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December 21, 2011 :: 2:05am ET
Lay Down the Sword
 The latest occurrence in the rash of concussions to hit the NHL should bring a Hall of Fame career to its end.

LOS ANGELES -- A few weeks ago, a suggestion was made that with Sidney Crosby's continued struggles to recover from his concussion issues, 87 should retire before his health further deteriorates.

In the midst of his seventh NHL season, Crosby has established a legacy that includes being the youngest captain ever to win the Stanley Cup. He's scored 584 points in 420 regular season games and also has a greater than a point-per-game pace in the post season.

The Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, native has won every conceivable award a player can win and if he did the unthinkable and step away from the game, his legacy is secure.

As we hear it, while Crosby has put been put on the Injured Reserve list, a place visited in Pittsburgh seemingly visited as much as Heinz Field this year, the degree of his disability is not to the level which he'll be drawing up his retirement papers anytime soon. The best player in the game has more history to write, more rivalries to build and likely will be reenacting an on ice Stanley Cup celebration a few more times before his hangs up his sweater for the last time.

But what about a warrior who's reached his late 30s and whose body is failing as a result of enduring the rigors of fighting on ice wars for almost two decades? Like Crosby, he's won the Stanley Cup, an Olympic Gold Medal, the Hart Trophy, and has gone one better by winning the Norris Trophy, symbolic of the league's best defenseman.

It's time for Chris Pronger to step away from the game and take his place in the Hall of Fame when first eligible.

When the word came down from Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren in the press box of the Bell Centre last week, it chilled his team like an Arctic blast riding down from Hudson Bay. The Flyers powered through that night to beat the Habs that night, even with the additional absence of top center Claude Giroux burdening them, but the deflation of the loss of the one irreplaceable player on the roster was demonstrated last Saturday afternoon at Wells Fargo Center.

From the moment of the opening faceoff, the Bruins knew that were free to come hard without consequence at the man who on this day was better served pondering the creation of the universe, that budding 24/7 star goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. While the Flyers don't lack for skill on the blueline even without Pronger, none of the names on the back of the jerseys impose the consequences of the 6-foot-6 presence that's reviled in the other 29 cities he toils against.

From the time he was the second overall choice by Brian Burke for a franchise now relocated to Tobacco Road, greatness was expected of Christopher Robert Pronger from Dryden, Ontario. One of few NHLers never to play a game in the minor leagues, he landed in the suburban enclave of Hartford, Connecticut, a city best known for being an insurance industry capital and having a hockey rink connected to a shopping mall.

Safely nestled in the northeastern United States corridor on Interstate 95 between Boston and New York, on the nights that the Bruins and Rangers wore the visitors' sweaters, Pronger has the majority of the fans rooting against him.

A teenager playing among men the expectations were impossible to live up to; his greatest accomplishment in his time with the Whale may have been picking up the infamous nickname "Six Pack," a moniker that wasn't referring to his abductor muscles.

Burke knew that although possessing All Star caliber talent, Chris had a lot of growing up to do (his resume included a drunk driving arrest and a bar room brawl) so when he was offered veteran sniper Brendan Shanahan (yes, the same one who stars in the NHL suspension videos), he pulled the trigger to move Pronger to the Show Me State.

The parting could only be classified as mutual given the failure to fulfill the huge expectations.

"I think they thought I was going to be Mario Lemieux," he conveyed. "The way I was built up, I think they thought I was going to be the 100-point guy doing everything."

The man that Pronger had to show it to was "Iron Mike" Keenan, and in a private moment, Pronger would admit that the two seasons in his formative years with the task master behind the bench was the best thing for him.

For the better part of a decade, Pronger struck fear in hearts of wingers under the Gateway Arch. He was a five time All Star and at the conclusion of the 1999-2000 season, he won the Hart Trophy by a singular point over Jaromir Jagr. It was during the Missouri years that Chris first met with serious injury; during a playoff game against Detroit he was hit in the chest with a puck.

"I got hit with the puck and kind of smothered it and then I was sitting there going, OK, kind of stung a little bit, let's just get to the bench," Pronger recalled. "Next thing you know, I wake up and I'm looking up at the trainer going, 'Oh, this is neat. Had a nice little nap here.' My heart stopped for, like, a second or two. I technically had a heart attack from what the doctors say, but I don't think I did."

Now, established among the League's elite rearguards in St. Louis, the criticism now shifted from unrealized potential to the inability to lead a team to the Promised Land. The harshest criticism came after the Blues' first round ouster against the eighth seed Sharks after winning the President's Trophy as the top team in the NHL during Pronger's Norris season. Though the Blues made the playoffs every year that Pronger wore the Note, only one time did they earn a Conference Finals berth, losing to the Avalanche in the season immediately following the first round failure against San Jose.

