Saturday, April 23, 2016

Sheary took the Michael Jordan route

April 22, 2016

The Penguins' Conor Sheary attempts a first-period shot that gets by Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist during Game 4 of their Eastern Conference first-round series Thursday, April 21, 2016, in New York. (Chaz Palla/Tribune-Review)

OK, so it's not exactly the Michael Jordan-got-cut-in-high-school story.
First of all, that tale has developed some holes over the years.
Second, Conor Sheary is not an international icon.
Third, while Jordan hadn't yet sprouted to 6-foot-6 as a high school sophomore, he was roughly twice the size of a ninth-grade Sheary, then detectable only by microscope.
“I was barely 5 feet tall and like 110 pounds,” Sheary said.
But the basic plot works: Hugely talented kid fails to make varsity, uses the slight as motivation and later shines on the biggest of stages.
Sheary's spotlight moment happened in Game 4 on Thursday at Madison Square Garden, the same magical building where Jordan often made history. The Little One pickpocketed defenseman Kevin Klein, tore down the left wing and rifled a perfect shot past Henrik Lundqvist.
Sheary's personal stamp on the play — the kind of move that shrieks confidence — wasn't a tongue wag but a leg kick. He lifted his right leg high into the air upon release.
The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Sheary has been a gigantic pain in the New York Rangers' behinds all series. And the man who cut him from Cushing Academy's varsity hockey team has enjoyed every bit of it.
“That was a sweet goal he scored,” Steve Jacobs said Friday.
Jacobs retains a sense of humor about leaving Sheary off the varsity roster at Cushing, a prep school in Ashburnham, Mass. He'd cut his own son as a freshman, after all, and the team when Sheary arrived in the fall of 2006 was stocked with experience and talent.
“Maybe I should have kept him, you know?” Jacobs said, laughing. “I didn't always make the wisest decisions, I guess.”
Actually, Jacobs, who also coached Rangers defenseman Keith Yandle, made a lot of smart moves during a stellar career at Cushing. He now owns a junior team in New Hampshire and counts Penguins coach Mike Sullivan among his friends. The two live one town apart in the offseason.
Turns out Sheary was better off playing for Cushing's Varsity ‘B' team that year, too, though he won't soon forget his heart dropping at the news he didn't make the ‘A' team.
There were two rosters posted on the locker room door each year after two days of tryouts. Tradition said players on the “A” team got to move their gear into the room right away.
“That was the big thing,” Sheary recalled in a recent conversation.
Legend has it that when Jordan didn't see his name on the varsity list, he went home and cried. Sheary didn't take his cut much better.
“It was tough,” he said. “I probably had to hold back some tears. But it was motivation, for sure. It's always motivation when you get cut and someone tells you you're not good enough.”
Make no mistake: Jacobs had big plans for Sheary. There was a reason he recruited him to his Cushing Academy Penguins, an elite prep school program.
“He was a little jitterbug. Nobody could take the puck from him,” Jacobs said. “When I watched him on varsity ‘B,' I was just like, ‘Wow, that kid is special.' Speed, instinct, anticipation, vision, hands. Stuff you can't teach. (Game 4) was a perfect example of the anticipation and quickness. Then he goes upstairs, short side, on one of the best goalies in world.
“It didn't take a rocket scientist to see this kid had it all.”
Except for size, of course. Sheary followed his sister, Courtney, to Cushing. She played hockey there and now is the girls varsity coach.
“He was always a pretty small kid,” Courtney said Friday. “He never really hit that growth spurt. When you go to Cushing, you go through an interview process with the admissions team. One of the guys who interviewed Conor tells me he was so little his feet were dangling from the interview chair. It's a bit of an exaggeration, but it's a story we tell kids who have a long way to go. We talk about him as example of someone who really stuck with it.”
Sheary grew up about an hour from Cushing, in Melrose, with two older sisters who pushed him. Courtney remembers him breaking his leg one year. When the cast was removed, Sheary had a hole in his heel because he'd kept doing things like riding his bike and playing whiffle ball in the cast.
“One of those kids who just couldn't sit out,” she said.
As the story goes, Sheary made the ‘A' team his sophomore year and played on the fourth line, then rocketed upward as a junior and starred as a senior captain. Jacobs retired from Cushing during Sheary's freshman year. Rob Gagnon took over and knew he had a special athlete. Sheary also batted leadoff for the Cushing baseball team and led the club in batting average, stolen bases and runs as a senior.
Gagnon mentions the personality first.
“Conor never had that cocky hockey syndrome, if you know what I mean,” Gagnon said. “Some teachers wouldn't even know who Conor Sheary was. We only have about 400 students, so usually the star hockey player is a burly, 6-1 kid. Here you had this little 5-7 kid who walked around campus quiet. If you asked the librarian, she'd tell you he's a great kid.”
On the ice, Sheary developed into the demon you see today. The one who somehow slips massive defenders in the offensive zone, hounding pucks, and flies up and down the ice like a starving bat.
“The best analogy I can think of,” Gagnon said, “is it feels like he's been dipped in a can of grease every time he plays.”
The bigger college programs in the area — Boston College and Boston University — passed on Sheary. He opted for UMass, where he went undrafted but developed into a star and a captain, just like at Cushing.
Tom Fitzgerald, then the Penguins' assistant GM, offered Sheary an AHL contract in the spring of 2014.
Sheary played just two games with Wilkes-Barre but found himself on the team's top playoff line with center Andrew Ebbett and winger Chuck Kobasew and put up 11 points in 15 playoff games.
All of his ex-coaches will tell you he is a big-game player. He's not the Michael Jordan of the Penguins, by any means — coupla guys named Sid and Geno share that role — but like Mike, the chip on Sheary's shoulder has been there so long it's embedded into his skin.
“Just being an undersized guy, there's always going to be criticisms,” Sheary said.
And he carries that chip into every game, right?
“Exactly. You gotta play that way.”
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at

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