by Joe Clark
Brandon Prust walks into the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights’ dressing room, takes off his skates and heads right to trainer D.J. Amadio’s room.
He knows the routine.
The bags of ice aren’t for a bum knee or sore shoulder. They are for his hands, which can look like raw hamburger once Prust finishes a night’s work in the American Hockey League.
The 22-year-old left wing from London, Ont., has more than 240 penalty minutes in his rookie campaign, which puts him in the top 10 in the league. Lots of those trips to the box are the result of dropping the gloves.
"He went through a stretch where he was fighting nearly every game, and sometimes twice a game," Amadio said. "His hands took a beating, especially his right hand because he predominately throws (punches) with that hand."
Don’t be led to believe Prust is a goon — he isn’t. In fact, tough guys like those from the 1970’s or 80’s don’t exist in today’s game.
Instead, Prust is a perfect example of the modern-day hockey player who can mix scoring with trading haymakers.
"It’s one thing I can bring to the table … protect my teammates," Prust said. "It’s something that I’ve grown accustomed to over the years. Some people don’t realize what it can do for the team."
Doug Soetaert does. The Knights’ president played in the NHL two decades ago and won a Stanley Cup with Montreal in 1986. Sitting high above the ice at the Omaha Civic Auditorium, watching Prust game in and game out, he’s become a bit of a fan.
"He’s a little bit of a throwback type of player," Soetaert said. "If you want to drop the gloves with him, he’s more than willing. One thing I’ve noticed is that he hasn’t fought many small guys … he takes on the big guys, and he’s handled it well."
Prust arrived in the Calgary Flames’ training camp seven months ago, fresh off a Memorial Cup championship with the London Knights, a team that dominated play in the Ontario Hockey League. They finished with an amazing 59-7-2 record, making their mark as one of the best teams in Canadian junior history.
After London advanced to the championship game against Rimouski, he and his linemates were given the task of shutting down Sidney Crosby and Co., a line that had produced 398 regular-season points. Crosby is a top contender for the NHL’s rookie of the year award.
London defeated Crosby’s team 4-0. "We were the only team to shut them out all season," Prust said.
But there’s a big difference between junior and pro hockey. As Prust is finding out.
"He came in here with a lot of bad habits," Knights coach Ryan McGill said. "But only because of the team he played on last year was so dominating."
If Prust winds up being a better pro player than he was in juniors, it might be because he’s with the right franchise. His gritty style is a perfect fit with Calgary.
"My job is to bring energy to the team, whether it’s getting physical or setting up plays," he said. "The game’s changing. It’s getting faster out there, and having a guy who can do both is beneficial to the team."
McGill, a former NHL defenseman with the Blackhawks, Flyers and Oilers, is demanding with his young players. But he credits Prust with being willing to listen.
"It’s the only way he’s going to get to the next level … if he creates good habits," McGill said. "But he’s really improved in doing some of the little things that need to get done.
"He’s strong in the corners, good at protecting the puck, has good vision on the rush. But everything he does, he has to do with authority. If he has an open mind to do those things, he’ll become a player. There’s no doubt."
Before games, Prust will dip his hands in paraffin wax four or five times, then wrap a bag around his mitts. Amadio says the warmth helps the healing process. After games, it’s simply ice.
"Hopefully my role won’t change … ever," Prust said. "My mentality has been like this since I was a little kid. I have to take any advantage I can get. It’s gotten me this far, and I’m definitely not going to stop now."
Joe Clark covers the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights for the Omaha World Herald. Reprinted with permission.