Hockey exec recalls his Niagara roots
Growing up in a blue-collar neighbourhood of Niagara Falls was a magical time for 2020 Niagara Falls Sports Wall of Fame inductee David Conte.
The wartime housing developments in the area of McLeod Road, Drummond Road and the Fallsview area were full of kids and each street would have its own hockey and baseball teams.
In the winter, the backyard of his friend Brian Cornell’s house would be transformed into a hockey rink. Construction companies would give excess lumber for the boards, the fire department would help flood the ice, someone added a heating room with a stove, and others would install lights so the games could continue into the night.
“It was crude but it was really good,” he said.
The neighbourhood parents worked hard at Carborundum, Cyanamid, Oneida, Norton, and customs and immigration, but they always found time to help local kids hone their hockey and baseball skills.
“There weren’t hockey schools or strength coaches, power skating coaches or skill coaches,” Conte said. “This was done with the purest of motives.”
The end result of their help were spectacular outcomes for the neighbourhood kids. Conte was a two-time All-American and a national champion at Cornell. Tom Earl was an All-American at Colgate, who went on to play hockey with the Hartford Whalers of the World Hockey Association, got a masters at Colgate and became chief financial officer at a prestigious prep school. Fred Bassi was an All-American at Boston University and ended up teaching at Niagara College. Phil Roberto played with the Montreal Canadiens and St. Louis Blues. Bruce Durno, the goalie on Conte’s teams from age six onward, was an outstanding hockey player at Harvard and would become a Supreme Court Justice in Canada.
As for Conte, he earned a hockey scholarship at Colgate, where he won the Silver Puck Award and was named team MVP in his senior year. When his pro playing career in Europe came to an end, he became involved in hockey at the highest levels. He started with a five-year scouting stint with the Washington Capitals before spending the next 31 years with the New Jersey Devils, serving as the director of scouting and eventually the executive vice president of hockey operations. With New Jersey, Conte received three Stanley Cup rings and had his name engraved on the Stanley Cup in 1995, 2000 and 2003. Conte then had a short stint as the special advisor of operations with the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights, before landing a special assignment scouting job with the New York Islanders.
“We never would have gotten anywhere without athletics and it was a byproduct of this neighbourhood,” Conte said.“It all emanated from people volunteering their time to people like me and Bruce and Phil Roberto and others. I am more honoured to honour [the coaches] and Niagara Falls owes me nothing. I owe Niagara Falls and in particular those people from coaches to managers. We had really good baseball teams and really good hockey teams and it was all done for the right reasons. I don’t know if today people from that socio-economic background would have the same opportunities we had.”
When accepting his induction into the sports hall of fame, Conte will be thinking about all those who gave him athletic opportunities in his youth.
“You don’t want to look too far back but it is nice to memorialize people who did things unselfishly,” he said. “I shouldn’t be the beneficiary, I am the recipient of what a lot of people did.”
Conte’s NHL career had its beginnings as he wound down his pro career in Finland. Gary Green was coaching with the Peterborough Petes at the time and Conte arranged for two young players, who weren’t going to play on Conte’s men’s team, to go to Peterborough for the 1979-80 season. Green and the Petes won a Memorial Cup that year and then Green took a job with the Washington Capitals. He asked Conte to join his staff.
“When I started with the Washington Capitals, we could have had our staff meeting in a closet,” Conte said.
That staff include a GM, assistant GM, director of scouting, two scouts, the NHL head coach, the NHL assistant coach and the head coach of the farm team.
“I counted at training camp this year and at one time we had eight coaches on the ice at one time and scouting staffs are in the 20s,” Comte said. “When I got into this business, there were small staffs and you got to do things and not be pigeon-holed into just doing one thing. That was beneficial to me at a young age.”
Early in his career, most of his contemporaries were iconic former players like George Armstrong and Johnny Bower.
“They were legendary to me as a kid but in short order they were just friends and the guy on the next bar stool because they were such quality people.”
After five years in Washington, he joined the staff of the New Jersey and captured three Stanley Cups.
“[The cups] were all very different and they all had different coaches (Jacques Lemaire, Larry Robinson and Pat Burns), who I considered very good friends and all exceptional in their own right,” he said. “The most exciting one was 2000 in Dallas because it was in overtime and we were on the road.”
The 1995 championship was the most intense.
“The first one was kind of overwhelming because you always dream you will be part of something like that but you never really know how to handle it.”
He cherished his entire run in New Jersey.
“The best part is the continuity and being a part of something for a long time. You can unabashedly take a fair bit of credit for what you contributed,” he said. “You didn’t just jump on the bus when it was moving at 40 miles an hour.”
Leaving New Jersey was tough, but it opened up another door for Conte.
“One of the most fun experiences I had was in Vegas,” he said. “That was a great experience putting together a team from scratch and having immediate success.”
He enjoys being back with Lou Lamoriello, his old boss in New Jersey.
“It’s comfortable because I know him so well,” he said. “But I also know that he is very demanding and I enjoy that challenge as well.”
At age 71, Conte has no intentions of retiring.
“I like the industry and what I am doing and I like the people,” he said. “Clearly I have a different job mandate now that is not as demanding travel-wise and yet still equally challenging. If nothing else, when you have an intense job like I had for a long time, I think it is better you slow it down rather than pull the plug on it.”
Also inducted into the wall on Sunday were Todd Simon, Ray Barkwill, Mike MacGillivray, and Larry Gardner.
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