If Chris Pronger has indeed played his final National Hockey League game, then we will never say he leaves us short on content.
Stanley Cups. Olympic gold medals. A snappy reply in a media scrum, leveled to keep his questioners on the defensive. A wink to the crowd while the boos rained down in 29 arenas — including whatever rink he had called home the year before.
And plenty of suspensions. Or at least, suspendable offences.
Pronger’s rough, Canadian game assured that he spent more time on the carpet than Rug Doctor, and in the end he earned likely about a third of the suspensions his game would render today, if he were just starting out.
So it’s fair to say that, by virtue of a recent innovation called the Department of Player Safety, we will never see another Pronger in the game of hockey. As it turns out, we may never see the original again, due to the latest concussion that has laid him low.
At age 38, there should still be a few good years left. A farewell tour, at least.
“He was just a genius around the puck,” marveled Craig MacTavish, the former Edmonton head coach whose No. 8 seed Oilers rode Pronger to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final in 2006. “In the defensive zone. In outnumbered situations. How good his stick was. How little he exerted himself to get so much work done.
“The play goes through him and it is inevitably improved,” MacTavish said, switching to the present tense. “The next guy is in a better situation when he gets the puck, from when Chris got it. It’s value added on every play. He adds value and then he spins it out.”
That was then. Today, Pronger feels like he’s in an outnumbered situation in his own living room.
Speaking with Sportsnet’s Dan Murphy in a two-part series to be aired on Sportsnet Wednesday and Thursday, the first thing you notice is the absence of Pronger’s trademark swagger. It is a time of weakness, a side of Pronger we have never been privy to — like Samson after the haircut. A guy who never gave an inch is now about 30 yards behind the battle, and unsure — that’s right, Pronger is not at all confident here — if he will catch up.
“What’s happened was I had 30-year-old eyes. I got hit and the doctor told me I had 60-year-old eyes,” the former Hartford Whaler, St. Louis Blue, Edmonton Oiler, Anaheim Duck and Philadelphia Flyer tells Murphy. “I don’t have very good peripheral vision. That so-called sixth sense? I used to really have a good one. Now, I couldn’t feel anybody comin’ around a corner. My kids scare me all the time.
“That used to be what I was known for: knowing where everybody was; having a feel for who was around me. Now I don’t have that.”
MacTavish coached a string of less than spectacular Oilers teams, but in 2006 — built around Pronger on the blue line — Edmonton put it all together.
“He was the best player in the playoffs that year,” MacTavish remembers (Carolina goalie Cam Ward narrowly won the Conn Smythe Award in ’06). “I remember saying at the time that he outplayed (Nicklas) Lidstrom in that (Round 1) series. It had been a long time since we’d had the best player in a series.
“You talk about the power of a team,” MacTavish added. “A good team masks individual weakness, and he had that ability. It’s a cliché, but he made everyone around him better.”
So the issue for Pronger becomes, does he return to hockey if his health improves to a level where he can safely play? Or, is the bar set at being able to be the best defenceman on the ice again, on most nights?
“It’s gotten a little bit better. I can leave the house, go do the stuff,” he said of the symptoms that followed a stick in the eye, Oct. 24, 2011, and a subsequent head trauma in a game about three weeks later. “If I do too much I may get a headache. Occasionally, if I start to feel a bit better I do a bit more, and I get nauseous.”
He is, at 38-years old, a husband and father of three with a long, fulfilling life ahead. Money is not an issue. Long-term health is.
Pronger will be remembered as a Top 3 defenceman of his generation, grouped with Lidstrom and Ray Bourque, and the tall kid from Dryden, Ont. is a undoubtedly first ballot Hall of Famer. He has nothing to gain from a return to the NHL, other than being able to say he overcame the most serious injury in a 1,167-game career (173 playoff games).
“Like Lidstrom, you’d think a guy like that could play as long as he wanted to play,” said MacTavish, who played with Pronger in St. Louis from 1995-97. “But, those guys are pretty intuitive about their career length too. They know when to walk away.”
“Everybody wants to go out like a John Elway,” muses Pronger, “where he wins two Super Bowls and retires on his own terms. Very, very few people get a chance to do that.”
He was one of hockey’s great quarterbacks. Watching the Murphy interview however, you get the sense that Chris Pronger is no Elway.