By Shelly Anderson
Like most NHL players, Sidney Crosby talks often of his parents and the role they played in his career – taking him to practices and road games, making financial sacrifices, even putting up with him ruining the family dryer with his missed shots in their Nova Scotia basement.
Trina and Troy Crosby never had to contemplate what Sandra and Hannie Sprong did, however. Crosby’s passion is their country’s national sport. When the Sprongs’ son Daniel was seven and showed a predilection for hockey, they did something remarkable. They moved the family from the Netherlands to suburban Montreal.
“I’m very proud of them, what they have done for me,” said Daniel. “They sacrificed their whole life for me.”
Coming off an 88-point season with Charlottetown of the QMJHL, Sprong was drafted in the second round (46th overall) this summer by the Pittsburgh Penguins and had such a strong training camp he made the roster as an 18-year-old.
Can you imagine how much pressure there could be on someone growing up knowing his or her parents invested that much in a dream? Crosby can: “Maybe a bit,” he said, smiling at his understatement. “Maybe a bit.”
If there is pressure, Sprong isn’t showing any effects. His nickname could easily be ‘Comfortable.’ As in, “I remember when I played my first game (in Canada), I felt really comfortable.” Or, “I felt really comfortable in training camp the first few days.”
The Penguins had no first-round draft pick this year, but they have treated Sprong as if he was one. In the opening couple of camp practices in September, Sprong was placed on a line with Crosby. That, he said, underscored what already was a strong level of confidence that he could play at the NHL level.
Lately, Sprong has been put alongside center Matt Cullen on the fourth line. Cullen, an NHL veteran of nearly two decades, was impressed with several aspects of Sprong’s game – his shot, his poise and the way he hangs onto the puck with authority yet doesn’t try to be a one-man show as a lot of scorers coming out of junior are wont to do. “He’s just a dynamic player,” Cullen said. “He brings a lot to the table. He’s going to be a really exciting player.
“He’s a confident kid. He definitely is. That’s a good thing. Most guys coming in are pretty cautious and intimidated. That’s completely normal. But he’s a little different in that regard.”
Pittsburgh coach Mike Johnston found room for improvement in Sprong’s game, but nothing major. “Off the puck he still has a couple of habits he has to change, just his positioning and his reaction, some of those things,” Johnston said. “But with the puck he’s a determined individual. He’s got very good puck skills. He makes things happen.”
Sprong elevated his prospect status in his first year with Charlottetown when he had 30 goals and 68 points in 67 games. He followed that in 2014-15 with 39 goals and 88 points in 68 games, and finished 12th in league scoring.
Those numbers probably seemed unreachable while he was still losing his baby teeth in the Netherlands, where hockey is not a major sport. Once in Canada, Sprong thrived, and he began playing with older boys, including Tampa Bay’s Jonathan Drouin and Arizona’s Anthony Duclair, both two years his senior.
All made possible by his parents’ decision to relocate so Daniel could not only follow his father, Hannie, who played hockey, but also have a chance to reach levels of the game Hannie could not. “I think of myself,” Cullen said. “I have three little boys now, nine, seven and five. Would I be willing to make that move for my own kids? That speaks really highly of what kind of talent he must have had at a young age to have his parents do that, but also the commitment his parents made to him. Kind of a cool story.”
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the November 9 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.