Conor Allen Just 20th Chicago-Born Player Ever to Reach NHL
OLD TOWN — Conor Allen joined an ultra-elite club this season when he suited up for the New York Rangers.
The Latin School of Chicago graduate and former Old Town resident played three games for the Rangers before being sent back down to his current outfit, the Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League.
"I knew it was pretty rare, but I didn't know it was such a small number," Allen said of representing Chicago at hockey's highest level. "It wasn't easy, but thankfully, things worked out for me."
Allen, who spoke with DNAinfo Chicago in a phone interview after practice Wednesday, beat the tremendous odds with talent and what those closest to him called "sheer will." With limited skating surfaces in the city proper, Allen commuted for hours to and from the suburbs for practices and games.
And this was all during a time in which the Blackhawks were all but irrelevant in the city.
"Before this recent run of the Blackhawks, we all remember that it was tough sledding for that organization," said Allen's agent, Kevin Magnuson, whose father Keith played nearly 600 games for the Hawks and was their head coach for two seasons.
"In turn, they missed a huge generation of players in Chicago ... and it's made it tough for guys who grow up in the city to go a long way. Conor found a way, and obviously I'm really proud of him."
A Pivotal Year at Latin
Consider this: There are fewer Chicago natives who have played at least one game in the 96-year-old NHL than there are Blackhawks, 23, on the team's current active roster.
Allen's story is even rarer. Unlike many Chicago-born NHL players, who left the city for the suburbs or the state altogether, Allen remained in Old Town until he graduated from high school.
"Education was the most important thing for us, and it was important he stayed at Latin through the end of graduation," said his mother, Julie, an attorney for the Downtown firm Sidley Austin. Allen's father, Ron, is a professor of law at Northwestern University Downtown.
"I believed in him from the beginning, but I was not focused on the NHL," Julie Allen said. "That was a goal of his. It was not something that was my goal for him, and to that extent, we did not gear our lives around that."
Allen played his freshman year on Latin's hockey team before competing on elite traveling teams. Allen made his mark at Latin during that 2004-05 season, when he was a forward and tallied 14 goals and 26 points, third best on the team. He also helped lead Latin to a state runner-up finish in the postseason.
"We could see at an early age that he was a talented athlete," said the Latin hockey program's former director, Matthew McCutcheon, of Edgebrook. "He was a noticeable person on the rink, and he put a huge amount of effort and dedication into developing his craft."
Allen called the year skating for Latin, which played many of its games at McFetridge Sports Center in Irving Park, "critical" to his development as a player. But to have a chance at the NHL, he needed to seek a higher-ranked league.
That problem was solved when he joined the talented under-18 Team Illinois squad, but it created a new conundrum. His parents would have to take him to the team's home rink in Bensenville.
"I spent long hours in the car just to get there during rush hour," said Allen, who continued his studies at Latin and graduated in 2008. "Driving out after school every day in two hours of traffic is something that takes a lot of sacrifices and help from your parents."
Expecting a Return to the NHL
Allen switched from forward to defenseman his first year with Team Illinois, and Magnuson, who started building a relationship then, was amazed at how easily he adapted to the new role. Allen blossomed at that level, eventually becoming the team's captain, before playing in the United States Hockey League for the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Stampede and then two seasons at the University of Massachusetts.
He signed a contract with the Rangers organization last March and was called up just before the new year. He had several quality minutes of ice time in three NHL games against Tampa Bay, Florida and Pittsburgh before the reassignment to Hartford.
Magnuson wouldn't be surprised if his client was back in the NHL later this season.
"I think he's going to get more action before it's all said and done, given the fact that the Rangers have struggled a bit on their back end," said Magnuson, who live in the Gold Coast. "They were very impressed by his debut. ... For a guy to be a first-year pro and get the minutes he played, they were very impressed. They truly believe he has a long NHL career ahead of him."
That would put Allen in even more exceptional Chicago company. Only six Windy City natives have played more than 160 career NHL games, led by the two most recognizable players by far on that list: Chris Chelios (1,651) and Ed Olczyk (1,031).
Allen said he hoped to return to the big club this year, not only because he strived to be an NHL-er again, but he also grew up a huge Rangers fan. When Allen was a child, Blackhawks' home games weren't on television, and his family's DirecTV package included the Rangers' MSG Network station.
"I used to watch Rangers games more than Blackhawks games, and, as an American kid, the Rangers are the New York Yankees of the NHL, and that's where you want to be," Allen said.
Allen also strongly noted that he had always been a Blackhawks backer and was an especially huge fan of ex-Chicago forward Tuomu Ruutu. Allen owns a pair of Ruutu jerseys as well as game-used sticks he purchased at the former HawkQuarters Downtown.
Allen was demoted just a few days before the Hawks' game against the Rangers on Jan. 8 at the United Center.
He would love to be back in a blue Rangers sweater when the teams meet again in the Big Apple on Feb. 27.
"I know when they're playing, but I try to stay away from thinking about that," Allen said. "Right now, I'm just trying to get more consistent and better."