Saponari Paving The Way For Local Players
2008 Thrashers draft pick is attending Prospect Development Camp
s the Thrashers begin their Prospect Development Camp this week many of the invitees will be making their first visits to the Duluth IceForum where the team has its practice facility and satellite offices. Others are well acquainted with the complex from past prospect camps.

Vinny Saponari doesn't quite fit into either category. As an Atlanta-area native he's more than familiar with the rink where he attended Thrashers youth hockey camps as a child. In fact, he was a guest at one of those camps at the IceForum just two days after he was drafted in the fourth round by the Thrashers at the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.

"I've been to a bunch of camps like this," he said at the time. "It's funny being back here because I was just reminiscing about when I used to be that little too."

As a local hockey product who grew up playing at all of the area rinks (Saponari played for, in order, the Atlanta Junior Knights, the Atlanta Rage, the Atlanta Fire and the TPH Thunder travel team before going to prep school at Culver Academy in Indiana and then the national junior training program in Michigan) Saponari understands that he's in a unique situation as the first Atlanta-born and raised hockey player to be drafted by an NHL team. The fact that he was chosen by the hometown Thrashers makes it even more special.

"I never knew that they were going to take me but I knew that they were interested about halfway through the year," he said. "I never knew it was going to end up like this but I'm happy it did. Growing up in Atlanta it's just a dream to play for your hometown team. I couldn't have asked for any place better."

Now Vinny hopes that his incredible story that saw him go from local player to NHL draftee will inspire young Atlanta players to stick with hockey.

"Growing up as a kid you don't really think you can make it somewhere playing hockey because it isn't very popular here (compared to other sports) but hopefully my story will inspire kids and show them that you really can go somewhere in hockey."

Whether the younger campers understood the significance of what Saponari has accomplished is debatable, but Thrashers TV analyst Darren Eliot who was a lead instructor at the camp was sure Vinny's achievements and presence at the camp will have an impact on the older skaters.

"The six year olds just want to know when their next Powerade and snack break is, but I think that some of the kids, once you get around 10 years old- he'll be a hero to them. Once you start getting to that age they'll be like 'Wow. He did that. He played for the national development program.' They'll start to figure out what that's all about. They'll figure out that if he can do it, they can do it."

When they do figure it out Saponari has some advice for those players- don't let anyone look down on you just because you played hockey in Georgia, but be prepared for skeptics and be ready to prove them wrong, just like he did.

"People look at where you're from and they're like 'Georgia? Come on.' So right away you've got to step it up and prove yourself a little more than other kids."

And prove himself he has. While at Culver Academy Saponari played against some of the best prep school players in the country, including fellow 2008 Thrashers prospect Zach Bogosian who played for Cushing Academy. His play at that level was good enough to get the attention of USA Hockey's National Training and Development Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan- a program dedicated to preparing young players for careers in hockey. As part of the Under-18 national team he competed against the best players in his age group from around the world, including many of this year's top draft picks like Steven Stamkos who was taken first overall by the Lightning.

Now the challenge for Saponari is take his success and build on it, beginning with this week's Prospect Development Camp where he will be pushed and tested by professional coaches and trainers from the Thrashers and the AHL's Chicago Wolves. At 6' 0" and 180 lbs. Saponari has a good frame but is still hoping to put on some size as he prepares to make the jump from playing hockey at the junior level to being an incoming freshman at Boston University where he will play with his older brother Victor, who happens to be a Prospect Camp invitee as well (there are also two Saponari sisters who play competitive hockey, and they are coached by their father Gus who used to run one of the local rinks).

The younger Saponari brother projects to be a tenacious smooth-skating forward who can serve a variety of roles, and that versatility will serve him well as he competes for ice-time at BU and prepares for a professional career.

He sees his biggest strength as his vision with the puck, his playmaking, and his ability to make things happen in what he calls 'tight areas'.

"I bring a lot of energy to the ice too and I like to try to cause problems and make things happen."

Just by being drafted Saponari is already making things happen, bringing attention to the fact that hockey is alive and well in Georgia, and in the same way that we have only seen the beginning of Saponari's career, we have only seen the beginning of the long-term effect that youth hockey will have in Atlanta. The Thrashers are coming up on their tenth season in the NHL and youth players who were introduced to hockey at the earliest stages back in 1999 are just a few years behind Saponari in their development. With him blazing the way there's no telling how many more local products could end up following his path to both college and professional careers.