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
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
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
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
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
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