be seen on highlight reels. But Allen said that after the game – a 5-2 Rangers loss – he had about 150 text messages full of people congratulating him for slowing down arguably the face of the NHL, even if it was only for a moment.

“It is crazy to think about,” Allen said. “A year ago I was playing against Merrimack, now I’m up against the Penguins.

“It’s pretty cool, but you gotta settle down and play your game,” he continued. “The only weird thing was I felt like there was a huge spotlight on me, but there wasn’t. Maybe there was a little bit, but it felt like everyone was looking at me.”

Justification

Allen knew he was taking a risk.

Leaving college a year early to take an offer as an undrafted player doesn’t guarantee a long-term professional hockey career, let alone a shot at the NHL.

However, this was Allen’s best chance to fulfill his dreams, so it was a chance he had to take.

So far, there seems to be no need for regrets. Not only has Allen been one of the Wolf Pack’s leading scorers as a rookie this season, but now he has three games of NHL experience under his belt.

“I guess I have justified it,” Allen said of his decision. “As soon as I did it, I told myself I wasn’t gonna regret it no matter what happens because this is an opportunity that I had to take to fulfill a dream for my career.”

With that being said, Allen’s time at UMass hasn’t been forgotten. Some of his closest friends are still on the Minutemen, and playing in Hartford means he’s only a car ride away from Mullins Center. He said he’s already been to about five or six hockey games this season, as well as some men’s basketball games.

“I really enjoyed my time at UMass and I don’t feel as if that’s over yet, I’m really passionate about the school and the athletics and hockey,” Allen said. “I love reading about it and talking to guys about it. I get on them when they lose to UConn and stuff like that. It’s easy to keep up with because some of my best friends are still on the team, but I think I’m gonna be the best alum to the program that I can be.”

Still hope

Allen has been back with the Wolf Pack for over two weeks now. While his stint with the Rangers lasted just three games, his time there was still a success. He said he got positive reviews from his coaches, but knows he still needs to be more consistent and improve his defensive-zone play.

“It’s pretty incredible. Playing in the NHL is pretty cool,” Allen said. “I don’t think it’s really hit me yet that I played in the show, but it’s cool and fun to think about that you made it this far. Now that that’s over with I gotta wait to stay full time out there.”

Now that he’s had a taste of the big leagues, the ambition to get called back up and make a career at that level is what drives him on the AHL ice.

Another shot at the NHL is a realistic possibility in his eyes. But he’s also embraced the opportunities he’s had to this point.

“It’s definitely possible. I think I’ve showed that, whether it be for one game or whatever, I can play with these guys,” Allen said. “But there’s so many good players there and there’s so many guys that are gonna get drafted next year and sign at the end of this year.

“More than anything I think I just gotta prove myself that I can hold my own and keep getting better. I think I’m on the right track to eventually maybe earn a spot out of camp one year.”

Nick Canelas can be reached at ncanelas@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.

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