If you ever need a case study in the stark contrasts that sometimes exist between on-ice perception and off-ice personality, you needn’t go much further than Marcel Pronovost. As rambunctious and dramatic as he was on the ice, he was as humble and respectful off it.
The man Ted Lindsay once called, “the most underrated defenseman every to play in the league,” Pronovost died Sunday in Windsor at the age of 84 after a series of illnesses. And the hockey world is a little less for having lost Pronovost, a man who devoted his life to the game and whose tentacles touched almost every aspect of it, from playing to coaching to scouting. And Pronovost enjoyed an enormous amount of success in all three.
But those who were close to Pronovost were just as impressed with the man as they were with the player and hockey executive. All told, Pronovost has his name on the Stanley Cup eight times – four times as a player with the Detroit Red Wings and once with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1966-67 and three as a scout with the New Jersey Devils – but it was his humble demeanor that left an impression on people.
“He was just an all-round good guy,” said fellow Hall of Famer Red Kelly, who played with Pronovost both on the Red Wings and the Leafs. “He played hockey. That was his life. He gave everything he had to it.”
One of the few Quebec-born players to escape the clutches of the Montreal Canadiens in the 1940s, Pronovost caught the eye of the Red Wings in a Shawinigan high school league when their Quebec-based scout was urged to scout Pronovost on the urging of Johnny Wilson, one of the players he was actually there to scout. Pronovost switched from forward to defense at the age of 16 and used his skills as a forward to become a rushing defenseman. “I was as quick as Bobby Hull,” Pronovost said in his 2012 autobiography A Life in Hockey. “I could skate like the wind.”
And he could hit, too. Particularly early in his career, Pronovost was a punishing bodychecker who received every bit as eagerly as he gave. He suffered almost every conceivable injury because of the way he played, from cracked vertebrae to shattered cheekbones. He even broke Gordie Howe’s collarbone once while both were playing with the Red Wings when an attempted hit on Bert Olmstead went awry and he collided with Howe by accident.
Later in his career as a scout, Pronovost would gravitate toward the kinds of prospects who played the same style he did. “He had a really great appreciation for the pure skater,” said Devils scouting director David Conte, who worked with Pronovost for 25 years. “He always admired the pure physicality of a guy like Scott Stevens, and the integrity of that physicality.”
After winning four Stanley Cups with the Red Wings, Pronovost was part of a seven-player deal that saw Andy Bathgate go to Detroit in 1965. He played almost five seasons with the Maple Leafs and while his game was not based as much on speed and physical play, he had developed into an effective defensive defenseman.
“He was really good on deflections with his stick,” said former Maple Leafs goalie and fellow Hall of Famer Johnny Bower. “He had that long reach and he was really good at that. He’d get the guy on an angle and all of a sudden he’d get his stick out and it would go flying up in the air past me. Sometimes I had to learn how to duck because some of those shots would have taken my head off.”
Pronovost went on to a distinguished off ice career, coaching at every level from the NHL with the Buffalo Sabres to mentoring a young Tie Domi at the Jr. C level. Not many men can say they’ve coached in the NHL, the World Hockey Association, the Central League, the Quebec League and the Ontario League. Pronovost turned his energies to scouting in 1985 when he joined the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau before being hired by the Devils in 1990.
Conte said Pronovost’s pedigree as a championship player and his ability to identify that in prospects was key to the Devils winning three Stanley Cups.
“He understood the requirements to be a champion and the prerequisite humility necessary to go with the confidence,” Conte said. “There was no bravado, it was all substance. The respect he had for the game is almost lost today. Without getting to gushy about it, there’s a dignity to guys like Marcel Pronovost that I hope kids like Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel can aspire to.”