Whether it comes from a friend or just a random beer-leaguer who used to play pickup hockey at the Handke Pit, Nate Prosser hears this weekly: “Out of all the kids growing up in Elk River, I can’t believe you’re the one that made it.”
Prosser’s reply: “Tell me about it.”
The always-smiling Prosser — walking on air after becoming the first defenseman in Wild history to score back-to-back game-winners — never takes for granted any morning he gets to walk into an NHL locker room. That’s because a decade ago nobody could have predicted that the kid even his brother, Luke, says was a “little runt everyone disregarded” would make a living playing hockey.
“I was the late bloomer. I didn’t go through puberty until late,” Nate says matter of factly. “I was never close to making any selection teams. I was never the guy who was a higher-skilled defenseman or anything like that in the state.
“Everyone just pushed me aside. ‘Maybe you’ll make it to college, maybe not. Too slow. Too small.’ ”
Prosser isn’t exaggerating.
“I was probably 5-2, 5-3 until I grew like a foot when I was a junior in high school,” said Prosser, 27.
He still remembers piling into his dad’s minivan with buddies for long road trips to Grand Rapids and Fargo and Brandon, Manitoba. Everyone who played hockey as a kid has similar fond memories: overtaking a motel’s pool, learning to play poker with change, playing knee hockey in the hallways.
But then the real hockey games would start and Prosser’s father and AAA coach, Chris, would “be scared for me. We’d be playing against guys who have beards and I’m the little guy out there trying to get better. He feared for me.”
Slowly Prosser, now 6-2, grew as a player. He got invited to junior hockey tryout camps, and halfway through his senior year at Elk River, Sioux Falls of the U.S. Hockey League asked if he would consider leaving.
Prosser was a captain at the time. There were only a dozen games left. He calls it one of the hardest decisions he ever had to make but the “best decision I’ve ever made.”
Prosser left for Sioux Falls, played there three years and, as captain, led the Stampede to a league championship in 2005-06. He received a full ride to Colorado College.
Still, there were obstacles. He didn’t play regularly, and suffered a bad concussion.
“It felt like the world was coming down on me,” Prosser said.
But Prosser came back healthy his sophomore year, paired with current Washington Capitals defenseman Jack Hillen.
Undrafted, he got a family adviser, Neil Sheehy, who is now his agent. Prosser attended development camps with the St. Louis Blues and New York Islanders and eventually signed a free-agent contract with the Wild after his senior season.
At the Pit
Elk River’s Handke Pit, site of Saturday’s Hockey Day Minnesota outdoor high school game, was “perfect little dream setting for kids,” Prosser said. “Growing up, it was like, call anyone, they were going to the Pit.”
The Pit was formed by glaciers and has been a hockey haven since 1920, although the rumors among Elk River children is that a “meteorite came and smoked it,” Luke Prosser said.
Nate’s siblings, Luke and Steph, are older. Starting when Nate was in third grade, Luke, in sixth grade, was assigned the duty of dragging him to the Pit.
“To my friends, Nate was constantly the extra little brother who was just there. He was just that annoying little kid,” Luke Prosser said. “We usually stuck him back [on defense] because he wasn’t fast enough to skate with the forwards, or we’d put him in net.”