ST. PAUL, Minn. - Nick Pryor has heard all the jokes.
They are good-natured - the product of spending hour after hour, night after cold Minnesota night at the rink and on the road with his father, Flyers director of scouting Chris Pryor.
"People tell me all the time I've been a scout since I was 5 years old," Nick Pryor said. "Watching hockey is really the only thing I've ever known."
He just didn't believe this would be him. Not this soon, anyway. Whenever he walked through the doors of a rink, he was always Nick Pryor the hockey player.
Now, after multiple concussions while at the University of Maine limited him to just 64 of a possible 168 NCAA games, he is working for the Flyers as the youngest full-time scout in the NHL at age 23.
It is becoming an increasingly common road, particularly for talented players with devastating brain injuries. The NHL's first-ever fourth-generation player, Blake Geoffrion, retired from hockey last summer at age 25 after a depressed skull fracture. Geoffrion was quickly scooped up by the Columbus Blue Jackets as a pro scout.
For Pryor, it was a chance to join the family business. Other than maybe Ron Hextall, no other man in the front office has Paul Holmgren's ear like Chris Pryor, who has been with the Flyers since 1999.
"Nick is a sharp kid who has played the game at a very high level," Holmgren said. "I think to add a young guy like that, with a background like that, is great for the Flyers. He's got a good feel for the new game."
Even though he spent the past few summers in South Jersey with his folks, the Flyers plopped Nick in St. Louis Park, Minn., which he has always called home. His dad, from nearby St. Paul, broke into the NHL with the North Stars as a player in 1984.
Based in the Twin Cities, the Flyers have Nick Pryor focused on the USHL and Minnesota high schools and dabbling in the U.S. National Development program. He is intimately familiar with all three - having played at each level. He was a teammate of James van Riemsdyk and other NHL players like Kyle Palmieri. In Minnesota, Nick knows most of the coaches, understands the style of game and the players the leagues produce.
"I think they thought this was a good area to learn," Nick said. "A place where I'm comfortable."
Minnesota is an important battleground for the Flyers' scouting department. It's driving distance to most USHL teams, where 46 out of 203 players were drafted from last year. Fourteen players selected last year were born in Minnesota; seven were picked from Minnesota high schools alone, including two in the second round.
Nick can catch high school games on Tuesdays and Thursdays before making his way anywhere the Flyers need him on the weekends. The unanimous No. 1-ranked college hockey team in the nation, the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, also happen to be in town.
"It's probably a lot more flying than I thought I was going to do," Nick said.
Last weekend, he was in Ann Arbor, Mich. The weekend before that he was in Boston. The two weekends prior included trips to Toronto and Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he was on cross-checking assignments to get another set of eyes on particular players.
"I think the toughest part for me is to try and differentiate a player who is going to be a good college player from a player who is going to be a good pro," Nick said. "There's a lot of things that you have to take into consideration that I didn't at first because it's all new to me. It's all been an adjustment.
"It's tough to project what a player is going to be like 6 years down the road. But that's what scouting is. I'm learning from great people."
Nick has had plenty of help adjusting. He sat next to longtime scout Andre Beaulieu, a one-time head coach of the North Stars, during the Flyers' loss in Minnesota on Monday. Experienced scout and mentor Dennis Patterson isn't far away in Michigan.
But one person Nick hasn't leaned on too much is his boss: his dad. He learned quickly from the first few phone calls after being out on his own.
"I'd ask him questions and all he'd say is, 'You'll figure it out,' " Nick said. "It's been good, working for him - if I'm ever in a bad spot, he can help me. But he wants me to learn it on my own. That's helped me learn a little bit faster."
That was Chris Pryor's goal when sending his son halfway across the country.
"Scouting is a feel thing," Chris Pryor said via phone from Sweden, where he was on a scouting mission. "It is something you learn by doing. No one can show you or tell you how to do that. You need to accumulate that knowledge by getting a lot of games under your belt."
Watching games and even filing reports may not be the toughest part of the job, says former Flyers scout Patrick Burke. It was Burke, the son of Calgary Flames president Brian Burke, who once held the title of youngest scout in the league.
Burke, now 30, left the Flyers last summer to join the NHL as director of player safety under Brendan Shanahan, creating an opening on staff for Nick.
"More than anything, scouting taught me how to make decisions and provide an answer," Burke said from New York. "When Bob Clarke or Paul Holmgren asks you if we should trade for this guy or this guy, you need to be able to express yourself and explain yourself to excellent hockey minds. You need to have a strong feeling."
Since Day 1, it has been drilled into Nick's brain to "stay firm on a player if you like him."
"You can't let anyone change your mind - especially if it's in your area and you've seen the guy more than anyone else," Nick said. "You're going to have the most say if you know them the best."
Burke said once you can express yourself to Clarke or Holmgren - "two of the most intimidating executives in the NHL" - you can do it anywhere. That's particularly useful now, working with Shanahan, where Burke isn't afraid to offer an opinion on a hit or play that "just doesn't seem quite right, even when it can be only a matter of inches or feet."
So far, Holmgren is impressed.
"I read Nick's reports all the time," Holmgren said. "He has his own ideas, which is what I like. He's got a good eye for the game. I'm very happy with him."
Those close to Nick are convinced he was born for a life in hockey.
"Knowing him, I bet he'd want to be playing right now. But this is the next best thing," said Adam Shemansky, who was his teammate and roommate for 3 years at Maine and is a huge Flyers fan from Robbinsville, N.J. "We'd come home from practice and all we'd do is talk hockey. He has great insight; he was definitely one of the smarter kids on our team. He might be young, but he knows what he is watching."
Where will Nick Pryor be in a decade? He has no clue - on a path up the ladder with the Flyers, possibly on a path like Burke or maybe even behind a bench. Even when he's not working, he's at the rink, coaching a group of 8- to 10-year-olds in suburban Minneapolis.
"It's hard for me to say. That would make me feel greedy, doing this at such a young age," Nick said. "I'm happy with the Flyers. It's been great so far, an unbelievable opportunity."
Chris Pryor is as proud of Nick as he is his other son, Mike, who works in the restaurant industry, and daughter, Jena, who is married to former Flyer Andreas Nodl. But he is happy to have Nick share in the same passion.
"I think all parents speak for the same thing, that they want their kids to be able to stand on their own two feet," Chris Pryor said. "Nick has been around the game his whole life. If he is patient, asks the right questions and works hard, he has a chance to do well."