When Neil Conway was traded to the Oshawa Generals this past season, it felt a little like a homecoming. Conway made history at the General Motors Centre on November 3, 2006, by winning the first OHL game ever played at Oshawa’s new arena as a member of the Owen Sound Attack.
The 21-year-old goaltender played three seasons for Owen Sound and one for Green Bay in the USHL before coming to the Generals in September 2008 to finish his Ontario Hockey League career. He played the majority of games for the Generals this season, going 12-13-2-3. He also picked up his first OHL shutout as a General.
A native of Concord, Ohio, Conway first played hockey at age four. Living near suburban Cleveland, in an area with a small town feel, offered him the opportunity to try several different sports.
“I played baseball until I was in high school, and I played school sports like basketball and golf,” he says, “but I spent more time on hockey and I was better at it.
“I started playing goalie when I was six,” Conway remembers. “My coach put me in as a goalie one game and I made a couple saves, or really just got hit with the puck, and I told my mom I wanted to be a goalie so she bought me the pads.”
Playing in an area where hockey isn’t a mainstream sport, competition was sometimes hard to come by. Tournaments were often played against teams from Detroit and Chicago. Conway says that sometimes they had to fly to tournaments, but his parents, who he credits as his biggest influences, never complained.
“They’ve always been 100% behind me. I couldn’t ask for better support,” he says proudly. “They never pressured me, except to do the best I could and not give up. They gave me everything I needed to be successful.”
By the time the OHL draft rolled around for Conway, he had already been playing in Canada for a year.
“I went to goalie school in Toronto, and after that people recommended that I try to play Jr. A,” he recalls. He made the move to Ontario at only 15 and played for the Stouffville Spirit in 2003-2004, and was then drafted in the fourth round by Owen Sound in 2004. He made the Attack as a 16-year-old goaltender, and played in 15 games during his first season.
Through three full years in Owen Sound, Conway didn’t play much, and in his third year, when he should have been challenging for the starter’s role, only played in 27 of their 68 games.
“I never really got a chance to show what I could do in Owen Sound,” he says. “My teammates there were great, but it was kind of a tough situation, playing-wise.”
In 2007-2008, Conway played in one game for the Attack, and then cleared OHL waivers twice before deciding to pursue another option.
“The coaching staff didn’t have a place for me, so I played for a year in the USHL,” he says. Conway describes the USHL as the United States’ equivalent to the OHL. It develops players for the NHL while keeping them eligible for the NCAA.
“It was a good league to play in,” he says. “I saw a lot of shots. It gave me more confidence and allowed me to get my game back.”
Conway had the option of playing in the USHL originally, to keep his NCAA status protected.
“My sister is a goalie too, and she had a scholarship to the University of New Hampshire to play hockey,” he says, “but she was cut in her second year, and transferring schools for sports is really hard. I didn’t want to take the chance that that could happen to me, as well.”
Conway was excited to come back to the OHL for the 2008-2009 season in Oshawa. He originally played a backup role to Kevin Bailie and Daryl Borden, but with more starts the coaching staff showed added confidence in his abilities. Conway played 32 games for the Generals this year, the most games he has started in a season since coming to Canada to play.
“Oshawa’s a great place to play,” he says with a smile. “It’s a good-sized city. It’s not too small but it still gives you the chance to be a normal kid.”
Generals’ assistant coach Rich Ricci was glad to have Conway on the roster.
“Neil came in at a time of need to help solidify our goaltending and act as a mentor for (rookie goaltender) Kevin Bailie,” he says. “Although his start was a slow one, when the team needed him he was a pillar in net and allowed us to compete and win games.”
Conway was excited to play on the same team as Bailie.
“I knew Bailie before I got here. We met at goalie school during the summer, so it made it a little easier to fit in.” Conway believes that both Bailie and Michael Zador, acquired in the Tavares trade, will be great goalies in the league.
Ricci knows that Conway was a valuable source for the rookies.
“Neil’s role was not so much about wins and losses as it was to provide a good example for the other goalies through his work ethic,” he says. “Neil endeared himself to the game though many public appearances which made him an invaluable ambassador for our organization.”
Conway was able to lead by example. One thing the coaching staff was grateful for was his calm demeanor. Conway says the stories about all goalies being crazy are not true.
“Strange goalies give the rest of us a bad name,” he laughs. “I don’t do anything out of the ordinary. I just try to visualize the game.” While Patrick Roy was Conway’s favourite big league goalie, he himself has never had a conversation with his goal posts. “I just relax,” he says.
Next hockey season, Conway will be a member of the St. Mary’s Huskies, playing goal for the Halifax-based university.
“I want to play pro hockey,” he says, “but I want to go to school for business first.” Conway has always been a great student and prides himself on high marks. He was the recipient of the Academic Award for the Generals in January, and previously won the award in Owen Sound.
Ricci says that Conway was one of the top academic student athletes on the team this year.
“His approach to life and hockey will surely bring him future success in both,” he says.
“I’ve got schemes and plans,” Conway grins. “I like reading books about business and real estate, and I think that’s something I want to get into.” St. Mary’s will offer him the opportunity for both a good education and continued hockey exposure, as the Huskies competed for the recently completed Cavendish Cup, the championship for Canadian university hockey.
Looking back on his OHL career, Conway has a lot of good memories.
“I’ll remember my friends,” he says. “I made some friends for life, both here and in Owen Sound.”
Conway knows he is one of the lucky few who get to experience hockey at this level.
“I have no regrets about coming to the OHL,” he says. “I’m a better and a stronger person because of this league. I’m excited for where my life is heading now.”
Wherever Neil Conway ends up after university, one has to believe he will be successful. He is a versatile goalie with the ability to fit in anywhere a team needs him. For one still so very young, he has learned a lot about the game, and life in general.
“Don’t take success for granted,” he advises. “Earn it, enjoy it, and never let anyone take it away from you.”