Growing up in Elk River, Minn., Wild defenseman Nate Prosser didn't have to look far for NHL role models. Prosser merely had to glance up at the huge billboards on the Elk River Ice Arena depicting Joel Otto, Dan Hinote and Paul Martin. All three made it to the NHL and all three were from the small suburb about 30 miles northwest of Minneapolis.
The three combined have played in 1,973 NHL games and won two Stanley Cups and two NCAA national championships.
"Growing up, you wanted to be just like them, you want to play in the NHL," Prosser said.
Countless players have skated at Elk River Ice Arena and dreamed of growing up to be like the men on the billboards, but Prosser was able to make that dream come true. On March 18, 2010, he signed with the Wild as a free agent out of Colorado College. On April 5, 2010, Prosser made his NHL debut, becoming the fourth Elk River native to skate in the NHL.
"It is pretty amazing that there have been four from Elk River. It is a sort is a smaller town," Prosser said of the suburb of roughly 23,000 people. "Just growing up watching those guys from youth to high school, those guys were some of my heroes."
Otto played with Calgary and Philadelphia from 1984-97 and won a Stanley Cup with the Flames in 1989. Hinote played with Colorado and St. Louis from 1999-2009 and won a Stanley Cup in 2001 with the Avalanche. Martin is in his eighth NHL season and playing with Pittsburgh; he previously skated with New Jersey. Martin won two NCAA championships with the University of Minnesota in 2002 and 2003 and was named to the 2010 U.S. Olympic hockey team but was unable to play due to an injury.
For Prosser, those heroes were more than billboards; they became a part of his life and helped mentor him.
All three men still have strong ties to their hometown and are active in the community. Hinote, 35, and Martin, 30, are closest in age to the 25-year-old Prosser and were always around in the summer once their NHL seasons ended. Prosser started playing junior hockey in 2003-04 with the Sioux Falls Stampede of the USHL and after that began skating with the men he looked up to.
"They took me under their wing. I went out and skated with them in the summer, and it is kind of nice to be in that group," Prosser said. "It was huge when you have some NHL player show you the ropes. Looking up to these guys, these guys are stars. I tried to do everything they did, and I think it helped me with my game."
Martin remembers Prosser as a hard worker and says the defenseman should take much of the credit for his own success.
"As far as hockey goes, I didn't have to talk to him or teach him too much," Martin said. "He is a smart kid and a good player, and he works extremely hard. That part takes care of itself he deserves all the credit for that."
There is a huge amount of pride among the Elk River players, and they are happy to see others from their town achieve success. As Prosser has moved through the different levels of his career, Martin has kept an eye on him.
"I would always want to check in on him and make sure he is doing well," Martin said. "I am excited for him. He has a good career ahead. It is always fun to follow."
Prosser has had an impressive season with Minnesota and on Feb. 6 he signed a two-year, one-way contract extension with the Wild. As he begins to make his own mark on the NHL, the lessons Prosser remembers most from Martin and Hinote are the ones they were unknowingly teaching him the ones that have nothing to do with playing hockey.
"They are such good guys," Prosser said. "I can't say enough about how nice and down to earth those guys are. They do a lot with the community. I really look up to them how they handle themselves on and off the ice. I always watched how Paul and Dan handled kids off the ice. They would never pass up a kid that wanted to talk to them or that wanted an autograph."
Last month, when the Wild held outdoor practice at the John Rose Oval in Roseville, it was Prosser's autograph the kids wanted, and he was happy to oblige.
"It is crazy," he said. "When we went to the Oval and skated and saw all those kids look up to you and want an autograph or a hat or a stick or anything. That was me when I was younger, and it is pretty cool to see."
Prosser doesn't have a billboard at the Elk River Ice Arena yet, but maybe one day soon he will and young hockey players growing up in Elk River will be able to look to his picture and dream of bigger things ahead.