I met Vinny Prospal in 1993-94, his first season as a pro in North America and my last season with the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League. Vinny sat behind me on the Bears team bus and always had a smile and some friendly conversation ready, even way back then.
Fast forward to 1999, my first year in the NHL (with the expansion Atlanta Thrashers). I hadn’t seen Vinny, who was then an established NHLer playing with the Ottawa Senators, since the end of the 1993-94 season. The first time I joined the media horde in the Senators locker room, there was Vinny with that ever-present smile and a greeting, “Dan Kamal, how are you?” More than five years later, he had remembered the radio guy from Hershey.
Trust me when I tell you that resonated with me. But what really is eminently more important is how Vinny Prospal’s pro career has resonated with his teammates and his fans along the way. If there is a more ebullient, passionate player in the NHL, I haven’t met him. Let me just put it this way: If you put his energy level up against a three-month-old puppy, I’m betting the puppy is the first to take a breather. Every time.
Prospal is now 38 years old, playing in his 19th season as a pro. Last week against the Nashville Predators, he crossed the 500-assist mark for his career, to go with his 250-plus career goals. He’s approaching 1,100 games played in the National Hockey League, and you’d swear from his celebrations that each assist and each goal was his first, or could be his last. The energy and the joy are absolutely infectious, and he says it’s the least he can give back to the game he loves.
“I just think it comes from the passion I have for the sport,” said the Blue Jackets left winger. “If you look around the world, there are only 770 of us or something like that who are playing in the NHL. I use the word ‘fortunate’ to be playing in the NHL for that long. Now I’m closer to the end than to the beginning, so I may as well enjoy it. I have three kids at home; what kind of message would I be sending them as a father or as a worker if I go to do what I do for a living without any passion for it or without any energy for it, or any determination to get better every day I step on the ice?”
As you might imagine, Prospal – the kid who left the Czech Republic at the age of 18 to pursue his NHL dream – savored the moment when he blew past the 500-assist barrier with three against the Predators in that 4-3 victory at Nationwide Arena.
“It feels awesome,” he said about hitting that milestone. “As I said after the game, I’m not going to sit here and lie and say I’m not proud of it. It’s a lot of assists and makes you realize how fortunate you are to be playing in this league for so long. When you look at it with the 1,000th game celebration I had here last year, those are numbers when I first came to North America in 1993 I probably never imagined that at this point of my life I’d still be playing.”
When he was a very young professional hockey player, Prospal was an eager student, not only of the game, but also of the lessons that were being taught on what it takes to be professional and carve out a long, productive career in the NHL.
“I guess you look around the locker room when you are younger,” he explained, “and you go out to dinner on the road with the older guys, and you kind of learn how they take care of themselves physically, what they do off the ice, and what they do on the ice. It’s not necessarily when everybody’s looking; most of the time it’s when nobody’s looking, and only the inner you knows what you have done, you know, in the summers, after the games, prior to games. It all comes together. You cannot just be a professional when you get your pay day or when you sign a contract. A lot of responsibility comes with that.”
Now in his 19th season of pro hockey, Prospal is more than willing to impart some lessons for his younger teammates, but – since he’s still an active player – he feels the best way to do that is by the way he prepares and by the way he plays the game.
“Right now, I’m still a player, so what I teach should be mostly by example,” he said. “If there’s a time I may be working for the team in some different role, then I would probably give out more advice. Right now, at the end of the day, I still have to worry about myself, how I’m playing.”
Really, the way Vinny Prospal prepares and plays, leading by example is probably the most effective teaching he can be doing for his teammates right now. All they need to do is watch.