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Prospal's career offers lesson in history

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
The journey from youth hockey to the NHL is a long one. Only a tiny fraction of kids who start out with dreams of playing at the game's highest level actually get there. Each of the roughly 700 current NHL players has his own, unique story about the road to hockey's top league, and for Rangers fans, none are more interesting than those involving current Blueshirts.

Road to the Rangers on takes readers back in time, giving them a sense of what players went through to make it. Hear the player's story in his own words, in his own voice, as he looks back at all the years leading up to his first NHL game. Get a feel for each player's personality as he talks about unpublicized moments that helped him realize the dream of every young hockey player.

Girardi | Callahan | Boyle | Staal | Dubinsky

Vinny Prospal Vinny Prospal
Few NHL players react to every great moment on the ice with the sort of enthusiasm and pure joy demonstrated by Rangers alternate captain Vinny Prospal. Whether Prospal himself has made the big play, or he's simply sharing in the excitement generated by a teammate, his facial expression always tells the story.

Rangers head coach John Tortorella has called Prospal one of the best competitors he has coached in the NHL, both with the Blueshirts and before that in Tampa Bay. Indeed, Prospal is so caught up in a nightly pursuit of victory that his intense emotional on-ice displays seem to perfectly reflect what Rangers fans in the stands or at home might be feeling at any given moment in the game.

In 2009-10, Prospal emerged as the Rangers' second-leading scorer with 20 goals and 58 points in 75 games. Barring injury, he will likely play in his 1,000th NHL game in the second half of the upcoming 2010-11 season. His 949 career games have spanned 13 years and included stints with six NHL teams.

Vinny Prospal
Prospal has scored 218 goals and 657 points in the regular season and 34 points in 60 career playoff games. He has also won a World Championship gold medal and an Olympic bronze. Despite all of that, he still plays with the enthusiasm of a rookie and sets a remarkable example for every young NHL player.

One of the reasons the 35-year-old Prospal still relishes every second of his NHL career is because he will never forget what it took to get to hockey's top league. Prospal's journey to the NHL spotlight is a lesson in world history as well as a testimony to his own competitive instincts.

Born in the former Communist Czechoslovakia, he grew up with little or no knowledge of life outside his own country but was fortunate that the Iron Curtain collapsed at precisely the time that he was emerging as a star junior player in his hometown of Ceske Budejovice.

In those days, he wasn't Vinny. He was Vaclav Jr., the son of Czech Extraliga player Vaclav Sr., who reached the Ceske Budejovice senior team in the first year of Vinny's life. The older Prospal spent two seasons in the Extraliga, and it seemed inevitable that his son would follow in his footsteps.

As a child, all Prospal ever wanted was the chance to play for Ceske Budejovice. The NHL was not even on his radar, thanks to Communist censorship designed to minimize interest in the West. In the early 1980s, one of the top NHL stars was Peter Stastny, who had defected from Czechoslovakia, but as a boy, Prospal never heard about Stastny's NHL achievements. In fact, it wasn't until the 1987 Canada Cup that 12-year-old Vaclav Jr. first saw NHL players on his television set.

Prospal starred for Ceske Budejovice's junior team from 1991 to 1993 and was selected by the Philadelphia Flyers in the third round of the 1993 NHL Entry Draft. He was still very unfamiliar with the NHL at that time -- and didn't even find out he was drafted until well after the fact. Years later, however, he came to recognize that what the Flyers scouts did for him on June 26, 1993, would change his world forever.

The weeks that followed the 1993 draft were perhaps the most pivotal time in Prospal's life. He was ready to fulfill his lifelong goal of joining Ceske Budejovice's senior team for the 1993-94 season, but there was one major problem -- Ceske Budejovice had no room for him on its roster and didn't seem particularly interested in keeping him around.

Concerned that he might have no place to play if he was frozen out of his club team, Prospal asked if it would be OK to attend Philadelphia's training camp. Ceske Budejovice agreed to let Prospal go.

Prospal was hardly an overnight success once he came to North America. He needed more than three seasons in the American Hockey League before the Flyers deemed him ready for NHL service. He finally got that call on March 5, 1997, while he was playing for the Philadelphia Phantoms of the AHL, and his big break came only because of an injury to Flyers star Eric Lindros. With Lindros out, Prospal centered the "Legion of Doom" line with Mikael Renberg and John LeClair on the wings. Finally a full-time NHL player, Prospal would never appear in another minor-league game.

Here is Prospal's story, in his own words:

Click on the links below to hear Prospal's voice (Windows Media Player is required)
PART 1: Prospal on why he chose to begin playing hockey as a youngster.
PART 2: On growing up as a hockey player in the former Czechoslovakia.
PART 3: On recognizing he might become a pro, and his view of the NHL.
PART 4: On Communist media censorship and treatment of Peter Stastny.
PART 5: On his goals as a star junior player and learning about the NHL.
PART 6: On being eligible for the NHL draft and being drafted by the Flyers.
PART 7: Prospal talks about the Czech player he idolized as a youngster.
PART 8: On why he decided to cross the ocean and pursue an NHL career.
PART 9: Prospal describes his culture shock upon reaching North America.
PART 10: On a tough adjustment to the AHL game and why he stuck it out.
PART 11: Prospal recalls the call-up from the AHL and his first NHL game.
PART 12: On players who influenced him in the early part of his NHL career.
PART 13: On how grateful he is that he left home to play in North America.

Vinny Prospal Vinny Prospal Vinny Prospal
First NHL playoff goal on April 26, 1997.
In playoffs with Ottawa on April 24, 1998.
Happy Tampa moment on April 3, 2002.
Vinny Prospal Vinny Prospal Vinny Prospal
Taking penalty as Duck on Feb. 20, 2004.
Competing in 2004 World Cup of Hockey.
Winning World Championship gold in '05.
Vinny Prospal Vinny Prospal Vinny Prospal
Wearing Olympic bronze, Feb. 25, 2006.
A second stint as Flyer -- March 8, 2008.
In Prague with Bolts for 2008-09 opener.
Vinny Prospal Vinny Prospal
Skating in his fourth NHL game with Flyers on March 11, 1997.
In his first NHL game with Rangers at Pittsburgh on Oct. 2, 2009.
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