He's very big (6'6", 222 pounds), he's very skilled, and he just might be the dirtiest player in the NHL. In other words, Chris Pronger is the perfect Flyer
Brett Hull slid over to Craig Conroy on the St. Louis Blues' bench and croaked, "He's not even breathing." Teammate Chris Pronger lay on the ice. His lips were turning purple, his skin was the color of neglected teeth. Pronger had been knocked off his feet by an industrial-strength Dmitri Mironov slapshot—struck in the chest near his heart—during a playoff game against the Red Wings. He thought to himself, This is Detroit, do not stay down, get to the bench, but upon clambering to his skates the 6'6" defenseman collapsed onto the ice like a cardboard skeleton. Pronger's heart had not stopped but it had skipped a beat. Cardiac arrhythmia. He was 23 years old. And he could have died.
If sports were crammed with so many moments of truth, as we often pretend, May 10, 1998, would have been the one when the white light shone, the bells chimed and life changed for Pronger. The fact is, nothing did. No epiphany. No lessons learned. No perspective gained. He still recalls the event in a riot of detail—gazing up at hovering faces above him and thinking, Guys, what's up? and walking on a cardiologist's treadmill in St. Louis the next day while wearing his dress shoes—but other than a lingering curiosity about cardiac arrhythmia, it was merely a day in the life. Two nights later he played more than 41 minutes in a double-OT loss to the Red Wings because that is what he does. "I was young enough and dumb enough to not understand what could have happened," Pronger says, showing a gap-toothed grin that resembles David Letterman's.
The difference is that Letterman apologizes for his transgressions and Pronger does not. He also does not explain or complain, except to referees. "Sometimes I'm just making it look good," he says of his grousing. "You go to the [penalty] box, you've got to make it look good."
December 7, 2009
Pronger, now 35 and with his fourth team in six seasons, is sitting at his desk in his home office, autumn sunlight slanting through the blinds. The crowded shelves—there are books on finance, biographies, hockey histories, a picture of him at the White House with president George W. Bush—say as much about him as do the Hart and Norris trophies he won in 2000 that also have pride of place in his ordered world. Through the door he hears his children scamper around their new home, an expansive colonial in South Jersey. Pronger had picked up his five-year-old, George, at school that afternoon. He had brought his boy a number 20 Philadelphia Flyers jersey.
Pronger now plays for a team that can claim to have a culture, albeit one sometimes regarded as primitive. The bellicose Flyers really do stand, and stand up, for something. And in 1974, the year that Philadelphia bullied its way to the first of two straight Stanley Cups, Pronger was born to be a Flyer. He has been suspended eight times for malfeasances involving kicking, elbowing and other improprieties (over the past three decades, only retired defenseman Bryan Marchment has been suspended more often), which means director of hockey operations Colin Campbell, the NHL's VP for violence, probably has him on speed dial. Campbell hit Pronger, then with Anaheim, with a pair of one-game suspensions in the 2007 playoffs, first for wallpapering Detroit's Tomas Holmstrom into the glass from behind in the Western Conference finals and then for nailing Ottawa's Dean McAmmond with an elbow in Game 3 of the Cup finals. "I was trying to hit [McAmmond] with a forearm, but he ducked," Pronger says. "He's laying on the ice, I'm back to the bench and I'm like, Hmmm, that's going to be costly."
The smile, again.
No, the cardiac event in 1998 did not rock Pronger's world, give him a deeper appreciation of the fragility of life or whatever these incidents are supposed to do, but it did offer indisputable proof: Contrary to popular belief, Pronger actually has a heart.
The Wachovia Center scoreboard shows 0.5 seconds left in the third period, but the "ultimate defenseman" (as Devils goalie Martin Brodeur calls Pronger) is not yet finished with his day's work. Philadelphia left wing Scott Hartnell and Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang are wrestling on the ice behind the Penguins' net, with Letang's teammate Chris Kunitz hovering. From his vantage point on the near blue line, Pronger doesn't like the odd-man crush. He skates in briskly, sheds his gloves and—as if he were a rodeo cowboy and Kunitz, his former Ducks teammate, were a recalcitrant steer—grabs Kunitz's jersey around the collar. Pronger now has Hartnell's back and Kunitz's neck, which pretty much makes him the ideal Flyer. When penalties are announced, Pronger's misconduct earns as loud a cheer as any this night from a crowd disenchanted with a 5--4 loss to its intrastate rival.
