When he was 14 years old, Daniel Sprong got a call from a friend who invited him to join his bantam team – which just happened to be in Wilkes-Barre, where Pittsburgh’s American Hockey League affiliate is located.
The traveling team, called the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights, featured seventh-overall pick Ivan Provorov and the league as a whole featured a couple of other players who were taken early in the 2015 NHL Draft – including fifth-overall pick Noah Hanifin and Jeremy Bracco.
Sprong, an Amsterdam native, decided that playing with and against such talented players would be beneficial to him, so he picked up and moved to northeastern Pennsylvania for one season.
“It was a very strong league and we won the national championship, so it was a good choice that I made and I really developed as a player,” Sprong said.
While living in the Keystone State, the agency CAA invited Sprong to make the four-hour drive to Pittsburgh and take in a Penguins game at the brand-new CONSOL Energy Center.
“That’s where I met Sidney Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin and I just thought to myself, it’d be pretty cool to play here one day,” said Sprong, who already had a signed Malkin stick and a hat autographed by Malkin, Crosby and Sergei Gonchar in his house.
And now, he’s going to.
The Pens selected the forward, who finished this past season with the Charlottetown Islanders of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League as the team’s leader in goals (39), assists (49) and points (88), in the second round (46th overall) of the 2015 NHL Draft.
“When the new rink came, I said I wouldn’t mind putting on a Penguins jersey and now I am here putting on a Penguins jersey,” Sprong said. “It’s pretty cool now being part of the same organization as those guys when you looked up to them for so many years. Now knowing that one day I could play in that arena is unbelievable.”
Getting drafted is always a special moment, but this was particularly emotional for the 18-year-old considering all of the sacrifices and hard work he and his parents – father Hanni and mother Sandra – had put in over the years for him to get to this point.
Though soccer is by far the most popular sport in the Netherlands, Hanni had grown up playing hockey and Daniel wanted to follow his dad into the game.
“I was a big fan of hockey just watching when I was little, and when I started playing I just fell in love with the game and I wanted to continue it,” Sprong said.
Unfortunately, there weren’t many opportunities for Daniel to grow and develop as a player in the Netherlands, so the family picked up and moved to Montreal when he was 7 years old so that he could further his hockey career.
While in North America, Sprong played for multiple teams prior to Charlottetown, including the WBS Knights (Atlantic Metro Hockey League) and the Lac St-Louis Tigres (League of Excellence of Quebec).
Now Sprong has paced the Islanders in goals, assists and points in both years that he’s been with the club, including his rookie campaign in 2013-14 where his 68 points (30G-38A) ranked second among QMJHL rookies and earned him a spot on the QMJHL’s ‘All-Rookie Team.’
He’s been progressing quite nicely, taking a huge step today by joining the Penguins organization. Now Sprong is looking ahead to the next step.
“My parents wanted to give me the opportunity to make my dream come true, to get drafted and hopefully play one day the NHL,” Sprong said. “I think they made the right choice, it looks like, because I got picked (laughs). I know they’re very proud of me, but I can’t thank them enough for making sacrifices for me.
“Step one is completed right now and I’ve just got to keep working hard to hopefully make the Pittsburgh Penguins soon.”
What are your biggest strengths as a player?
“I think my shot and my vision. I can score or pass, I like to make a double threat when I get the puck. I can either shoot or pass, so I’m very excited with that and Pittsburgh has a lot of great players so I’m looking forward to maybe playing with them one day.”
What do you need to work on in order to get to the next level?
“My defensive game; my game without the puck. That’s something that Pittsburgh told me I have to work on and something that I know I have to work on as well. I’m busy with it right now to really focus on it and hopefully I can get that fixed as soon as possible.”
Is there anyone you model your game after?
“I was a really big fan of Ilya Kovalchuk when he played for New Jersey and Atlanta. I try to model my game a bit like he does and a bit like Patrick Kane – the way they skate, the skill they have and the way they shoot. But I want to work on the defensive side too, and I think that’s the most important part right now for me.”