BUFFALO – When the Ottawa Senators placed Cory Conacher on waivers this week, he began formulating a list.
"When you get in this league, you put teams in the back of your mind that you want to play for," Conacher told TSN, "All Canadian teams, mostly."
Except for one very notable exception.
"Buffalo," Conacher said, "is definitely near the top of my list."
It's a natural fit. Maybe a perfect fit, even. For starters, Conacher went to college here. He graduated from Canisius in 2011 as the school's sole record-holder in seven categories, including points, goals and game-winning goals. He tied school records in five other categories, earned the Atlantic Hockey Association Player of the Year award in 2010 and cemented his legacy as one of the most accomplished athletes to ever come out of the school. His brother, Shane, is a freshman forward for the Golden Griffins. And Conacher grew up in Burlington, Ontario, just an hour away from the city of Buffalo.
So on Wednesday, the Buffalo Sabres decided to make it a homecoming of sorts.
Even in the midst of this season's frenetic, freewheeling fire sale – in which the organization unloaded two captains and an Olympic goalie -- the Sabres found time to claim Conacher off waivers from Ottawa, officially signing him at noon on Wednesday.
It was a banner day for coach Dave Smith and his Canisius hockey program.
"I hope it's a match made in heaven," Smith said.
Smith, who has coached the Golden Griffins for close to a decade now, said he tries to watch all of Conacher's games on television-- or at least uses his DVR to record them when he's busy. His video staff also puts Conacher's NHL film together as an example for the current team, and the two talk often when Conacher needs to solicit advice from his old mentor.
Under Smith, Conacher grew into a star, overcoming a significant size disadvantage and the inherent obstacle of having Type 1 diabetes. At 5-foot-8, Conacher was one of the smallest players on his roster at Canisius. Only nine NHL players are currently listed shorter than him.
"He's a five-foot-eight hockey player in the biggest, strongest, toughest league in the world," Smith said. "And if you just look at the profile, it says, 'you can't play there.' But he found a way."
"He found a way to be the fastest guy on the ice. He's found a way to utilize his drive and competitiveness. Never once has he said, 'I shouldn't be able to do that, I have diabetes.' That makes no sense to Cory, and we didn't treat him like that."
After his record-breaking career at Canisius, Conacher bounced around the AHL and ECHL before making his debut with the Tampa Bay Lightning in January 2013. After 35 games, the Lightning then dealt him to Ottawa in April, which landed him in the thick of the playoff hunt. In a first-round series against Montreal, Conacher scored the tying goal in the final seconds of Game 4 and then scored two goals in a decisive Game 5.
But after a rather unproductive start through the first 58 games of the 2013-14 season, the Senators placed him on waivers, opening the door for him to return to his old college town.
"With Buffalo taking a chance on me, I gotta prove to them that they didn't make the wrong decision," Conacher said. "I've watched them growing up. One of my favorite players when I was at Canisius was [Tyler] Ennis."
Shane Conacher touted his brother's deal with the Sabres on Twitter, and Smith said the Conacher family is so close that "if they could, they would all be in the same place all in the same time."
"When I found out it was official, I told Shane and his face lit up right away," Smith said. "So I know he's very happy to get his brother closer to him."
As for how Conacher fits with the Sabres, Smith said he's not comfortable speaking on behalf of the coaching staff.
But he might have a little friendly advice for Ted Nolan.
"Coaching Cory," Smith said, "is easy."