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Sprong Earned His Spot

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

There’s a six-hour time difference between Canada and the Netherlands. So one night while he was growing up in Amsterdam, a then 7-year-old Daniel Sprong had to wake up around 2 or 3 a.m. to watch Patrick Roy and the Colorado Avalanche play in the Stanley Cup Final.

Right after the game, he told his father Hannie – who played professionally in Holland during the early 1990s – that he wanted to be there too one day. Ever since then, Sprong’s dream has been to play in the NHL.

To help Daniel achieve that, the family moved to Montreal later that year to further his development and give him the kind of teaching and instruction he wouldn’t be able to get in Amsterdam – which, at the time, had just one rink 45 minutes away from their home.

Now, over 10 years later, that dream is going to come true on Thursday night in Dallas as the 18-year-old winger will be in the Pens’ lineup for their regular-season opener.

“It’s a pretty good feeling,” Sprong said. “I was pretty happy to get the call and get the good news. But it’s not over yet. I’ve still got to keep earning my spot and keep playing well.”

Sprong said he called his parents right away after he was told he made the team, but he didn’t necessarily break the news immediately.

“I first told my mom I was getting sent back,” Sprong joked. “I played a mind trick on her. She wasn’t very happy with it. But my parents are really happy for me and friends back home were happy as well.

“I told my parents it was worth it (to move here). I told them they made the right call and I’m very proud of them for what they did for me because without them I wouldn’t be standing here.”

Sprong took the first step towards this moment when he was selected by the Pens in the second round of the 2015 NHL Draft back in June after two seasons of leading Charlottetown of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in team scoring.

The organization was thrilled to get him where they did, as the forward – ranked 20th among North American skaters – had been projected to go in the first round.

“The two famous lines from every draft are ‘we couldn’t believe he was still there’ and ‘we had him a lot higher on our list,’” director of amateur scouting Randy Sexton said that night. “Both were true today for Sprong.”

And Sprong wanted to show the organization they had gotten a first-round talent.

“When I got drafted, the first thing I thought to myself was I’ve got to prove that I wasn’t that low of a pick,” Sprong admitted. “I was very disappointed, of course, that I didn’t end up going into the first. But when Pittsburgh called my name, that got away and I just wanted to prove Pittsburgh right – that they picked the right guy and I want to show them I can play in the NHL as soon as possible.”

Sprong traveled to Pittsburgh a few weeks later for development camp in July, where he got an idea of what he would need to do during training camp in September to crack the lineup.

“Coming here in development camp, I saw what kind of system they wanted to play and what the life was like,” Sprong said. “And when I came back I knew what kind of game I had to play. I knew the roster was going to be very hard to make.”

At the beginning of his first NHL training camp, head coach Mike Johnston had Sprong practicing on a line with Sidney Crosby for the first three days – and the teenager pointed to that experience as what helped him get comfortable right away and allowed him to get out to such a strong start.

“Really, playing with Sid in the first two practices really gave me a lot of confidence and my first game went really well,” Sprong said.

From there, Sprong appeared in five total preseason games and was arguably the Pens’ best player throughout training camp.

“If you talk to him, I think he said the very first game we played, he felt comfortable in the game,” Johnston said. “He knew there weren’t a lot of NHL players on both teams, but he started to feel comfortable and he said to himself ‘Geez, I have a chance here. If I play like this, I have a chance.’ And he kept building every game.”

Sprong said his focus was to work hard and try to get better every day, and the team took notice.

“At that age, you’re just going out there and you’re a sponge,” Crosby said. “You’re trying to learn as much as you can and you’re soaking up every game and he’s done a great job of doing that.”

The kid has so many strengths.

His skill, as Crosby pointed out.

“That’s the big thing,” the captain said. “He has a lot of skill. Can create a lot of plays.”

His shot, which is NHL-ready.

“Usually it takes a bit of time to get that but he seems to have an NHL shot already at his age,” Crosby added.

His skating, which is going to be a tremendous fit in Johnston’s system.

“They play with speed,” Sprong said of the Pens. “They like puck control and that’s something that I want to have in my game, a lot of speed and attacking the net. They don’t like sitting around and trapping the puck. They want to attack and have control and really give it to the other team and that’s my kind of style. I’m very happy that I get to play in a style that suits me.”

But what Johnston admires the most about Sprong is his attitude. That he doesn’t just play the game; he goes out to make a difference.

“I just like his take-charge attitude on the ice,” Johnston said. “(During the preseason), he wasn’t afraid to make a mistake. He took charge of the puck. He took charge of situations. So that’s why he’s here right now. He can help us.”

Of course, as with any young player, there’s lots of habits and details in Sprong’s game that he needs to work on. But honestly, there’s been no glaring negatives in his game so far, not even in the defensive zone – just a lot of potential that gets the coaching staff excited.

“He tends to get to the offensive side of the puck too quick, too often,” Johnston said. “He’s got to get to the defensive side at times, especially to play at this level on a regular basis. But, having said that, he is a young guy and almost every game, every practice, I see him getting better. As an 18-year-old kid, you look at him and say boy, how much could he improve over the next little while, how much could he improve through this season.”

Making the team out of training camp is the first step for Sprong. From here, the Pens can give him a nine-game look before his entry-level contract kicks in. At that point, they can send him back to juniors. But Sprong isn’t thinking about that now.

“I’m just going to enjoy it. After nine games, I’m going to see what happens,” Sprong said. “If I stay, it’s great and continue what I’ve been doing here. And if I get sent down, it’s not really on my mind right now. I know the first step was done, that I made the team. Now just got to keep working hard to stay in the lineup.”

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