The man with the beard and glasses looked different than I remembered him. But while sitting down with one of the most menacing defensemen ever to play the game, I began to appreciate the depths of Chris Pronger's internal struggles with the effects of injuries he suffered during NHL games in October and November of 2011: the disorientation of a lingering eye problem caused by a stick to the face as well as the headaches and depression that stemmed from that injury and likely from post-concussion syndrome as well.
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It is a sad way for a great and likely Hall of Fame career to end, but to Pronger's credit, he also spoke thoughtfully and forcefully about the future, even one with such uncertainty because everything from his vision to his train of thought may never quite return to normal. He talked about what constituted a victory, or what he called "a winning streak:" consecutive days without strong headaches and symptoms. He's been pushing himself to work out, move around and be with people more in order to improve the quality of his life and reduce the stress on his family, even if that means aggravating his symptoms more often than he would like.
Pronger was so effective on the ice in part because he fought against, battled with, stared down and out-yapped just about any foe who ever challenged him. This battle is different. It is taking longer than he expected and producing fewer good results. It was an odd feeling trying to sit closer and speak to him more softly in an already quiet and empty locker room at the Flyers' practice facility in Vorhees, NJ. For so many years he enjoyed razzing reporters during his entertaining postgame banter that your first instinct was to stand back a step so as not to be sliced up by a verbal zinger. As thoughtful as he was during our talk, Pronger still had a zinger or two waiting at the end of the magazine interview, and that glimmer of mischief, more than any medical assessment, was enough to show how far he's come and how steeled he is for his ongoing battle.