- A hockey legend who's spent decades tutoring NHL goalies, Dave Prior, suffered a heart attack that nearly derailed his latest chance at finally hoisting Lord Stanley's trophy.
LAS VEGAS – Dave Prior is still on the ice, skating slowly in a black tracksuit and a ballcap that touches his full-rimmed glasses, white hair peeking from the back like a cottontail rabbit. It's May 22, two days after the Golden Knights punched their improbable ticket to the Stanley Cup Final, an hour or so following their first practice as Western Conference champions. Officially his title is listed as director of goaltending, simultaneously responsible for coaching at the NHL level and overseeing Vegas's prospect development. But some just know Prior as Grandpa Dave.
The nickname is pretty close to perfect. Like most sexagenarians–he turned 61 last August–Prior has his moments of matter-of-factness. "It takes a while to understand how I am," he says. "I'm a little crustier at times than some guys, whether it's being critical or making a point. But you earn that right when you get older."
In the eyes of his players, though, he is many other things: methodical, modest, laid back, loyal ... The kind of coach who describes his teaching methods as geared toward preventing goalies from feeling pressure; who told Golden Knights starter Marc-Andre Fleury before the season began, "When there is failure, it's not your fault. It's mine."
The kind of guy who would give the shirt off his back while insisting that, no worries, he preferred not to wear one in the first place. The kind of man described with universal respect from across the Stanley Cup aisle. "Grandpa Dave?" asks Capitals backup Philipp Grubauer. "Unbelievable guy."
As the 2018 Final turns toward Washington tied at one game apiece, few individuals can claim stronger influence over the series than Prior. Consider: Forty-three years ago, Capitals director of goaltending Mitch Korn reported to him as a teenage counselor at the CAN/AM hockey school, learning training methods that Korn still uses today. When Prior later hosted summer camps outside Toronto, his regular attendees included a local kid named Scott Murray. Today Murray works as Washington's goalie coach, a position whose previous occupants include Korn and ... guess who?
Then there are the netminders themselves. Fleury delivered a career-best .927 regular season save percentage after Prior helped refine his technique by tightening his movements in the crease, then carried Vegas with a .947 through three playoff rounds. On the other side, Grubauer and Capitals No. 1 Braden Holtby (37 saves in Game 2) were drafted by Washington as fourth-rounders and rose through the organization under Prior's unflagging tutelage.
"The guy is committed," says Grubauer, who prophetically met Prior while attending a goalie camp in Germany at age 8. "I don't think he ever goes home." This is closer to true than not. One year Prior logged 238 hotel nights while operating an independent scouting service. Last fall he arrived for Golden Knights training camp planning to split the year between Las Vegas and his permanent home in Guelph, Ont., but wound up staying until Christmas Day.
All of which is to say that seeing Prior out late after practice ended–cruising around the near-empty rink at City National Arena, chit-chatting with lineup extras, scooping up loose pucks–would not shock anyone who knows him well.
And yet it is also miraculous that he is out there at all.
On Jan. 4, the Golden Knights coaching staff was gathered inside an office at St. Louis's Scottrade Center prior to facing the Blues. They were watching a telecast of the IIHF world junior championships–United States against Sweden–when Prior began feeling overheated. At first, the sensation barely registered as anything special. The room was small, the door was shut, and Prior was wearing a suit and snug tie, "which isn't my choice of attire," he says. Any number of these factors could've been the culprit.
During an intermission break in the action, Prior excused himself from the office. He walked down the entrance tunnel, hoping that some crisp rink air might act as a coolant. He sat on the visiting bench for several minutes. Then he stood up. A tight pain suddenly shot through his chest.
It was around 5:30 pm., around an hour and a half until puck drop. Loathe to interrupt pregame preparations, Prior initially decided to wait until the Golden Knights hit the ice for warmups before seeking help. Typical Grandpa Dave. Then he remembered how an older brother had underwent triple bypass surgery, and the artery blockages that run in the family. Retreating toward the dressing rooms, he discreetly located one of Vegas's team trainers.
"I may have a dilemma on my hands," Prior said.
