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Former NHLer Prpic is standing tall in Croatia

by Bill Meltzer
Former NHL center Joel Prpic has never been a major star on the international hockey scene, nor has he had conventional hockey career. But he's certainly had a colorful career.

During the course of his 14 professional seasons, the 6-foot-7 forward has traveled pathways that few of his colleagues in North America have even dreamed of experiencing.

After playing 18 NHL games for the Colorado Avalanche and Boston Bruins and spending most of five seasons in the American Hockey League, the St. Lawrence University grad dropped out of the consciousness of most North American fans.

Rather than continuing his career in Europe, Prpic accepted an invitation to play in Japan, where he remained for the next seven seasons as a member of the now-defunct Seibu Prince Rabbits (known as the Kukudo Bunnies during his first four seasons with the team) of the Asia Hockey League. During that span, Prpic became a major fan favorite among the small, but fiercely devoted, core of Japanese hockey fans.

When Seibu folded at the end of the 2008-09 season, Prpic's career took another fascinating and unusual twist.

The Canadian player returned to his ancestral homeland of Croatia to play in the Austrian-based EBEL for KHL Medvescak Zagreb. He went on to dress in all 54 regular season games and 11 playoff games for the club, ranking fifth on the squad with a combined 47 points (15 goals, 32 assists). More important, he provided a physical two-way presence. He racked up a combined 189 penalty minutes and scored a pair of shorthanded goals.

The Zagreb team was one of the most pleasant success stories anywhere in European hockey last season. Not only did the club get into the playoffs in its first season in the EBEL, it also stunned the top-seeded Graz 99ers in the first round, prevailing four games to two. Although Medvescak went down, four games to one, in the semifinals against eventual champion Red Bull Salzburg (which has reached the finals in each of the past five seasons and won three titles), the season was a major success for the Croatian club. Not only did the club show it could compete in the EBEL, it also performed very well attendance-wise.

Following last season's success, Prpic agreed to a two-year contract extension. Now 36, he still has several goals he'd like to accomplish before hanging up his skates.

The EBEL – like Germany's DEL and Switzerland's Nationalliga – is an import-heavy league. This season, 59 Canadian players and 14 U.S. born players are among the imports to play in a game so far. Their ranks include several former NHL players, including Prpic's Medvescak teammate, Alan Letang. Unlike many overseas players who only intend to pass through the EBEL, Prpic has an eye on making a more lasting impact.

"I would like to be able to finish my career with Medvescak," he told the Croatian media upon re-signing with the club. "Hopefully we can build off the success we had last year, and I can provide the benefit of my experience for a few more years.… Something else that I hope to do is to be able to play for the Croatian national team. That would be a great honor."

Medvescak entered the 2010-11 season with high expectations. The club brought in former NHL head coach Ted Sator to help the club continue its upward climb. Plans went awry when the team was racked by injuries and some of the players clashed with Sator. As a result, Sator was let go and co-general manager Douglas Bradley took over as head coach.

The club currently ranks eighth in the league after 41 games played, one point behind seventh-place Olimpija Ljubljana and four points ahead of Acroni Jesenice.

Prpic has done his part, ranking No. 20 in the league with 37 points (9 goals, 28 assists) in 39 games. His imposing presence near the net on the power play has resulted in six goals on the man advantage, and he also has a shorthanded goal to his credit in his role as one of the team's key penalty killers. He has also compiled the third-highest penalty total in the league, with 125 minutes.

Despite the team's up-and-down season on the ice, Medvescak continues to perform very well at the box office in Zagreb. Not only has it been packing the house at its usual 7,0000-capacity home arena, it has even sold out a pair of games – with a probable third sellout – in its scheduled four games in the city's 15,200 capacity multi-purpose arena. The first game of the series even included a videotaped congratulatory message from NHL legend Joe Sakic, whose parents  emigrated from Croatia to Canada.

Off the ice, the team has also recently generated positive press and no small measure of pride when it became the first European hockey team (and just the fourth sports team in the world) to be selected for a partnership with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). The only other sports teams who have been so honored are internationally famous soccer teams Manchester United, FC Barcelona and Argentinean power CABJ, better known as Boca Juniors.

"There have been a lot of positive things with Medvescak since it advanced to the Austrian league," said Prpic. "We have a mixture of experienced import players and some young domestic players who are gaining experience. I'm happy to be part of it."
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