Chris Pronger is, simply put, a mess right now. For most of the past month he’s been stumbling around, regularly forgetting very simple things and constantly feeling severe nausea. So when two of the leading concussion doctors shut him down for the remainder of the season and playoffs Thursday, the prospect of salvaging his career really didn’t mean much. What is far more important now is whether or not Pronger will have a decent quality of life or suffer the cruel fate that befell two Philadelphia Flyer captains before him, Eric Lindros and Keith Primeau.
“It’s been very difficult to see the state he’s in,” Pronger’s agent Pat Morris said Thursday night. “He has always been a player who has answered the bell through all of his injuries, but this is one time where he can’t answer the bell. So he’s listening to two renowned doctors who are telling him he’s in trouble.”
If anything good is to come of this situation and many of the other countless concussions suffered by star players this season, it’s that they should listen to their bodies and, more importantly, to their brains. You see, Pronger has never allowed injuries to limit him. Early in his career he took a puck in the chest and almost died on the ice, but he was back in the St. Louis Blues lineup two nights later. He had his jaw shattered with a stick and took 75 stitches and missed two games. He played through unfathomable pain in his hands and wrists. In fact, it seemed the only person who could keep him out of the lineup for any extended period of time was Colin Campbell.
But it was almost certainly that robust approach to the game that has Pronger’s career, and perhaps the quality of his life, hanging in the balance at the moment. Pronger is a member of that very rare breed of person, like a Gordie Howe or a Chris Chelios, who was put on this planet essentially to play hockey. They do it extremely well and they continue to be able to do it at a high level when the limits of injury, age and wear and tear would rob most of their peers of their ability and willingness. He has been playing in the NHL since he was 18 and plays long, hard minutes, not to mention a number of long playoff runs that take a toll on your body. And really, how many undiagnosed concussions do you think Pronger has suffered before now? If you asked him, Pronger would be the first one to admit he should be the last person consulted when it comes to evaluating whether he’s fit to play.
There is no telling which of Pronger’s setbacks ultimately caused his latest concussion woes, but it was almost certainly one or all of: 1) the eye injury he suffered Oct. 24 when he was hit on the follow through of a shot by Mikhail Grabovski; 2) when he collided into the boards in a game in Carolina Nov. 14 and his head whipped back violently; or, 3) when he took a hit into the boards by Martin Hanzal of the Phoenix Coyotes Nov. 17.
Having never suffered an officially diagnosed concussion before, Pronger did not know what to expect from one. When he continued to feel groggy after coming back from the eye injury, he simply thought it was because he was out of game shape. He played through it. When asked why Pronger continued playing after falling seriously into the boards in Carolina, Morris responded, “Because he’s Chris Pronger.”
If there’s one thing all these concussions lately have taught us, it’s that a little hypersensitivity when it comes to this issue might actually be a good thing. To be sure, you can bet that if the Flyers ever, ever had any thoughts of pushing Claude Giroux to get back into the lineup, that plan was dispensed with once they learned of Pronger’s fate. There’s surely so many concussions in the NHL now because of an increased awareness of them, but everyone from teams and players to the medical community and the culture of hockey have a long, long way to go when it comes to perfecting the return-to-play protocol.
When Pronger began feeling very ill on the way home from a game in Winnipeg Nov. 19, two days after the Hanzal hit, the Flyers originally announced he had been diagnosed with a virus. For his part, Pronger said he passed a baseline test. Who knows whether Pronger would have tried to will his way back into the lineup if not for knee surgery he had to have in conjunction with the concussion?
“There was always this attitude that you worked through it, but because of Sidney (Crosby), people realize they can’t work through it,” said renowned neurosurgeon and concussion expert Dr. Charles Tator. “They have to listen to their symptoms and do as much as those symptoms will allow and that in most cases, people have learned that playing through it usually makes it worse.”
There is every reason to believe Pronger didn’t listen to his symptoms. If he gets paid out the entire amount of his current contract, he’ll have had career earnings of more than $113 million. But that doesn’t seem to matter much at the moment. People are worried about him. Certainly two doctors and his agent are.
I always envisioned Pronger as a GM when his playing days ended, kind of a blustery, maverick type who wouldn’t be afraid to make bold moves. I hope I see that come to pass. It’s hard to believe he’ll ever play this game again - let the Hall of Fame debate start if that’s the case - but stranger things have happened.
I, too, am worried for Chris Pronger. And I worry just as much for those who don’t see his example as a cautionary tale.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column.
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