Elk River's Nate Prosser: From 'runt' to Wild scoring hero

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 21, 2014 - 7:09 AM
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Wild defenseman Nate Prosser celebrated after scoring the winning goal on Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen in overtime Saturday.

Photo: Ann Heisenfelt, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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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.”

Luke’s friends hated playing against Nate because he would hack their shins and finish body checks.

“I can’t tell you how annoying it is to go up against a little shrimp and you try to walk around him and he’s riding you into the boards,” Luke Prosser said.

Nate says Luke taught him to play hockey. But Luke admits he used Nate, too.

“We’d be playing 1-on-1, I couldn’t beat him by too much or he’d quit,” Luke Prosser said. “So the game for me was to keep him engaged long enough and then I would usually get him for the whole game. If it was 5-0, he would shut down and quit.

“The game within the game was to string him along and keep him interested so I’d have someone to play with.”

To this day, the Prossers go down to the Pit on Christmas Eve morning for pickup hockey.

“It’s something we all cherish and we’ll never forget, being able to go down there and be goofy … be kids,” said Nate Prosser, a dad himself. His daughter, Emeri, is 17 months and his wife, Brittani, is due March 10 with their second child.

Help from home
Nate’s mom, Margaret, is an aerobics instructor and personal trainer. In the summer, she would take Luke and Nate down to the Pit with a stopwatch and time them as they sprinted up and down the hills.

“She pushed me beyond anything,” Nate Prosser said. “Usually it’s not the mom doing that, it’s the dad. She almost forced me into the weight room as soon as I got armpit hair.

“Summers, I would really push myself. When some guys were going to the beach or going golfing, I spent hours shooting pucks and going to the weight room and skating. I would go to the rink with a smile on my face ready to work on the things I needed to work on.”

On the ice, Prosser developed an edge. He gets in opponent’s faces, protects his goalies, hacks, whacks and chirps.

“My dad always taught me you’ve got to be able to flip a switch,” Prosser said. “When you’re off the ice, be that good family man who calls his grandma. Once you get on the ice, you’ve got to be able to flip it back.”

Finding a niche
If you don’t notice Prosser, he’s doing his job. If he can squeak out a plus-1 or plus-2, all the better. Last season, in 17 games, he was on the ice for two goals against.

Lately, he has been seen a lot, a plus-3 and the winning goal Thursday against Edmonton and the overtime winner Saturday against Dallas.

He usually is the Wild’s seventh defenseman, but he is now paired with Marco Scandella because Jared Spurgeon is injured.

“I think Nater’s still blacked out,” Luke Prosser said of his baby brother’s dreamy week. “He keeps saying this stuff shouldn’t happen to him.”

This is Nate Prosser’s fifth season with the Wild. He is in the last year of his contract after being a healthy scratch for much of the past two seasons, including 26 times this season.

“You dream of getting to the NHL and playing,” Prosser said. “You’re not dreaming to get in the NHL and sit up in the press box. Obviously it’s a little tough.

‘‘But I’m a positive guy. I want to be known as a good family man, a Christian man, who is always smiling and having a good time and a good teammate. I don’t want to be just known as the hockey player.

“I know there is so much more to life and that’s what keeps me positive. Going to the rink and having a smile on my face, I hope that rubs off on guys.”

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