Small-town Canadian hockey rinks can be captivating and historic structures.
They are a hub for community activity, learning the game of hockey, and also can serve as visual reminders of where hard work can get you.
Adorning the walls of many of these rinks are photos of local kids who went on to play major junior hockey, minor pro hockey, and then there are the special spaces on the wall for those who made it to the National Hockey League – “the show,” as the kids call it.
But for a young kid named Dalton Prout who grew up in one of those small towns, that wasn’t the case. He didn’t know of any path to the NHL; in the spirit of full disclosure, on most days, he was just counting down the hours until he could head off to the local golf course.
His hometown is a place with one main strip of restaurants, shops and things that give off the city vibe. A place with one upscale bed and breakfast, a golf course, a local curling club and a popular bird sanctuary.
It’s also the place that Prout is putting on the map as its first homegrown NHL player – and soon enough, the Kingsville Recreation Complex’s ice rink is going to have his face on the wall (if it doesn't already).
Kingsville, Ontario. More commonly known as the southernmost Canadian town on the north shore of Lake Erie, it's a town that once had about 5,000 residents. The town has since expanded far beyond that and as of 2011, boasts a population of over 21,000. Despite the growth in numbers, Prout said that one of Kingsville's best qualities is that it has retained its close-knit feel.
“Kingsville is about 40 minutes from the city, with one main street with four corners,” Prout said, smiling as he sat back in his locker stall and thought about his hometown. “There are some nice little shops, two grade schools and one high school. I had a 10 minute walk to grade school and a three minute walk to high school.
“A while back, it used to feel like a really small town. Then the city extended its borders and we’re looking at a lot more people now. I feel like it was more an official move, but it’s still a small town. Kingsville is Kingsville, I guess you could say.”
Prout’s path to the NHL has drawn additional attention back home, in large part because he’s now the role model for what has become a hotbed for youth hockey in Essex County.
On any given summer day, one can find a handful of NHL players conducting their offseason on-ice training at a local rink. Prout is usually among that group, and has seen it grow from an occasional smattering of players to a regular session. It’s a far cry from his childhood, when summer days usually meant baseball or getting in as much golf as he could before the sun set.
“When I grew up, I loved hockey and I loved baseball,” Prout said. “I knew I loved hockey better, but I always played for today. I wanted to play golf, baseball and hockey all in the same day. I didn’t know how to get past the junior C team in Kingsville, because there hadn’t been someone to do it. As a kid, all I wanted to do was play for the Kingsville Comets.
“I would think to myself, ‘how the heck do I get to the NHL from the Kingsville Comets?’ and there wasn’t an answer because there was no one before me. I didn’t know. That’s how I grew up, and I didn’t know about the OHL draft until two years before my draft year. I had some buddies that saw a picture in the paper and I thought it was cool.”
When Prout’s junior hockey career began with the Barrie Colts, he was a four-hour drive east from Kingsville. It wasn’t always easy for folks back home to follow him, but luckily, Prout’s mother (who was a marketing student in college) had friends who worked for a local newspaper. From time to time, Prout would catch up with them and the paper would run a short story updating his progress.
“They would let people know how I was doing, where I was at in my career and things like that,” Prout said. “That was the only way people kept tabs on me. But I had great fans back home that followed me the whole way, and it was easy for them to stay connected.”
When the Blue Jackets selected him in the sixth round (No. 154 overall) of the 2010 NHL Draft in Los Angeles, it was – as you would expect – a huge deal in Kingsville.
It was an even bigger deal when Prout made his NHL debut last season in Chicago, not just for the actual event but for how it transpired; Prout was called up midday from Springfield and was already running late when the plane took off. He arrived in a cab halfway through the first period, did a quick stretch, put his gear on and got to the bench in a blur.
He never looked back. During the Jackets’ 19-5-4 run to end the season, Prout led the club in plus/minus and would have had a strong case for the NHL’s Calder Trophy (top rookie) had he played a longer stretch of games.
And now that he’s beginning to solidify his role with the Blue Jackets, Prout has had some time to think about what being the first NHL player from his hometown truly means.
“First of all, it’s a big honor and it’s extremely humbling,” he said. “I always have that extra sense of pride that comes from being the first NHL player from Kingsville. It’s a little extra something for our community.”
Whenever he thinks about home, he thinks of his grandfather, who would wake him up at 6:30 a.m. in a half-asleep daze to play golf in the summer time. His grandfather introduced him to the game and played a significant role in his childhood, supporting Prout in whatever sport he wanted to play on any given day.
"I'd love to have him here," Prout said. "There’s such a big family on my mom’s side, and when I think of home, I think of going over to my grandparents’ house after school to cut grass. I think of him picking me up at 6:30 in the morning when I’m half asleep, just so I could go play golf with him and his buddies. That’s what I think about. He passed away in my second to last year of junior, and there would be nobody more proud of me and where I came from than my grandpa.”
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