Wearing the maple leaf is what every Canadian hockey player dreams of. Ask anyone who has represented Canada in any competition, and they will tell you there is nothing quite like it.
But not every player who has donned red and white was born in Canada. The Team Canada record book includes a number of players born outside of the country, who found their way to, and made their mark on, Canadian ice.
Dany Heatley was born in Freiburg, Germany and represented Canada at two IIHF World Junior Championships, six IIHF World Championships, two Olympics and a World Cup of Hockey, while Chris Nielsen, a member of Canada’s National Junior Team at the 2000 World Juniors, was born in Moshi, Tanzania.
Robert Proner hopes to be the next to add his name to that list.
Born in Presov, Slovakia, Proner has played his way to Canada’s national under-17 development camp, the first step in Hockey Canada’s Program of Excellence, and the first towards a Team Canada future.
Like most players, he started skating at a young age at the only rink in the small town with his older brother. There was no organized hockey in Presov comparable to programs in Canada so it was just getting on the ice and playing a little shinny, learning basic hockey skills.
“My parents just put me on the ice and it came naturally to me,” Proner says, whose parents say he could skate better than he could walk, right from the start.
“I don’t remember a time before Robert didn’t want a hockey stick for Christmas, or a helmet, or a net,” says his older sister Klara. “He always wanted to play.”
At the young age of four, Robert packed up his life with his parents, brother and sister to move to Canada to create a better life for the family. “Slovakia is not like it is here,” Proner says. “You just don’t get the opportunities you get here. It’s a tough world.”
It wasn’t until he got to Canada that he learned that organized minor hockey was a lot different than the hockey he was used to.
“When I came over I started in Timbits Hockey. I had fun and really enjoyed playing,” says Proner. “So my dad signed me up for a spring team. He thought I was really good so I tried out for the Oakville Rangers Tyke team and I made it into AAA and spent four years there. I haven’t looked back and just kept on playing the best I can and the highest level for me.”
Proner’s path might lead him to play for his country one day, but he wouldn’t be the first in his family to represent Canada. His older brother George is a second lieutenant with the Royal Canadian Artillery in the Canadian Armed Forces, currently going through extensive training on the East Coast.
He was fearless and had fun on the ice, but hockey wasn’t as big of a dream as it was for Robert.
“My brother and I are close,” says Proner. “We played lots of hockey and video games together growing up. He was the one who got me into hockey and I look up to him. We FaceTime and text all the time.”
Now the 16-year-old has the chance to possibly represent his country playing hockey, just like his brother does in the Armed Forces.
“In a way it mirrors what George does, just in a different field. He uses his skills, and his passion, to try and represent his country,” said Klara.
One of the big things Proner has already learned at camp is the importance of The Canadian Way. Players, coaches and staff have bought into the meaning of what that is: Play hard. Make sacrifices. Support your team. Be committed. Play your role. When other teams push, push back harder.
“The Canadian Way is about making sacrifices and playing a role that benefits the team,” commented Proner. “It’s the way we play hockey.”
For the Proner family, though, it’s not just about hockey. Being Canadian doesn’t just mean that you were born here, but that you live The Canadian Way.
“My family loves Canada,” says Klara. “It’s our home, and we’re really proud to be Canadian.”