About six years ago, a mutual friend put Seth Appert and Vaclav “Vinny” Prospal in contact with each other.
Appert, now the Rochester Americans’ coach, was working at the U.S. National Team Development Program. Prospal, a veteran of 1,108 NHL games as a player, was coaching in the Tampa Scorpions youth organization.
As they chatted about hockey and player development, Appert realized how Prospal, who on Monday was named one of Rochester’s assistant coaches, embraced new ideas.
“I was really impressed that a player with 1,100 NHL games didn’t feel he had all the answers when it came to coaching,” said Appert, whose other assistant coach will be former Amerks and Buffalo Sabres defenseman Nathan Paetsch. “That struck me. And all I remember about that conversation is how easy the conversation was for two guys that had never met each other.”
After Rochester’s long run in the Calder Cup Playoffs ended last month, both of Appert’s assistant coaches, Michael Peca and Mike Weber, left for NHL jobs.
One day, as Appert caught up with Bob Daniels, his coach during his playing days at Ferris State, Daniels asked if he had an open mind about the search. When Appert replied yes, Daniels suggested Prospal.
“My answer was, ‘How the heck do you know Vinny Prospal?’” Appert said on a Zoom call Monday.
Last season, Prospal, 48, traveled around the country to soak up knowledge from coaches he knew. He visited Jim Montgomery with the Boston Bruins, Mike Sullivan with the Pittsburgh Penguins and John Tortorella with the Philadelphia Flyers.
One of Prospal’s former players attended Ferris State, so he spent a week with Daniels at the Big Rapids, Michigan, campus.
“Ferris State is not a glamorous place to go visit in the middle of the winter,” Appert said. “And he went up there for a week behind the scenes and fully immersed himself. And again, I thought that that said a lot about how seriously he takes the profession.”
Appert reached out to Prospal, and they had several phone conversations before the Sabres announced he and Paetsch as the Amerks’ new hires.
“It came as a huge surprise, because like pretty much two, three weeks ago, I had my mind set on going back to back to Tampa, being for third year in a row, sort of away from the pro hockey but being being just a full-time dad,” said Prospal, who spent three years coaching in his native Czechia. “And all of a sudden, I got a phone call from Seth.”
Peca and Weber, of course, enjoyed long NHL playing careers. They had a huge impact in Rochester, developing Sabres prospects while helping the Amerks win.
But Appert, who never played pro hockey, wasn’t targeting former players for the jobs.
“To me, you hire people based on who they are first as human beings, the kind of character that they have, the kind of family man they are,” he said. “And then the ability for us as a staff to have a really strong relationship because the stronger our relationship is, the players see that every day and that helps strengthen the bond of the players.”
Appert did not think he’d find a former player with Prospal’s qualifications to coach the forwards.
Prospal quietly had a terrific 16-year NHL playing career as a winger, scoring 255 goals and 765 points. He had a career year with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2005-06, registering 25 goals and 80 points in 81 games. He retired following the 2012-13 season.
He played four years in the AHL before beginning his NHL career with the Philadelphia Flyers.
“As soon as I started talking to Seth, I thought this is going to be a great opportunity personally for me,” said Prospal, who has served as an assistant coach for Czechia in major international events, including the Olympics. “Let’s say I didn’t have the (guts) to pass it up.”
Prospal briefly scouted for the New York Rangers, one of the seven teams he played for, before he said “something kind of led me toward the bench.”
“I believe coaching is the next best thing to playing,” he said.
Prospal coached teenagers in the Scorpions organization for a few years. When his players turned 18 and moved on, he wondered what it would be like to coach pro hockey.
“I always wanted to know how it is and what can you do as a coach with the team if you have them on the ice every day,” he said.
An opportunity materialized in Ceske Budejovice, his hometown. He spent three seasons (2018 to 2021) as head coach of HC Ceske Budejovice of the Czech Extraliga, winning league titles in 2018-19 and 2019-20. He was named the league’s top coach in 2020-21.
Meanwhile, Paetsch, 40, has moved up after serving as a development coach for two seasons. He seemed like a natural fit to assume Weber’s role running the defense.
He spent 11 years in Buffalo’s organization as a player, including six with the Amerks. He played 157 games with the Sabres, mostly as a defenseman, compiling seven goals and 42 points. He also played 10 games for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Paetsch won two Calder Cups with the Grand Rapids Griffins before returning to the Amerks in 2017 and playing three final seasons.
In his developmental role, he has already established strong bonds with Ryan Johnson and Nikita Novikov, two defense prospects he will be coaching as AHL rookies in the upcoming season.
Paetsch said he has “developed a special relationship” with Johnson, the 31st overall pick in 2019.
“It’s a friendship as well,” said Paetsch, who makes his year-round home in the Rochester area. “And we lean on each other. Sometimes we just have 30-minute phone calls that we don’t even talk about hockey. And so I’ve had a real comfort level with going into coaching with him.”
Paetsch met Novikov, a Russian the Sabres drafted in the sixth round in 2021, for the first time last week at development camp in Buffalo. They had mostly communicated through Zoom calls and text messages.
Novikov often asked Paetsch for help following difficult games.
“He’s just a genuine, really good person that wants to get better at hockey,” he said.
The Sabres on Monday also announced the coaching staffs in Buffalo and Rochester have received contract extensions. Sabres coach Don Granato received an extension prior to last season.