"Let's check you out," the trainer replied.
By 5:45 p.m., Prior was sprawled face-up onto a massage table, dress shirt unbuttoned. He looked pale and sweat heavily. His chest and left arm throbbed. Blues trainers and medical personnel arrived, alerted to the situation. His blood pressure and vitals were taken. He became nauseous and vomited into a garbage can. Someone later remarked that the scene would've made for the perfect slide in a presentation to first-year medical students, detailing classic symptoms of a heart attack.
Several years ago, responding to the midgame cardiac episodes sustained by Jiri Fischer (Nov. 2005) and Rich Peverley (March 2014), the NHL and NHLPA jointly created a program that staffed games with emergency room physicians. But that person had not yet arrived at the arena when Prior, as he would later describe to a friend, "dropped." Luckily, an ambulance had just pulled into its usual parking spot, another standard precaution taken in case of crisis. Before EMTs loaded Prior onto a stretcher and whisked him down the corridor, he vomited again.
The details grow fuzzy from here. The ambulance transported Prior to Barnes-Jewish Hospital, a towering complex located four miles west of the rink where the red carpet was rolled out for their arrival. (Blues team physician Dr. Rick Wright practices orthopedic surgery there and sent word.) He remembers sensing "chaos" in the emergency room. He remembers answering questions about his heart and family history. He does not specifically remember sustaining a full myocardial infarction and coding. He does not remember when the defibrillator paddles came out and the doctors shocked him back to life.
The following morning he awoke and began piecing everything together from what others told him. The codes, the paddles, the resuscitation ... after Prior stabilized he had been moved to the cardiac catheterization lab, where four stents were placed to prevent future clotting. It was discovered that two of his coronary arteries were exhibiting 99% blockage, so jammed that his heart quit.
Prior had never experienced previous symptoms of heart problems, never been flagged for high cholesterol or high blood pressure, but he was not surprised. "The reality is, a number of members of my family have passed from similar issues," he says flatly. "For me, it was something that was just a matter of time. I'm either going to succumb to it or be diagnosed with the problem."
Then he heard about the miraculous reason why an episode hadn't occurred even sooner: "My body has grown its own collateral bypasses under the artery that rerouted blood and prevented a heart attack prior to that," Prior says. "It's not lost on me how extremely fortunate I was to escape that situation."
Indeed, had Prior been almost anywhere else that evening—flying on a plane, napping in the hotel, sitting alone at home—"they told me I wouldn't have survived."
Several hours later and thousands of miles away, the news spread quickly through his former players in Washington. "Especially as a goalie union, if something happens like that, everyone's concerned," Holtby says. "It's completely irrelevant what team you're on."
Even as they face him for their sport's ultimate prize, the Capitals hold Prior closer than most. He was hired two decades ago for the 1997-98 season, lugging a wealth of experience that included previous NHL stints in Winnipeg, San Jose, Detroit and Dallas, as well as two world championships and the '96 Nagano Olympics with Germany.
This international background helped forge especially strong bonds with Olie Kolzig, resurrecting the German-born starter's confidence en route to capturing the ‘97-98 Eastern Conference title–the last time the Capitals had reached the Stanley Cup Final prior to this spring– and later helping Kolzig win the ''00 Vezina Trophy. "He was like a father figure with Olie," Holtby says. "They went through a lot."
But the truth is that Prior holds a special place for most players over 14 years in Washington, during which he filled numerous roles: NHL goalie coach, director of goaltending, amateur scout and adviser. Holtby raves about how Prior preached correct practice habits and cold postgame analysis, all process-oriented over results. "The only time he gets worked up is when he's protecting his goalies," Holtby says. "It's a pretty special quality to have." Grubauer meanwhile emphasizes Prior's ability to accept different goaltending styles, tailoring his teachings instead of making everyone conform to one model. "He's part of the family here," Grubauer says.
And family feels pain, even from afar. That's what happened when the Capitals heard about his heart attack. And that's what happened when Prior was unceremoniously fired amid philosophical disagreements with then-head coach Adam Oates in Aug. 2013. The circumstances of his dismissal are still a sore subject around the District. "Things weren't right the way he was handled here," Holtby says today.
