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Now a player and not just a fan, Cory Conacher savours return to ACC ice

Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Cory Conacher (89), center Vincent Lecavalier, second from left, and defenseman Brian Lee (15) skate toward goalie Anders Lindback after the team defeated the Winnipeg Jets 8-3 in an NHL hockey game Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, in Tampa, Fla. Conacher knows the Air Canada Centre well but he saw it from an entirely new perspective Wednesday.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Chris O'Meara

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Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Cory Conacher (89), center Vincent Lecavalier, second from left, and defenseman Brian Lee (15) skate toward goalie Anders Lindback after the team defeated the Winnipeg Jets 8-3 in an NHL hockey game Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, in Tampa, Fla. Conacher knows the Air Canada Centre well but he saw it from an entirely new perspective Wednesday.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Chris O'Meara

TORONTO - Tampa Bay Lightning forward Cory Conacher knows the Air Canada Centre well but he saw it from an entirely new perspective Wednesday.

In his younger years, Conacher, a native of Burlington, Ont., would visit the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs as a die-hard fan. But the 23-year-old rookie took to the ACC ice as a player for the first time in his career as the Leafs beat the Lightning 4-2.

"I tried to stay as long as I could in the pre-game skate just to get a feeling for the ice and for just how different it was," Conacher said. "Instead of watching I was actually on the ice."

Conacher scored his eighth goal of the season in the third period as the Lightning scored twice in the final period to make the game respectable.

Though the result wasn't what the team was hoping for, it was a moment of celebration for him and the family and friends in attendance that he guessed were "probably in the triple-digits."

"It was almost too little, too late," Conacher lamented. "We still had a little bit of time on the clock with two goals down. Obviously it's nice to score in Toronto but it's not the feeling I was expecting."

Conacher had to take the hard route to get to the NHL. After a standout career with the Canisius College Golden Griffins in Buffalo he went undrafted after graduating in 2011.

Though there is no shortage of skill—Conacher owns 12 team records at Canisius—his diminutive size likely held him back in many teams' eyes. He is listed at five foot eight and even that may be a bit generous.

Conacher also lives with type-1 diabetes, and after graduating from Canisius as the most-decorated player in the program's history he bounced around a number of AHL and ECHL teams.

He was invited to Lightning training camp prior to last season and caught the eye of team brass. He was one of the final cuts last season and signed to their AHL-affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals to develop.

There he registered 39 goals and 80 points last season for the Admirals. This year he made the NHL roster and has flourished, leading the league in points for rookies with 22.

So on Tuesday night, Conacher went home to Burlington for his first pre-game meal at home as an NHL hockey player. More than anything, it was a chance to soak in the tumultuous road that has wound its way back to where it began.

"It was so special ...," he said. "Just to be able to sit back a little more and share some of the memories that have happened so far with friends and family, and it was a good night."

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