Andrew Rodger – NHLA Writer
Living in a soon-to-be demolished farmhouse in Knoxville, Tennessee, the East Coast League was vastly different from wearing the ‘C’ at Bowling Green State University. Sean Pronger’s first trip to the NHL was still a year away, but life in professional hockey had begun.
“We had a barn, a horseshoe pit, and, of course, the farmhouse,” Sean writes in Journeyman. “When we moved in, our to-do list read something like this – buy horseshoes and throw a party in the barn. It should have included checking for cable, heat and signs of rodents. What’s that old saying? ‘If it’s too good to be true…’ Anyway, free is free, and he didn’t charge extra for the mice. A couple hundred dollars in mousetraps later, we had only a cable and heat problem.”
– Sean Pronger in Journeyman (Penguin Books)
Selected in the third round (51st overall) by the Vancouver Canucks in the 1991 NHL Draft, Sean would go on to play for sixteen teams in five leagues during his eleven year pro career. In the NHL, he took to the ice in 260 regular season games with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings, Boston Bruins, Columbus Blue Jackets and the Vancouver Canucks.
Growing up in the Northern Ontario town of Dryden, with a population of 7,000 at the time, Sean explained in our interview that his passion for hockey began at a young age.
“Hockey was a big part of everybody’s life up there,” he reminisced. “Growing up with Hockey Night in Canada and long winters was conducive to outdoor rinks and playing street hockey. My friends, my brother Chris and myself, played a lot of hockey! You don’t start out playing the game to make it to the NHL, you just start out because you love doing it – you’re not really thinking that far ahead. When you are a kid, you think ‘That would be awesome’ but I just liked to play, I wanted to play as much as I could.”
“I was a Wayne Gretzky fan,” Sean continued. “Funny enough, when I was a kid, the Oilers were battling the Islanders all the time and Chris was a Mike Bossy fan. We had a natural rivalry anyway and it got more heated when our favourite players went head-to-head.”
Being a journeyman, playing in several leagues and constantly being on the move, I asked Sean about chasing that NHL dream. When the plan to be an everyday NHLer is altered and there are tough moments along the way, what keeps you going? Is it the dream itself that helps fuel the passion?
“I didn’t know any better,” he said with a laugh. “I just kept plugging along because I loved playing the game. I would have loved it if there had been a straight line, where I came out of college and went to the NHL, but that doesn’t happen for everybody. So, you go to the East Coast League and do the best that you can, then to the IHL and do the best you can. When there are a couple of steps backwards, you keep trying to advance the ball forward – you keep showing up every night.”
“As long as you love what you are doing, it doesn’t seem as bad as it could be. If you don’t like what you are doing and have to go through tough moments and adversity then that’s just misery. But I didn’t think too far ahead and took whatever came at me as just being part of the journey.”
Sean first reached the NHL during the 1995-96 season, called up to join the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim with memories of the ‘Tennessean Farmhouse’ still fresh in his mind. His first year pro was, as he described it, a “disaster” but he continued to pay his dues in pro hockey and that perseverance paid off as he played in seven NHL games that season; wearing an NHL jersey for the first time.
“When I got called up and put on that jersey, it was very satisfying and gratifying because I just kept thinking that no matter what happened to me in my life, I could say I played at least one game in the NHL. No one could take that away from me!”
“What was funny,” Sean recalled. “Was that I didn’t know how many games I was going to get – someone was injured and my coach in the American League said they needed me for a game. When I got there and looked at the schedule, I saw that Toronto was the third game. All I thought was play this first game and get in the lineup for the second game in Detroit against Stevie Y. It was such a short-term focus. Play it game-by-game and shift-by-shift. Have a good shift here and a good shift there; maybe I can play another game. All I wanted to do, my whole goal, was to get to Toronto and play on Hockey Night in Canada.”
As he entered the NHL, the league had recently expanded and several teams had relocated, opening up new markets and new opportunities for players. Sean had the unique experience in his career to play for Original Six teams like Boston and the New York Rangers, while also hitting the ice in new markets like Anaheim and Columbus. I wondered if he noticed a difference between the different cities – the established franchises versus the newer organizations.
“I was so happy to be in the NHL and I didn’t have a lot to compare it to at first,” he said. “You can tell the differences once you have already been there. If I had come into the league with Philadelphia, Boston or New York and then went to Columbus, it would have been a lot different.”
“When I went to Anaheim, I figured that whatever was going on there was just the way it was and then I got traded to Pittsburgh and that’s a whole other story. That franchise has been around a lot longer than Anaheim and the city was more sports focused. From media coverage and the outside pressure, it was a lot different playing in more established markets.”