Nonetheless resigned to his fate, Prior figured that he was finished in the league. "It certainly wasn't because I had any doubts about my ability," he says. "I just thought maybe I'm getting too old for the younger generation of coaches out there." He kept busy by consulting and scouting, still happy wherever blue creases and masked men could be found. "It wasn't the end of the world for me," he says, but one regret lingered: He still had not hoisted the Stanley Cup.
Redemption arrived from an old friend. Even before Vegas was granted its first pro sports team, Prior had received a call from George McPhee, the former Capitals general manager who both hired Prior in ‘97-98 and then presided over his dismissal, eight months before McPhee was shown the door himself.
Certain wounds required healing given how things ended at their previous stop. But McPhee told Prior that he was planning to interview for the expansion franchise's GM job–assuming the Board of Governors voted to approve–and wanted Prior along for the ride. "George has been good at tolerating me," Prior says. "We don't see eye to eye all the time. But he gives me the chance when I ask that he allows the goaltenders that opportunity to fail before we move onto the next one."
Never was this more evident than when the Golden Knights crease transformed into a triage unit last fall. With Fleury (concussion) and Subban (lower body) both sidelined by injuries, Vegas relied upon minor-leaguers Maxim Lagace and Oscar Dansk—plus 19-year-old WHL call-up Dylan Ferguson for 9:14 on Nov. 14—to keep its ship afloat. Together the untested tandem went 9-6-1, silencing internal calls for McPhee to acquire someone else externally and swelling Prior with pride. "Extremely rewarding," he says. "I get my gratification because I want to help these guys achieve their dreams. They've all done more than they've ever done in their past."
Which is precisely how Prior views his heart attack—not through a personal prism, but framed within the context of adversity overcome by the team. Typical Grandpa Dave.
"For me, it's not a real big story other than it's made for a very unique year to go with the rest of this," he says. "All the goalies got hurt, then it was my turn to take a stumble."
And then he was back up.
"I can tell you one thing," Holtby says, "it didn't surprise me he returned to work so fast. I can just picture him pulling all the plugs out, that big bear."
Prior was discharged from Barnes-Jewish less than 36 hours after his admittance, no ripped cords necessary. At this point he was given a choice by team owner Bill Foley, who had already hastily flown Prior's wife and adult son into town: Return home to Guelph or head to Vegas, where the Golden Knights would host the Rangers on Jan. 7. And so it was that Prior watched from the press box at T-Mobile Arena as Fleury made 28 saves during a 2-1 win, and then returned to the ice a few days later.
Prior has hardly told anyone what happened, and those who managed to coax out the abridged version might as well have been learning about a mild mosquito bite. The Golden Knights wound up losing to the Blues on Jan. 4, so Prior and Foley have joked that their setback must've been his fault for distracting them.
During a recent conversation in the film room at Vegas' practice facility, Prior repeatedly several times that he does not wish to "trivialize" what happened. For one thing, the Golden Knights have become intimately acquainted with tragedy during their inaugural season, from the Oct. 1 mass shooting outside Mandalay Bay to amateur scout Mark Workman, who died from liver cancer this Valentine's Day.
Plus, says Prior, "I know lots of people who are disabled afterwards, limited by what they can do. I know an NHL scout who's had a heart replacement. It's a very serious matter. I don't want to make it sound like it's nothing."
And yet … "It really hasn't impacted my work. It was a bit of a pause."
Indeed, Prior insists that life hasn't changed, even now that Vegas stands three wins from achieving his unfulfilled dream. "It's hard to believe I might've missed out on this," he says, "because it's been a great ride." He still teaches, still coaches, still empowers his goalies to become their best selves, still acts like Grandpa Dave. But a few important things are different. His heart requires regular doses of blood thinners, for instance. And though follow-up exams have determined that his heart sustained "next to no" lasting damage, he must keep making periodic visits to a cardiologist.
"Thanks for reminding me," Prior says. "I have to cancel my June appointment. Looks like I won't be able to make it.”