After the nuclear winter of the NHL lockout thawed, the Blues were in the midst of a change of ownership that had them on the hunt to reduce payroll to make a buyer more attractive during the dawn of the salary cup era. A buyer for Chris' substantial skills was found north of the border as the Edmonton Oilers moved three players, including Eric Brewer, to get his looming presence.

Despite having a roster that had no All Stars or post-season hardware winners, the eighth seeded Oilers were one game away from winning the Stanley Cup. They became Canada's Team during a run that had them rally from a 3-to-1 game deficit to extend the season to the final possible game. With Dwayne Roloson knocking aside the random shot that Pronger allowed to get through and Ryan Smyth growing his Captain Canada legend, these were not your dynastic Oilers that Edmonton fans were used to. This team simply dug in their heels and outlasted you as Chris was the only one on that roster who will be enshrined in downtown Toronto at the end of his playing days. Having signed a five year, $31.25 million deal on the heels of arriving in Alberta, all appearances gave that this was the start of a long successful ride in Oil Country.

But controversy descended upon him again as the well-publicized trade request that occurred at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft caught the entire organization by surprise and angered then-GM Kevin Lowe.

We won't recant into the personal nature or reasons for the trade request, but it took Lowe all of a week to find another buyer. As it turned out, the Anaheim Ducks weren't the bigger fool. While the deal won a championship for the Ducks as a result of Pronger being paired with another future Hall of Famer Scott Niedermayer, the deal is still paying dividends in Edmonton, as the Ducks first round pick that went into the bargain morphed into Jordan Eberle. The highest compliment you can pay to Chris is by pointing out that every team that's traded him away failed to make the playoffs in the next season.

Pronger's arrival on the Pacific shores allowed us to see his personality up close and personal in his tenure with the Anaheim Ducks. Though he's been reviled by fans and writers alike, our interactions were never tense and tended to be humorous. He was definitely a sourpuss on the Ducks trip to London for the 2007 Premiere Series, grousing loud and long to anyone within earshot about the logic and necessity to fly over 5,000 miles to contest two regular season games.

When there were questions about Martin Brodeur's absence from the All Star Game in Atlanta (remember that NHL outpost) in 2007, Pronger stepped off the podium so I could whisper to him confidentially the REAL reason Marty didn't play (his GM wanted him to rest).

Pronger was as tough to interview as he was shutting down a 2-on-1, but he never showed disrespect as that's what he wanted in return. The over-decade long chase of the Cup ended on a warm June evening not far from where other non-Stanley Cup dreams come true, Disneyland. This championship run was Pronger-esque, suspended twice for hits on Detroit's Tomas Holmstrom and Ottawa's Dean McAmmond, and when targeted by the Senators for retaliation in Game Five, he suffered a separated shoulder -- but on that night, not even a direct shotgun blast to the chest would have got him off the ice.

When Niedermayer retired the next season, he once again ascended to the captaincy, but when Ducks GM Bob Murray wanted to rid the roster of age and salary, his counterpart Paul Holmgren was happy to complete a deal for a player that while aging, was still a game changer.

Since his arrival in Philadelphia, his health directly coincided with the fortunes of the team. When healthy, his team was a Stanley Cup finalist, giving the Chicago Blackhawks all they wanted before succumbing in six draining matches. When he played only three games last Spring due to a hand injury, the Flyers outlasted the Sabres, but then went down to the Bruins in a sweep, a polar reversal of fortune over the course of one year. The Flyers staged a miracle rally from a 0-to-3 deficit to crush Boston's championship hopes with number 20 leading the charge and probably provided the necessary motivation for the Bruins to win it all last June. While the never-ending carousel of Philadelphia goaltenders was the impetus for signing the aforementioned Bryzgalov over the summer, the absence of Pronger was the real death knell for the prospects of the Stanley Cup's return to Philadelphia for the first time since disco music was en vogue.

If you've watched Chris Pronger play just once, you understand why he won't give up the fight to return to the ice. I know players who suffer from the effects of post-concussion syndrome; it's debilitating and frightening, from the headaches to the sensitivity to light to the depression, it can make a coward of even a warrior like Pronger. For Holmgren to stand in front of the media in December and rule out Pronger from a season that could last until June tells you the gravity of his condition.

Chris Pronger has earned tens of millions of dollars over his career, achieved accomplishments that will culminate in a first ballot entry to the Hall of Fame and developed the personality, and verbal skills to become a television personality when the day of retirement does arrive.

Having eliminated any questions about his legacy and impact on the game by virtue of his play that embodies "old time hockey," only a singular question that remains when the prospect of a return is raised:

What's the point?

Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.


 

 

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