Look way, way up in the Quebec League rookie scoring race and you’ll find Charlottetown’s Daniel Sprong. Second only to Halifax’s Nikolaj Ehlers, Sprong is a full year younger than the Mooseheads import and won’t be draft eligible for the NHL until 2015. Though like Ehlers, Sprong has European roots.
Born and raised in Amsterdam, Holland, Sprong was a phenom the likes of which the Netherlands has never seen. The right winger’s youth teams were frequently winning games by 20 or 30 goals thanks to his prowess, even when he was playing with older competition.
“The hockey in Amsterdam is not high level,” Sprong said. “I came to Canada because my parents decided to give me a chance to make my dream come true.”
His father was a trainer, coach and GM back home, so Sprong’s family knew what his passion was all about. Daniel had played summer hockey with the Montreal Ice Storm and living in the legendary hockey mecca during those months helped convince the Sprongs to make the trip over permanently when he was seven. Things got even better for Daniel once the snow fell.
“We had a big backyard, so we made a rink,” he said. “We got about 10 friends and dads to help out, so it went up pretty quick.”
Sprong has also spent time training with Darryl Belfry over the years, giving the youngster the opportunity to learn from a skills master whose clients include Patrick Kane and John Tavares. And the teacher is just as stoked to have the Dutch prodigy as a student.
“He could play on a line with an usher and a cheerleader and still get his points,” Belfry said
. “He has a feel-based learning style, but he also processes things intellectually. Daniel has an intense desire to take the puck to the net and he also has puck patience. That’s a unique skill set.”
For the Islanders, who lost several top scorers to age attrition over the summer, Sprong has been a revelation. He leads Charlottetown with 14 goals and 33 points in 31 games, showing no signs of slowing down.
“He arrived as advertised,” said coach Gordie Dwyer. “Exceptional talent level, but he’s also driven – he’s got that inner fuel. He wants to stand out every game.”
Dwyer acknowledged Sprong’s interesting back story and the kid’s close relationship with his family. Moving all the way across an ocean for a shot at playing a sport professionally that only a small fraction of hopefuls get to realize is daunting, but Sprong clearly doesn’t mind putting in the work. Off the ice, the 16-year-old loves to research to get ahead.
“I’ve been really studying my teammates’ strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “I watch a lot of video. If a player likes to use his speed and go wide on the defense, I know where to go to get the pass.”
Playing on a major junior team has also given him insights into what he needs to do with his body if he’s going to withstand the rigors of the Quebec League all season long. That means sleeping well on the road, having a big breakfast and making sure he feels good during morning skates.
Sprong likes to take parts of his favorite players’ games and morph it into his own: Patrick Kane (whom he met once after a session with Belfry) has incredible poise with the puck and is “amazing off the half-wall,” in Sprong’s words, while Ilya Kovalchuk is a fave because of his shot and the speed he drives into the offensive zone with.
“It’s going to be really interesting to see his game develop,” Belfry said of Sprong. “His early days were all about individual skill learning.”
You’d think that would be great news for the Dutch world junior team, which is currently in Division II Group A, three rungs down from the big boys. But since Sprong is living the Canadian dream, he wants to make it whole.
“I got asked,” he said. “But I want to play for Canada. Hopefully I get that opportunity one day.”
Based on his early returns, it probably won’t be that long before he does get that chance.