Shutdown forward; grinder; penalty killer- they’re not exactly the glamorous titles many young hockey players grow up wanting to have.
However, for those who fall into the position, it is something they embrace.
For Omaha sophomore forward Noah Prokop, it’s a role he’s happy to take on, especially if it helps his team. At the same time, work ethic is something he takes great pride in, and it fuels him as a player to this day.
“Yeah, I don’t know why I’m like that,” Prokop said. “I don’t know why I’m not a guy who can go out there and go top shelf every time, but I think one of the biggest things looking back on it, it started when I was playing youth hockey. I had Adam Foote, one of the Avalanche greats, as my head coach for two years. So, if you ever saw that guy play you know how he played and what type of player he was.”
“When you have that guy as your mentor for a few years, you build up a little chip on your shoulder pretty quick,” continued Prokop. “He was an old school hockey player and he brought it upon us to never lose a battle and do whatever it takes, and I think I’ve just kept that mindset my whole career.”
Prokop, who played for the rugged 19-year NHL blueliner from age 13-15, says those two years helped him really see and understand what bringing that element can do for a team. He still carries it with him every time he steps out on the ice.
Hailing from Littleton, Colorado, he admits he’s never going to be a guy to light up the scoresheet. At the same time, deep down he feels work ethic can beat anything. It is something that was ingrained into his head at a young age by the person who got him started in the sport- his father, Doug.
His father played high school hockey in Minnesota at Moorhead High School, a small town on the Fargo border, and went on to play at Concordia College. Noah says he was “born into” the sport because of it, and the rest is history.
In addition to being the person who got him into the game, Noah says his dad also had a major impact on the type of player he is today. It all stems back to an athlete he grew up watching highlights of alongside his father- and the guy he tries to model his play after- former New York Giants Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor.
“When I was younger, he was always showing me Lawrence Taylor highlights, and that guy was an absolute animal,” Prokop said. “I know it’s football, but when you watch that guy lineup and take down three guys and go sack the quarterback, it shows that work ethic beats everything.”
“So, I take that mindset out onto the ice with me. I don’t care who it is or who you are, or what you do, I’ll be outworking you. It doesn’t matter.”
That mindset was put to the test during a tough start to his freshman campaign. Prokop, who was in and out of the lineup for most of the first half, says it was hard to settle in and find a role. For a kid who came in playing regular minutes at Shattuck-St. Mary’s and with Green Bay (USHL), he found himself as a healthy scratch for 9 of the Mavericks first 19 games.
“Obviously it’s pretty tough to go through that little stage of your in and out of the lineup, and you’re just kind of confused with what’s going on,” Prokop said. “I think consistency was pretty hard to find early on because of it.”
“You go into a game, you’re finally playing and you don’t necessarily play that bad, but I think one of the hardest things is trying to do something good to make it so you stay in the lineup for the next weekend.”
However, things would change once the calendar flipped. A few nagging injuries early in the second half, including one that sidelined center Joey Abate for five games, opened the door for Prokop to slot up in the lineup.
As tough as it is to see teammates get hurt, the opportunity to get an elevated role was something he wanted to take advantage of.
“It’s always a terrible thing when injuries happen around the room, but in competitive sports, it’s important to step up and take advantage of your opportunity no matter what it is,” Prokop said. “As tough as an injury to another player is, when your name gets called, the onus is on you to get in there and show what you can do. You want to make sure when they’re back healthy that they have to keep both of you in the lineup.”
From the Jan. 4 game at Maine on, Prokop never left the lineup. He says a big credit goes to the coaching staff and head coach Mike Gabinet, who stressed that he needed to keep working and should not get down on himself.
Four months later, Prokop was named the team’s most improved player at the end of the season. It’s a sign of the steady growth that was made, and a testament to the freshman’s work ethic.
“I kind of joked around with the guys when the news came out that I got the award that I either sucked and got better, or it was always there and didn’t come out until about halfway through the year,” Prokop said. “I think it was always there, the type of player that I am, but about halfway through the year I started to prove myself more and show them [the coaching staff] that I’m a player that needs to be in the lineup every night.
“I’m not asking to be a first-line guy or on the power play, but just to be on the fourth line and the PK, I’m going to get stuff done to benefit the team. I think they started to notice that during the middle of the year and I went out there to work my tail off and show them I need to be in there.”
In those final 17 games, he would register his first two NCAA goals and finished the season with four points. More importantly, he was an effective player at both ends of the ice and a regular on the penalty kill. Even going up against some opponent’s top lines in a shutdown role.
He’s just ready to step in wherever he can help his team.
“It’s always nice to have a player that can adapt to any situation, and I think every player should have it in their toolbelt,” Prokop said. “At the beginning of the season I was playing wing, then I got tossed into center and then working on the PK. So, I was kind of all over the place and couldn’t really find my spot.
“You pay attention to what everyone is doing because you don’t know what you’re going to get tossed in there for. So, to be that well-rounded versatile player, it will ultimately just really help getting in the lineup, and I’ll do whatever it takes to help the team.”
However, it’s left him hungry and ready for more. Especially after sitting in the stands for parts of the first half. He says his number one goal for 2020-21 is to be in the lineup every night.
Determined to make it happen, he stayed behind this summer working out with recently graduated defensemen Ryan Jones and Dean Stewart. Besides a week after the season and Mother’s Day weekend, Prokop says he never left Omaha.
“I think it was super helpful staying here and working out with those guys,” Prokop said. “If you ever walk in the weight room and see Dean Stewart in there, he’s an absolute beast and he doesn’t take working out lightly, so I think working out with him helped a ton.
“Those were guys I leaned on a lot last year and were a great senior class to learn from. That whole senior leadership group, they’d been through it all and went through the tough times themselves, so I think getting close to them really helped me. When stuff wasn’t going your way and I was down in the slumps, those guys were always there to pick you up and give you good advice. I had an absolute blast here in Omaha this summer working with them again and I got a lot stronger.”
Size and strength are always going to help when going into the corners, but at the end of the day, it’s that work ethic beats everything mentality that’s going to be the difference-maker. Prokop isn’t ready to come out of the lineup anytime soon.
“I just don’t want to accept being average and being where I am,” Prokop said. “Being out of the lineup, it kind of pisses you off, so you want to get back in there. So, I think having that edge of remembering that and striving to never go through that again is one of the biggest mentality things that I’ve worked on.”
“Even this year I’m going into practice every day fighting just to be in the lineup every night, and I think just knowing nothing is given to you and you have to bring it every day. I’m ready to go to work.”