Its the dream of lots and lots of kids who first play the game on the frozen ponds and rinks across the state of hockey. The dream of someday playing in the NHL, but for most its a dream they'll never come close to ever achieving. As a native of Elk River and a proud Elk River Area High School alum I can say without hesitation there is a lot of pride in the community's strong tradition with the game of hockey. From our boys teams to our girls teams, many have gone on to play collegiately and a few lucky ones have had the skills and talent to play professionally. If you go to Elk River Arena, you see the 3 banners of the 3 NHL'ers our community has produced; Joel Otto, Dan Hinote and Paul Martin. They will have to add another as Tuesday's news of Nate Prosser signing a 2-year, one way contract extension with the Wild worth a total of $1.65 million. So Prosser's days (at least for the next two seasons after this one) of hopping on flights back and forth from Houston are likely over.
Yet, a few years ago how many people outside of Elk River really knew much of anything about Nate Prosser? Yet, that could be said about most of Elk River's eventual NHL talents with the exception of Paul Martin. Joel Otto was not even a first line player for Elk River, and thus he went to play for Division III Bemidji State. With his strong 6'4" 220lbs frame he was absolute force for the Beavers. After an incredible freshman season, Otto signed as a free agent with the Calgary Flames. Again, much to many people's surprise the unheralded player again shined. His strength, his knack for scoring clutch goals, and good defensive play translated into a 14-year NHL career (with Calgary and Philadelphia) where he scored 195 goals and over 500 points. In 1989, Otto became the first Elk River native to win a Stanley Cup. Visitors to Elk River Arena are greeted with the image of Otto drinking champagne from the Stanley Cup. Similarly speaking, few would have guessed Dan Hinote had much of a chance at being an NHL'er at the end of his senior season. Even if you talked to Hinote, his focus was on graduating from West Point and becoming an FBI agent. Hinote was seen as a good player for the Elks, but not a superstar. The 6'0" 185lbs, center was drafted after his 1st season with Army where he led the Cadets in scoring, being selected in the 7th round (167th Overall) by the Colorado Avalanche, not exactly a place where you find a lot of 'sure things.' After further honing his his game in the Ontario Hockey League's Oshawa Generals he proved his value for the Avalanche's farm team the Hershey Bears. He would go onto an 8-year NHL career where he'd score 38 goals in 506 games, winning a Stanley Cup with the Avalanche in 2001. So again, who really thought Nate Prosser had a chance at the NHL?
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Probably only Nate Prosser himself. Heck, even earning a Division I scholarship (which is no small feat in itself) was not a sure thing for Nate Prosser. After taking his game to the USHL's Sioux Falls Stampede, Prosser earned a scholarship to Colorado College. Undrafted by any NHL club, he joined the Tigers where he worked on the team's 3rd pairing. Eventually he moved up to the 2nd pairing, where he was better able to show his talents of being pretty safe and steady with the puck and decent mobility. In 2008, he got his big break (at least as it seemed at the time) as a tryout at the St. Louis Blues summer prospect camp. Prosser described his Blues tryout camp experience in an interview with the Elk River Star News here. As Prosser said at the time, "My dream, my goal, of course, has always been to play in the NHL." Even at this point, I would say that Prosser's goal still seemed awfully optimistic. Two years later the Wild signed Prosser after the conclusion of his senior season, and even though he was only supposed to just practice with the Wild he ended up playing in the final 3 games of the 2009-10 season due to injuries where he scored his first NHL point, an assist.
Prosser would spend most of the 2010-11 season with the team's Ameican Hockey League affiliate, the Houston Aeros. The Aeros, coached by Mike Yeo leaned heavily on the poised defenseman, throughout the regular season and the Calder Cup playoffs. After scoring 8 goals, 27 points in 73 games Prosser earned a one-year, two-way contract with the Wild. It was another opportunity to impress the club and after biding some more time in Houston, he was a frequent call up as injuries became an issue for the Wild. Prosser would capitalize on his chances, and his past with new Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo has no doubt been advantage for the Elk River-native.
Nate Prosser (center) with the Houston Aeros
The run to the Calder Cup Finals brought alot of Wild youngsters closer together both personally and professionally. As you could see in the Wild's summer video series Becoming Wild, the first episode focused on the Aeros where you saw the team oriented philosophies of Mike Yeo and how the players embraced his demands for accountability (yes, I know you're thinking, where in the heck has that gone?). Prosser would provide stability on the Wild's back end and on Tuesday of last week the team announced it had signed him to a two-year, one-way contract. He will make $825,000 next season. Not too shabby. Shortly after signing this new deal, he gave this quote to the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Kent Youngblood, "It' s a good day," he said. "It's a good day for me and my family. I was able to celebrate with them yesterday. There was a lot of excitement. I mean, it's my first time signing a one-way deal like this. it's a dream come true." Prosser got teased by his teammates on his new deal on Tuesday, but he got the last laugh to a degree when he scored his first NHL goal in a 3-1 road loss to Columbus.
So how did he manage to earn a contract? To use a description offered by Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo, "He's an (asshole), I don't want to swear, he's a jerk out there and I like that because he's smart about it He's not doing it to Darcy Hordichuk. He's doing it to Taylor Hall and Ryan Smyth. If he can get them off their game a little bit, then more power to us." As you can see by Prosser getting into it with Steve Ott and others he tries to get into the heads of the opposition. With the exception of Cal Clutterbuck, the Wild are pretty vanilla. Not a lot of trash talkers and not alot of guys who will attempt to irritate opposing skaters or goaltenders. Prosser is not flashy, but he makes safe, smart plays with the puck and thus he's clearly earned the trust of the Wild coaching staff.
The timing of the contract works out pretty well when you consider that Prosser's wife (and high school sweetheart) Brittani is expecting their first child in August. The one-way contract gives Prosser the stability to buy a house in the Twin Cities. With the Wild struggling mightily, having lost their last 4 games in a row. The State of Hockey could use a feel good story right now.