This is part one of a three-part series of a conversation with former Columbus Blue Jacket and NHL journeyman Sean Pronger that will run during the Olympic break.
When a kid makes it to the National Hockey League, the last thing they are thinking about is getting traded, bouncing between clubs and being called-up or sent down to the minors. They’re thinking that life is pretty good as they suit up with their first team in the big league.
But more often than not, this is not the case. There’s always someone younger, faster and with more skill that wants to take your place on the roster. Injuries play a part in this, too.
These are the "journeymen" of the NHL and other leagues. They are most definitely not the "glamour guys," getting all the attention. They are the third and fourth-line grinders, the energy guys. They put in just as much hard work as the rest, yet are always looking over their shoulder, wondering if they’re going to get the "tap" that sends them down or indicates that they’ve been traded.
Dryden, Ontario native Sean Pronger has first-hand knowledge of what life is like as journeyman. In a professional career that spanned from 1994-2005, he played in 260 NHL games for seven teams (Anaheim, Pittsburgh, NY Rangers, Los Angeles, Boston, Columbus and Vancouver). He bounced around several different hockey leagues, including the ECHL, IHL, AHL, NHL and Europe.
No one sets out to be a journeyman. It’s more of a gradual happenstance. It was the furthest thing from his mind after playing junior hockey and enrolling at Bowling Green State University, located just south of Toledo in northwest Ohio.
"I played junior in Thunder Bay (Thunder Bay Flyers, USHL) then went and visited a few schools. When I got to BG, being from a small town and Bowling Green being a smaller university and community, it just felt right. It felt like I fit there. So, that’s the reason I chose Bowling Green."
"My four years there were kind of up and down, I think is the best way to describe it. I had a challenging rookie year, but I played quite a bit for a freshman, which is great. I had a very average sophomore year, which kind of lit the fire for my third year. That was probably my best year there." In 39 games his junior year, he garnered 23-23-46.
"My freshman year (1990-1991) we were ranked in the top 15 in the country at one point. And then, we went 14 games without winning, which in a college season is ridiculous. One of our assistant coaches had brain cancer and he was fighting that fight. I don’t know if it was a distraction or not, but we didn’t play well. That was one of those years that started off so good and then crumpled. We just never really turned the corner my whole four years."
"I mean, we had decent teams and teams that should have been better. We had some great players on all the teams (over the four years). Dan Bylsma was there, as were Ken Klee, Brett Harkins, Brian Holzinger, Mike Johnson and Todd Reirden, who is now an assistant coach with Dan Bylsma in Pittsburgh. So, we had a lot of good, talented players that never really put it all together all at once (while at BGSU)." In addition to Pronger, Harkins and Holzinger also went on to be members of the Columbus Blue Jackets organization.
"I guess that it was an average (college) hockey career, but I had a lot of fun. I was happy that I made the choice to go there. Although, part of me wishes that we’d had more success."
At this point, his life as a journeyman was still on the horizon.
"College is probably the worst place to learn what it’s like to be a journeyman. You don’t get traded and you don’t get sent down. You’re on one team for four years, unless something drastic or tragic happens. If you play junior, you could be traded, released or sent to your junior "B" team. Definitely college is not the place to learn what could possibly happen if you do become a journeyman."
In his freshman year at Bowling Green, the Vancouver Canucks drafted him in the 1991 NHL draft, 51st overall. This came as somewhat of a surprise to the young Pronger.
"I didn’t really have any inkling. I had only met with Vancouver the day before (the draft). That was the extent of my interviews. It wasn’t like I was ‘hot’ on a lot of (teams) lists. They (teams) didn’t interview as thoroughly as they do now. But yes, I was pleasantly surprised to go in the third round."
Asked if there was any pressure on him from the Canucks organization to either finish school or to make the jump to the NHL, he said, "They didn’t put pressure on me, either way. I mean, I scored three goals my freshman year, so there was certainly no rush on their part or mine. I think it was a matter of just keep playing until we feel the need to see if you want to come out (to NHL) early. And, it never got to that point. So, it wasn’t like they said ‘we want you to play four years here.’ I was never ready to make the jump (to NHL) early."
Part two of our conversation with former Blue Jacket Sean Pronger will run on Wednesday.