A year ago at this time, Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Conor Allen was halfway through his third season at U. Mass-Amherst, an undrafted free agent with no assurances of his hockey career continuing past the end of his college days.
As it would turn out, though, not only would the Chicago native get a chance to make hockey his profession, he would get all the way to the top level of the game, all before the end of 2013. After being signed to a free-agent, NHL contract by the New York Rangers at the end of March, a fine training camp with the big club and a strong start with the Wolf Pack, Allen was recalled by New York December 28.
The 23-year-old blueliner made his Ranger debut in a 4-3 win at Tampa Bay December 29, and played two more games with the parent club before being returned to the Wolf Pack on Sunday. After the Wolf Pack’s practice on Monday, Allen reflected on how far he has come in such a short time.
“Definitely it’s been a long road,” he said. “And I’m really happy that it happened for me, but I have a lot of work left to do down here in Hartford. But it’s weird to think where I was not even a year ago, but six months ago.”
And how did it feel to step out on NHL ice for the first time in regular season?
“It was really exciting,” Allen said. “It’s kind of the life-long dream that everyone talks about. A lot of fun, and I’m really happy to play the way I did, and hopefully I get another chance.”
The New York media took a liking to Allen’s story, especially the fact that his dad, Ron, was able to make the trip to Tampa to watch Allen’s first NHL game, while his mom, Julie, was not.
“There were a couple of things my mom had to take care of in Chicago with my other siblings,” Allen explained, “but she was watching on TV.
“I’m the youngest of four in my family, an older brother and two older sisters. And my brother is just getting ready to go to China and had some things to take care of, and my mom was helping out with that.”
Allen’s brother, Michael, is a graduate student in Political Science at Cornell University, after having spent a year of his college career in China. Julie Allen is a lawyer and Ron Allen is a law professor, so there are definitely some very cerebral genes in the family. Some very athletic ones as well, given that the family now can boast of having an elite pro athlete too.
“I’m definitely the black sheep here,” Allen joked. “I haven’t graduated college yet, but all my siblings have, and they’ve all done extraordinary things. I’m taking my own path, but I’ll get my degree one day and my parents will be happy and get off my back about that. But yeah, they’re all doing great things and I’m happy for them.
“They’re all very, very talented people.”
Conor Allen is no slouch in the talent department either. He registered 33 points in 66 games in his last two college seasons, and erupted for seven points in the last seven AHL games he played prior to his recall. When asked if the callup was a surprise, Allen says it wasn’t something he really considered until it became a reality.
“I think the best way to go about it is, just do your business down in the AHL and try not to think about it,” he elaborated. “And if you take care of business down here, things should work out for you. So no, I wasn’t really thinking about it, but I’m happy it happened.”
And if it did strike as a bolt out of the blue, at least Allen’s preseason experience with the Rangers, which saw him compete for an NHL job until the last Ranger cuts, gave him a good frame of reference on what the transition to the NHL was going to be like.
“It’s a bit of a different game, but I think that playing preseason, for that month that I was in preseason, got three games, really helped me, not only just feel an NHL game, but I knew the guys a little bit,” he said. “It wasn’t just totally going into a new team. I wasn’t comfortable really, but I kind of, in a way, told myself I’d been there before. But definitely it’s a shock to the system to play in The Show, and now if it happens again, I think I’ll be more prepared.”
Prepared or not, Allen’s NHL baptism certainly seemed to generate positive results. He averaged nearly fourteen-and-a-half minutes of ice time in the three games he played, had two shots on goal, and was not in any way out of his element defensively.
“I was on the ice for one goal-against,” Allen said, using a common measuring stick applied to young defensemen. “It was a nice play by Tampa Bay and (Valtteri) Filppula had a nice high tip. Other than that, we did our best. I thought I did pretty well for my first couple of games, and hopefully I just build off of that, if I get another chance, and down here as well.”
Having gotten that first NHL look, Allen knows that it is now even more important to keep improving, and to focus on the here-and-now with the Wolf Pack.
“Not even going up and down (to and from the Rangers), I already had things I needed to work on,” he said. “If you look at my stats now, I think I’m minus-8, and that’s not acceptable, and I need to work on just defense, just all-around play in my own zone. And if you can take care of that, other things will happen for you.”