As a “72” tell us a little about your minor hockey experience. For example, what kind of player were you? Did you always play on the top teams? What stands out to you most about playing hockey as a kid?
Growing up in the small town of Dryden, Ontario gave me limited options when it came to which team I was going to play on. I was either going to play on a house league team (non-travel) or I would play on the all-star team (travel) for that age group. Because our town only had so many players, if I was playing for the Peewee all-star team we would play our league games against the older kids that played in the Bantam house league. I played for our Atom, Peewee and Bantam all-star teams as I worked my way up through minor hockey. I was usually the leading scorer of our teams. What I remember most of my minor hockey days were the tournaments we used to go to — I lived for those. Tournaments and playing street hockey with my friends are some of my fondest memories of my childhood.
What were the biggest challenges of working your way up the ladder to being drafted by Vancouver in 1991?
I think the biggest challenge, for me, was putting myself in a position to possibly get drafted. As I said earlier, I grew up in a small town, so if I wanted to get noticed I was going to have to be in places where people could see me play. After playing minor hockey in Dryden, I played two years of Midget AAA in Kenora, Ontario: I played for the Kenora Boise when I was 15 and 16. Kenora was a one-and-a-half-hour drive from Dryden. So, twice a week I had to make the drive to Kenora for practice. Kenora played in the Manitoba Midget AAA Hockey League (MMHL). So our road games were in the Winnipeg area or farther. To give you an idea of how far we had to travel: Churchill, Manitoba — approximately 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) away — was in our league! When I was 17, I moved to Thunder Bay, Ontario to play in the USHL (United States Hockey League). Our closest rival was eight hours away … more bus time! Playing for the Thunder Bay Flyers allowed me the opportunity to get a scholarship to Bowling Green State University. It was after my first year of NCAA hockey there that I was drafted by Vancouver. There were a lot of miles put in to place me in a position to get drafted.
What did it feel like the moment you knew you were going to the NHL?
I remember getting a phone call from my coach (Walt Kyle). He was the head coach of Anaheim’s AHL (American Hockey League) affiliate team at the time, the Baltimore Bandits. At first he had to convince me that it was actually him and not one of my teammates having some fun with me. Once I finally realized that it was in fact him and I was going to the NHL, it was a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. The previous year, which was my first year as a pro, had been spent mostly in the ECHL (East Coast Hockey League). Given the challenges I faced during my first year as a pro hockey player, to go from the ECHL to the NHL in eight months was rewarding.
In your just-released book, Journeyman, you talk about the many triumphs, as well as the “even more numerous defeats” during your hockey career. What was the hardest thing for you? What was the best?
The hardest thing for me to deal with — and I’m sure for most guys that were in a similar situation — was the constant uncertainty. I never knew where I was going to be or where I was going to end up. Since I could be called up or sent down or traded, it was difficult to make any plans or commitments more than a week ahead of time. Also, I had to constantly look over my shoulder to watch out for the next up-and-coming player looking to take my spot. The best part of my “journey” was realizing my dream of playing in the NHL. That is something that no one can take away. The other great thing about the road that I took to get there and stay there was all the great people and players I met along the way.
Journeyman is full of funny stories and self-deprecation. Have you always been able to laugh at yourself and find the humour in certain life challenges, or was this something that developed over time and with life experience?
Great question! When you go through what I went through over the course of 11 years — if you can’t laugh at yourself, it’s going to be a miserable time. I think the experiences that I went through helped shape who I am today. They have allowed me to be more resilient in tough times and to know that there is always light at the end of a dark tunnel. In all seriousness, one of the biggest lessons I learned over my career is that there are a lot of things in hockey and, more importantly, in life that are out of your control. I now focus on those few things within my control, and I let all that I can’t control fade away.
How does it feel to share your story with the whole world?
Now that it’s out, it feels a lot different than I envisioned. Prior to its release, I thought I would be excited and looking forward to having my family and friends (and strangers) read it. Now that it’s out, I find myself a little anxious and nervous. Not only am I putting my life (or a portion of it) out for the whole world to see, I’m the one writing about it as well. I’ve really opened my kimono! Once I get past the nervousness, it is fun to hear the feedback from people that I know and especially from people that I don’t.
What advice do you have for young hockey players aspiring to play junior hockey and higher?
My advice to young players is pretty simple. You have to love not only the game but also the preparation for the game. You have to love the off-season training, the off-ice conditioning and the on-ice practices. To make it at a high level takes discipline, commitment and sacrifice. If you love what you do, it doesn’t seem like you’re making a sacrifice at all. My last piece of advice is that you have to believe in yourself. As you get older and move up the hockey ranks, there will always be people that doubt you. Tune them out, believe in yourself and work your tail off to prove them wrong.
Sean Pronger grew up in Dryden, Ontario, and was drafted fifty-first overall by Vancouver in 1991. From 1995 to 2004 he played in the NHL for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the New York Rangers, the Los Angeles Kings, the Boston Bruins, the Columbus Blue Jackets, and the Vancouver Canucks. He played in 260 regular-season games, earning 23 goals and 36 assists for 59 points, picking up 159 penalty minutes. His brother is NHL defenceman Chris Pronger.