Tri-City Americans

A real Pro on the checking line

Bob Tory is notorious for making trades.

In the not-so-distant past, The Tri-City Americans general manager swung deals for scoring machines Colton Yellow Horn and Mitch Fadden, but last spring, Tory made a deal for a guy who didn't appear on anyone's radar.

On April 30, Tory orchestrated a player-for-player trade with Regina, sending little-used forward Jason Gardiner to the Pats for veteran forward Neal Prokop.

The Winnipeg, Manitoba, native had been toiling away for three years in the Eastern Conference with Moose Jaw and Regina, struggling to find his niche with either club.

"At the time, I didn't think Jason was a good fit for our group," Tory said of Gardiner, whom he drafted in the first round of the 2008 bantam draft. "I was looking to add depth at forward and to add size. It was a chance for us to get a little older and a little better up front.

"Neal has added a little bit of everything -- he finishes checks, he has good puck skills and is a good teammate, which is critical to our success. He's a valuable player for us."

That wasn't the case in Moose Jaw and Regina last year, where the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Prokop combined to score four goals and 18 assists with a minus-13 rating.

"The numbers are only part of it," Tory said. "It's nice to get guys like Yellow Horn and Fadden, but it doesn't always happen. Neal has work ethic, he's competitive and he's given us scoring."

For Prokop, the move was a chance to resuscitate his career.

"Too bad I didn't start my career here," said Prokop on Thursday as he and the rest of the U.S. Division-leading Americans were preparing for home games tonight against Everett and Saturday against rival Spokane. "I love the winning atmosphere -- when you get that going, it carries over to the next season.

"The guys have it really good here compared to some teams out East," Prokop continued. "This is a great organization with great facilities (he's partial to the weight room) and the fans are great. It's always fun to play when the crowd is in it -- it's like having a seventh man."

Prokop, 20, has been key in helping the Americans in their quest for a third straight U.S. Division banner. In 54 games, he has 15 goals, 18 assists, 62 penalty minutes and he's a plus-18. Of his 15 goals, 14 have come at even strength.

"I think 10 of his 15 goals have come at the top of the crease," said Americans coach Jim Hiller. "His size adds physical presence up front, he's strong and goes hard to the net. There are times when people are better on certain teams and in certain roles. He's playing with a couple of guys (Justin Feser and Patrick Holland) with offensive skills and he can use his strengths to his advantage."

In fact, the Prokop-Feser-Holland line has been one of the most productive on the team as of late. Since the Christmas break, the line has combined for 27 goals and 38 assists in 24 games.

"Their chemistry seems to be pretty good," Tory said. "Feser is a hard-working player, Holland is a smart player who analyzes things, and Neal is the physical presence."

Prokop accepts his role willingly.

"It's been the role -- the checking, grinding role -- I've played since I was 17," Prokop said. "Our line has just really clicked. I'm not sure what it is. We just keep it simple."

Simple, but effective.

"That's why this team has been so successful over the last little while," Hiller said of Prokop's line. "He was a key acquisition. He's what we needed and we're probably what Neal needed."

Prokop has been a solid player since his arrival, and his veteran leadership has allowed rookies like Holland to thrive.

"He's been through a couple of years in the league and he knows the ropes," Holland said. "There is no doubt I wouldn't be where I am if I wasn't on that line. We know we are the checking line and it works for us. We started putting up some points and that's boosted our confidence."

Annie Fowler: 582-1574;