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Red Wings prospect Ryan Sproul’s road to OHL top defenceman honour was bumpy

Ryan Sproul (right) is the third Greyhound to be named the OHL's top defenceman (Kenneth Armstrong, The Canadian …

With Ryan Sproul, it was not just the numbers, but the perseverance.

There is probably little pretending that the Detroit Red Wings prospect was not named the OHL's top defenceman on Thursday because he led the league's blueliners with 20 goals and 66 points in 50 games for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Focusing just on that, though, would block out how the 6-foot-4 rearguard overcame having each of his final two seasons interrupted by major injuries.

First came a broken jaw in his post-draft season, then a broken arm last fall. Yet Sproul never missed a beat, powering the 'Hounds into the playoffs this season and filling out his game. The 20-year-old was a landslide winner in voting among the OHL's GMs, taking 80 of 95 possible points.

"It's been tough for myself with the injuries," Sproul, who's been with the Red Wings' Grand Rapids Griffins AHL affiliate since the Soo's season ended, said on Thursday. "I have to give all the credit in the world to Rich Rotenberg, our head therapist. He always knew what to do. If he didn't think I could do it, he wouldn't let me. I just kept pushing. To overcome those injuries is tough, but I can't get out of the game for that long. If I can feel like I can help the team out, I'm going to do it."

The Greyhounds were certainly grateful that Sproul was a quick healer. They were 6-11-1-0 (.361 point pct.) during the 18 games he missed over the entire season. When he was able and willing, they went 30-15-2-3 (.650).

"I don't know if I ever seen a player... push so hard to come back early from injuries," 'Hounds GM Kyle Dubas said. "Richard Rotenberg, our head therapist, he commented on the same thing. When Ryan was hurt and you set the timeframe for that injury and the average comeback time, Ryan always beat it. Not by days, but by weeks. That's a credit to Ryan, to Rich and our staff and his parents and the process he went to with the broken jaw last year and the broken arm this year.

"I don't know if people know how bad Ryan's arm was broken [when he was injured on Oct. 6]. It was an eight- to 12-week injury and he was back in 6½ weeks. And every time he came back, he had an impact right away."

Sproul receiving the honour is also a win for later blooming players. Now listed at 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, he was a midsized defenceman coming out of midget four seasons ago and initially looked into pursuing U.S. college hockey at the University of Michigan. He committed the Greyhounds early in 2010-11. Following a coaching change, the first of two over his time in the north, he blossomed into a rare commodity, a tall offensive D-man.

'A full game'

Over his final season, he began to fill in the gaps in his game. Sproul gives a lot of credit to 'Hounds coach Sheldon Keefe and assistant coach Joe Cirella, who both joined the organization this season.

"My development has come a long way," Sproul said. "The summers, I realized this is a life thing, every day coming to the rink and every day working in the off-season. Having Sheldon there this year helping out with my defensive game and Joe Cirella [a former NHL defenceman] helping me out as well was tremendous. It turned my game into a full game, not just offence."

The 'Hounds had a nice dilemma over whether to nominate Sproul or Los Angeles Kings prospect Colin Miller for the honour. Miller also had a 20-goal season from his defence spot, tallying 55 points in 54 games. The 'Hounds dominated Miller for the league's top overager award. Miller was a runner-up to Sarnia Sting centre Charlie Sarault, the league's second-leading point-getter.

"In the end, we just decided with Ryan's prolific offensive numbers and the tough minutes he logged and the fact Colin was going to be a nominee for some other awards, that Ryan was the best nominee from our team," Dubas said. "Those are always really tough ones. Those are good decisions to have, when you have two guys whom you think could win it outright as opposed to trying to conjure up a guy you think you can nominate. If we continue to have those problems, we're going to be all right."

Dubas added that Sproul also paid it forward off the ice.

"Ryan and [Philadelphia Flyers prospect] Brandon Alderson were by far the biggest participants with their time they gave to our community cares program. He never said no to anything. The feedback in the community from the Ryan's appearances there, in the pediatric wards in the hospital and in the cancer wards with the old and the young people who were not in a good way, to provide some inspiration and encouragement, was just fantastic."

Meantime, Sproul came into his own this season, regularly launching offensive rushes and unloosing a booming point shot. There was barely a trace of the slightly later start to his growth in junior. It took him 15 games in his rookie year just to record his first point. Now he's starting his pro career in the state where he once contemplated going the NCAA route.

"It's pretty ironic," he said of the Michigan connection. "I've definitely thought back to that before. That would have just been a longer route. I'm very thankful to the Greyhounds for giving me the chance. I definitely made the most of it."

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to btnblog@yahoo.ca.

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