WINNIPEG - It’s a long way from Powder Springs, Ga., to Winnipeg.
Vinny Saponari went one further, taking the scenic route and hitting the ditch along the way.
But four years after being drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers, the first Georgia-born player ever selected in the NHL draft is finally here, ready for a second chance to make a first impression.
“It’s been a rollercoaster,” Saponari said after setting foot on a Winnipeg sheet of ice for the first time along with 35 other prospects at the Jets development camp, Monday. “I’ve had a lot of ups. Some downs. And learned a lot, had a lot of experiences. I would never take any of it back.”
Well, maybe one episode.
Saponari’s college career started off with a bang, as he helped Boston University to a national championship as a freshman in 2008-09.
But it ended a year later, at least at BU, when he was kicked out of school after a series of incidents that can label a player for years.
Saponari and some teammates, including his older brother, went out drinking on St. Patrick’s Day, two nights before a conference playoff game, a violation of team rules.
When he didn’t show up on time for a punishment bike ride, longtime BU coach Jack Parker had seen enough.
It didn’t help that a video of Saponari and another teammate singing an expletive-laced rap song called “Party like Puckstar” popped up on YouTube around the same time.
Parker kicked the Saponari brothers off the team for “conduct unbecoming of a Boston University hockey player.”
“Personally, it hurt a lot, because I loved it there,” Saponari said. “They were so much a part of my life. I won a national championship there. It was my school.”
His hockey career took a hip check, too, as Saponari found himself playing junior in the United States Hockey League.
Live, party and learn.
“I was young and a little immature at the time,” he acknowledged. “I made some mistakes. I definitely would change that. But it’s worked out well for me in the end.”
Saponari won another championship in the USHL, before joining Northeastern University this past season.
One of his seven goals and 23 points was the overtime winner against BU. If he’s learned anything, he didn’t celebrate by going out drinking.
Because at 22, the time is now to show the Thrashers-turned-Jets franchise he’s still a prospect.
“He’s a really mature kid,” Jets co-ordinator of player development Jimmy Roy said. “Things happen. Everybody makes mistakes. The biggest thing is if you learn from them.
“You talk to people, his former coaches. He’s grown up. He’s going to be the captain this year at Northeastern.”
He’s also one of the older players on the ice this week, a greybeard compared to the teenagers around him.
“It’s weird. I remember when I was 17, 18, walking into Atlanta’s training camp,” Saponari said. “You’re a little nervous and don’t know what to expect.”
Four years after seeing his dream come true, an Atlanta-area kid drafted by the hometown Thrashers, Saponari says he’s back on track.
“I’m better than on track. I’ve got a good chance. I’m still young. I still haven’t hit my peak years. Where I’m at in the game is pretty good right now. I’m pretty confident I can make it.”
He’s talking about making it all the way, from Georgia to the NHL.
Never mind a second chance. This may be his last one.
Last call, you could say.
“In a way,” Roy said. “But the way I look at it, it’s maybe his first chance, because he’s a Winnipeg Jet. This is our first chance to get him in the organization.”
Saponari’s first impressions of the team are interesting.
“You can tell it’s a lot more dedicated to hockey,” he said.
The Jets hope they see the same in him.