Conklin gives Team USA competitive edge

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. – Beaten during a shooting drill, Ty Conklin slammed his stick on the ice, causing a broken piece to helicopter over the high glass at the end of Herb Brooks Arena and crash into the stands, about 15 rows up.

After ensuring a photographer hasn't been injured, the Team USA goaltender hurled the unsuspecting puck against the glass before returning to the net.

Whether it's a practice session in preparation for the world championship or a friendly game of ping-pong with Edmonton Oilers teammate Mike York, Conklin's competitiveness is always on display.

"Oh, for sure. He's just as intense [playing ping-pong] as he is between the pipes," said York, who either isn't as good as his opponent or lets him win to avert airborne paddles.

"Oh no," York added, "I like to see him like that."

Despite York's characterization, Conklin maintains he's pretty laid back away from the rink (and ping-pong table).

"I use up enough of that on the ice; I don't need to take it home with me," Conklin said. "I think it's just part of my personality. I think most goalies in the NHL are like that. I don't think I'd be very effective if I didn't have that personality trait."

He likely wouldn't be playing for Team USA, either.

Conklin's intensity and determination were evident during last year's world championship when he led the Americans to the bronze medal – Team USA's first of any kind since 1996 – and was named the best goaltender in the tournament. The butterfly-style goaltender will attempt to replicate that performance when the United States opens this year's tournament against Slovakia in Austria on May 1.

"He's a product of how he got to the NHL," said Keith Allain, the St. Louis Blues' goaltending coach who is also an associate coach with Team USA.

"I think sometimes adversity hardens an athlete and makes him better," said Allain. "Some kids know they're going to get drafted or they have a scholarship in their back pocket. They don't have to fight for everything they get. Not having the golden path to the NHL is paying him dividends right now."

Indeed, Conklin's route to the NHL and his current status as one of the top American-born goaltenders has been circuitous to the extreme.

Conklin spent one year playing for the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League before enrolling at the University of Alaska-Anchorage. But unhappy with his prospects there, Conklin left almost immediately, returned to the Gamblers, and transferred to the University of New Hampshire, where he was the first goalie to serve as team captain in 40 years.

During his final season at UNH, Conklin was named a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as collegiate player of the year. But by the time he left New Hampshire after the 2000-01 season, Conklin was 24, past the age when most goaltenders are considered top NHL prospects.

Undrafted, Conklin signed with Edmonton in April of 2001 and was sent to the team's AHL team in Hamilton, where he battled for playing time with Marc Lamothe, ultimately taking over as the No. 1 netminder. When he was called up by the Oilers in 2003-04, Conklin eventually supplanted veteran Tommy Salo as the Oilers' top goaltender, going 19-14-4 with a 2.42 GAA.

Invited to the world championship, Conklin then outplayed Mike Dunham to become the team's No. 1 netminder, finishing with a 2.14 GAA and .934 save percentage. Twice he won crucial games in shootouts en route to the bronze medal.

"He's a huge reason we did as well as we did last year," said forward Matt Cullen. "He brings a little swagger to the net and you like that in your goaltender."

Team USA general manager Don Waddell also raves about Conklin's performance.

"I don't think he had a bad game. I know he didn't have a bad game. I don't even think he gave up a bad goal the whole time," Waddell said.

His performance earned him a spot on last summer's World Cup of Hockey team although he was the third netminder behind Robert Esche and Rick DiPietro, the first overall pick in the 2000 draft.

DiPietro is also part of the World Championship team, but given Conklin's performance at last year's tournament and the fact DiPietro did not play this season, Conklin enters this tournament with a slight edge.

For his part, Conklin isn't nonplussed at having to scratch and claw for everything he's enjoyed as a netminder.

"That's good. I think that's the way it should be," Conklin said. "It's not like I'm the only guy that's happened to."

"I feel good about the opportunities I've been given and what I've done with them so far," he said. "But I'm not content or anything. But I guess I'm pleased so far."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.