Other elite juniors vying to be first-round picks in the 2015 NHL entry draft have been able to flash their skills in high-profile international age-group tournaments. It might have been the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge last season. It might have been the Ivan Hlinka under-18 tournament in August. For the top European teams and the U.S. development team, there’s the U-18 Five Nations tournament in the Czech Republic in February. Then there’s the main pool of the IIHF world under-18s that will be played in Switzerland in April.
Daniel Sprong of the Charlottetown Islanders will be the only one who won’t have skated in any of them. It’s not that he’s a right-winger without a country, just that the country of his birth doesn’t send a team to any of those tournaments.
The Netherlands will be sending a team to the IIHF’s under-18 Div. II, Group A to compete against the likes of Croatia, South Korea, Great Britain and tournament host Estonia this spring. Sprong, 17, would even be a candidate to play for the Dutch against those clubs in Div. I, Group B of the men’s worlds in Eindhoven. But that’s not going to happen.
It’s a touchy subject for Sprong, whose family moved from Amsterdam to Montreal 10 years ago. He doesn’t want to seem any less proud of his heritage, but it’s clear he has no intention of suiting up for the Dutch in any of these tournaments. If he did play for Holland, it would jeopardize his eligibility to play for his adopted homeland. “I have an application in for [Canadian citizenship] but I have no idea where that’s standing right now,” he says. “That’s with my lawyer and agent, and I try not to focus on that.” Sprong hasn’t needed to play in any international tournaments to establish his place in this draft class. His rookie season with the Islanders was more than enough to make him a player of interest for NHL scouts: 30 goals and 38 assists in 67 regular season games. He even raised his game in the playoffs—though the Islanders were swept by defending Memorial Cup champion Halifax, Sprong picked up four goals.
Because Sprong meets the residency requirement and played his youth hockey on this side of the Atlantic, he doesn't count as an import with the Islanders. Still, his birthplace is a key part of his story. The reason his parents crossed the Atlantic was so he could pursue a hockey career. He had run out of challenges in youth hockey in Amsterdam. That in itself wouldn't be surprising considering that the Ice Hockey Federation of the Netherlands lists only 1,194 boys playing in age-group leagues, from tykes through juniors. What was surprising was the timing of the Sprongs' decision: Daniel was only seven years old when the family moved.
A career move for a second-grader: That would seem a thin branch for a family to crawl out on, but the Sprongs were a hockey family when Daniel was in diapers. "My father [Hanni Sprong] had been with the national team as a player," Daniel says. "Before we came over, he managed a hockey team in Holland. I would go to the rink with my father and I just fell in love with the game when I was little. He worked with me on my skills, but [youth hockey] in Amsterdam wasn't very good. Our family's friends would say that if I was going to become a player I'd have to go to Canada."
The Sprongs settled in Île Bizard, a suburb of Montreal, and Daniel played in the Deux Rives program up to age 14. Midway through his bantam season, he joined the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights, a travelling team in Pennsylvania, a move that caused some hard feelings with the Deux Rives coaches and players, but also a move that Hanni Sprong thought was best for his son's development. There's no arguing with the results.
The next season, Daniel skated with Lac St-Louis in the Midget Espoir league and racked up 48 goals and 104 points in just 30 games. (Because he isn't a Canadian citizen, he wasn't eligible to play Midget AAA in Quebec.) Charlottetown wound up selecting him 13th overall in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League draft.
Sprong's favourite NHL player is Patrick Kane and he models his game after the Blackhawks' all-star right winger. Kane's name also comes up when NHL scouts look for talents comparable to Sprong's.
"His strengths—skating and finishing—are the same strengths in Kane's game," one NHL scouting director says. "His puck skills probably aren't where Kane's were at 18, but whose are? Sprong might project to be a faster skater at the next level. His game is still growing. He's physically stronger than he was last year and he'll have to be. He's going to command a lot more attention from other teams and they'll try to lean on him."
Over the summer, Sprong trained with Andy O'Brien in Toronto and skated with a few of the strength coach's A-list clients. "I was pretty nervous the first time I got on the ice with Jason Spezza and John Tavares," Sprong says. "But they were great to me and pretty soon I just settled in and fit in. I've stayed in touch with some of them. Just the other day, John Tavares texted me to see how I was doing. Sometimes I stop and wonder, 'Is this real?'"
Most elite prospects are loath to admit that the stakes in their draft years weigh heavily in their minds, but Sprong is open about the pressure he was feeling at the start of the season. "I struggled the first few weeks, trying to do too much," he says. "I was pressing because I knew this was a big year for me. Then I just started to relax and things picked up again. I can feel the difference the work with Andy this summer has made. With the added core strength, I think I'm faster and stronger on the puck."
He's definitely filling out: As a bantam, he stood five-foot-nine and weighed 140 lb., but now his 189 lb. stretch over almost six feet. Says one NHL scout: "He's a skill and speed player, but his game is heavier this season. Physically, he'll be able to stand up to contact at the NHL level—maybe not straight out of the draft but in a season or two after that."
And in a season or two, Sprong's citizenship should be in place and he'll be on Hockey Canada's radar. "It would be great to put on the Canadian sweater someday," he says.