– Vinny Saponari
stayed at his family's house during the Atlanta Thrashers
' 2008 and '09 prospect development camps, which totals about 80 miles of driving a day across some of the nation's most clogged highways.
This year, which ushered in a number of changes in Saponari's life, he decided to skip that commute and stayed at a hotel near the camp with the other players.
That Saponari's family home is located in metro Atlanta is not a case of his parents having moved after he was drafted in the fourth round (No. 94) by the Thrashers in 2008. This is a case of a genuine home-grown Georgia player having lived in the metro area his entire life until after his freshman year of high school.
As a sophomore, Saponari left Georgia for the famed program at Indiana's Culver Military Academy in the pursuit of his hockey dreams and to become the rarest of Southern gentlemen -- an NHL player.
"It's a lot more fun because I'm a lot more comfortable," the 6-foot, 179-pound right wing said of his third prospect camp. "I'm able to relax and have a good time with it. The last few years I was kind of nervous and stuff like that, being real young. Now I feel like I've been through it two or three times, I'm able to relax with it."
With the exception of Eric Chouinard
-- who was born in Atlanta when his father, Guy, played for the Flames during the 1979-80 season but was raised in Quebec -- Saponari is the first Georgia-born and -raised player drafted into the NHL.
As an amateur, Saponari got off to a rousing start, earning a spot with the U.S. National Team Development Program as a 17-year-old. From there, he was drafted by his hometown team -- whose games he attended from his youth, as his parents were season-ticket holders -- and went off to one of the nation's top collegiate programs, Boston University.
As a freshman, Saponari had 8 goals and 9 assists on as a member of the team that captured the NCAA title in shocking fashion, scoring twice in the final minute of regulation to force a tie against Miami (Ohio) before winning in overtime.
Last season, Saponari finished tied for third on the Terriers in scoring with 30 points (12 goals, 18 assists) in 38 games. However, the team finished a disappointing 18-17-3, placed third in Hockey East and failed to qualify for an NCAA Tournament berth to defend its title.
Thrashers Director of Amateur Scouting and Player Development Dan Marr said he thought in terms of on-ice performance BU might have set expectations a bit too high for Saponari's sophomore season with all of the scoring it lost from the '09 championship team.
"I think they wanted him to put up junior numbers and that's hard to do," he said.
In May, after breaking a team drinking rule, Saponari and his brother Victor, a walk-on at the school, were dismissed from the team. In a statement, coach Jack Parker cited "cumulative instances" in which the brothers "displayed conduct unbecoming" of a BU player.
"It was a shock to me," Saponari said. "It just came out of nowhere for me."
With his life given an unforeseen jolt just two months before prospect camp, Saponari nonetheless said his two years at BU helped him to develop.
"Last year I had a big role on the team," he said. "I played a lot of minutes and got a lot of good experience against pretty good college players. My conference's hockey is pretty good, so it was pretty good experience."
Marr said that for Saponari to make the NHL, he will have to be a two-way, energy-type player.
"He will get his scoring better," Marr said. "He will contribute offensively. His true value is as a two-way player."
"It's a lot more fun because I'm a lot more comfortable. I'm able to relax and have a good time with it. The last few years I was kind of nervous and stuff like that, being real young. Now I feel like I've been through it two or three times, I'm able to relax with it."
-- Vinny Saponari, on his third Thrashers' prospect camp
Saponari will play this coming season with Dubuque of the USHL, as the Thrashers helped point him in that direction. He could have opted to play as an over-ager in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, but by playing in the USHL, he retains NCAA eligibility to play at another school in the 2011-12 season. (Saponari said his older brother will finish his education at BU, but not play hockey.)
Marr said that Dean Blais, the coach at Nebraska-Omaha who guided the United States to the 2009 World Junior Championship title, likes Saponari. He was among the last players cut for the team's 23-man roster in December.
When Saponari arrives in Dubuque -- where he has not met any of his teammates -- the novelty of being a Georgia player likely will begin to fade. Having gone through Culver, the USNDTP and BU, now he will be better known for his record at those places than for playing on a youth team in Atlanta coached by one-time Thrasher Uwe Krupp
Instead, he'll be known as an Atlanta Thrashers
draftee trying to get his career back on track and his skills ready for the pro game.
"Just being more mature as a player, I guess," Saponari said of his goals. "I've been getting bigger. I've been growing a lot lately and getting heavier. Just being able to handle pro and stuff like that. My shot and passing and stuff like that. Take it to the next level."