“In Columbus, it was an expansion team and the fans didn’t really expect a lot, except that you work your tail off because they really appreciated hard work and physical play. I think we sold out every game at home and had a great home record, but our road record was horrendous! It was great to play in front of fans that respected the physical play and the hard work. The more history a team has, then I guess the more fickle the fans are because they expect a lot more.”
Like all professional hockey players, there came a time when even the ‘Journeyman’ had to look ahead to life after hockey. After playing in Germany for the Frankfurt Lions during the 2004-05 season, Sean returned home to train for the summer. Several injuries while training helped him realize that perhaps his body was telling him something – it was time to hang up his skates.
“I don’t think it’s ever easy for any of the guys,” Sean confided. “Transitioning from being a hockey player to being a working person isn’t easy because you are used to doing something you love, something you have done your whole life. Now you have to shift gears and find something else.”
“You can like what you do, but you do not love it the way you loved playing hockey. That part was hard for me – just trying to find a path. I was used to expending my energy on something with a laser-like focus. I didn’t even know where to start. I hired a career coach to get help and guidance, but it still wasn’t easy.”
“I see guys go through it every year,” he continued. “Friends of mine retire and it’s just not an easy process to go through. There is always going to be that phase where you have to get your legs under you. It can be exciting for some, but I think it’s scary for a lot of guys.”
Becoming an author was not the original goal when Sean began writing after his retirement from the game. In fact, his writing career began with a single blog post at his younger brother Chris’ website. As a way to better interact and communicate with fans, Chris had created a website and asked friends to contribute stories as blog posts. When asked initially, Sean was reluctant and said no, but changed his mind after one of his brother’s posts and his writing career eventually grew into co-authoring Journeyman with his longtime friend and Sportsnet reporter, Dan Murphy.
“Chris wrote about his experience at training camp and I was thinking to myself, that is so not my experience at training camp,” he explained. “So, I wrote a blog about what it’s like to be a journeyman at training camp. I wrote, ‘You can call me a healthy scratch, a bubble boy, a depth player, a role player, whatever. For the purposes of this blog, I will only answer to Journeyman.’”
“I signed off as the ‘Journeyman’ and people visiting the site really enjoyed reading my post – it provided a different perspective. I thought if people liked that post, I’ve got a lot more! I wrote a few more blog posts and then The Hockey News wanted permission to post them at their website, so I started writing about my first year as a pro in a series of posts. Life got in the way and I got busy with work, so I couldn’t continue blogging, but I kept writing about my first year as a pro.”
“I remember talking with Dan during the 2010 Olympics and saying check this out. I wasn’t thinking book at the time, but maybe in the back of my mind or in my heart I was thinking it would be cool to write a book. Without realizing the amount of work that it would take, I thought it would be fun to say at one point in my life that I was an author.”
Through Dan, a book agent became aware of Sean’s stories and he believed they were on to something. Having the framework of the blog posts, Sean and Dan created an outline for Journeyman and the rest as they say is history.
“It’s great to have someone there to help you,” he said of working with Dan. “I would write a chapter in a week, writing for several hours each night and then I would send it off to him. He could go through it and help me draw out more stories, or explain things better. We have been good friends for twenty years and so he has heard all the stories and being involved in the game himself, he could add his own thoughts. We worked really well together.”
“When you finally lift your head up and look back at all the stuff that happened, it made it fun to write the book. I got to re-live all those things I didn’t want to think about, because I was always looking forwards and didn’t want to look backwards.”
“It’s kind of funny,” Sean summed up. “How it went from a blog at Chris’ site to a book.”
As Sean explained, the transition to life after hockey is a difficult one – finding a new passion can take time. With his book, he has created something that hockey fans will love and the casual to non-fan will enjoy as well. In a way that only a true storyteller can, Sean humanizes the hockey world and the player underneath the uniform in Journeyman. Call him a healthy scratch, a role player, a depth player or the journeyman, but from now on, you can also call him successful author.
You can follow Sean on Twitter (@SeanPronger) and Journeyman is available online and at your local bookstore. Along with his wife and a friend, he has also created the Journeyman clothing line – a collection inspired by the ‘journeyman’ theme. You can find more information on the clothing line at www.jrnymnwear.com and find them on Twitter (@TheJRNYMN).
Andrew Rodger is the resident writer for the NHL Alumni Association, providing news and interviews with our members as the NHL Alumni Insider. His goal is to shine the spotlight on Hockey’s Greatest Family and life after hockey, as well as to help bridge the gap between hockey fans and their hockey heroes. You can find him on Twitter as @ARodgerTVOS.