Pronger always makes an impression, beyond the jersey burn on Kunitz's neck. Besides an assist and another goal he creates when his power-play slap shot shatters Matt Cooke's stick and leaves Pittsburgh to defend with what amounts to three and a half men, Pronger's handiwork this night includes a bloody welt on Jordan Staal's right forearm from a two-handed slash and some scrapes on Sidney Crosby's back from an unpenalized cross-check in the first minute. "He's good at what he does," Crosby says. "He's been doing it a while." Pronger resides in an amoral world in which he does not make the rules, just bends them. At practice the following day, as Hartnell deflects the Penguins' claim that he bit Letang's right index finger during the scrum ("I'm not a savage," Hartnell protests), Pronger shrugs. If Letang's fingers had been in his teammate's mouth, he reasons, it was the responsibility of the Penguins' player to remove them.
"Oh, yeah, Prongs is dirty, for sure," says Conroy, now with Calgary. "I thought he might be a little dirty when I played with him, but the first time I played against him he's grabbing, cross-checking. I'm like, Whoa, he could be taking a penalty on every shift."
Adds Flyers center Daniel Bri√®re, "If you make him look foolish [by beating him one-on-one], you know at some point you'll pay. It makes you more tentative."
Pronger nurtures what San Jose captain Rob Blake, his Team Canada defense partner at the Turin Olympics, calls "his mystique," a carefully cultivated international man of misery thing. He probably won't fight you—he has fought just eight times this decade—but he can. He will certainly not be afraid to brand you with his extra-long, 64-inch Warrior stick. His last suspension, in March 2008, was his longest, eight games for stomping on the calf of Vancouver's Ryan Kesler. Whether the glass is half full or half empty, the lip has a jagged edge for a defenseman who had 1,489 career penalty minutes through Sunday, in addition to 146 goals and 478 assists. After his first 24 games with the Flyers, his average ice time of 26:40 was third among NHL defensemen, and his 18 points led Philly blueliners.
Pronger is convinced that that unpredictability is almost as important a tool as his hockey smarts, his laser first passes and his heavy shot. "You might spear a guy in the face, fight a guy, elbow a guy, slash a guy or just make a clean bodycheck... If they don't know what I'm going to do, I hold the trump card," says Pronger, who signed a seven-year, $34.45 million extension with the Flyers after being traded from salary-cap-strapped Anaheim last June. "They're nervous Nellies. Maybe they'll move the puck a little too soon because they don't want to get slashed or speared again. I get people complaining in SI that I'm the dirtiest player in hockey"—he tied Dallas's Steve Ott for first place in a poll of 324 NHL players last season—"and people say, 'I can't believe you like that.' I tell 'em, 'Why wouldn't I?' Means I'm doing my job."
There is no other NHL player so comfortable in his own thick skin who also has the ability to make almost everyone else uncomfortable. Boos in opposing rinks are mother's milk—Pronger still wears a bull's-eye in Edmonton, a city he asked out of just days after helping the Oilers reach Game 7 of the 2006 Cup final—and he simply doesn't care what anyone except Flyers coach John Stevens and his teammates think. "It's good to have that arrogance," Bri√®re says. "He just knows."
Pronger plays with admirable economy, typically positioning himself within a small radius from the front of the net in the defensive zone, rarely running out toward the boards to deliver a hit or a message, a measured approach that helps explain why he can play so many minutes at his age. He also can be efficient in interviews. When a reporter mentioned at a preseason media session that Pronger had been traded three times since the lockout, Pronger joked, "Yeah? So? What're you getting at?" He shadowboxed the question another moment before saying, "You know who also got traded a lot? Wayne Gretzky." Pronger turned to Zack Hill, the Flyers' public relations man, and said, "See, that's how you answer that question."
Just as veteran defenseman Brad (the Beast) McCrimmon was imported by Hartford to help mentor Pronger 16 years ago, the Towering Infernal is nursemaid to a team with conspicuous young talent such as captain Mike Richards and forward Jeff Carter. Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren, who at various times was Pronger's coach and G.M. with the Whalers, says, "Pronger being with young guys who are searching to see what it's all about ... [well, his] professionalism can really help them."
But Pronger has told Holmgren and Stevens that he plays the power play and the penalty kill but really does not play Mary Poppins. "I can talk to these kids until I'm blue in the face, but it doesn't matter," Pronger says. "At the end of the day they're going to make mistakes and have to learn from them. They might not make the same mistakes that I did. They might not make them as big, on and off the ice."
Although he is not about mulligans in a career that counts three Olympics and four first- or second-team All-NHL selections, Pronger does not hesitate when asked to name the one thing he might have done differently. "The jean jacket over my head [leaving a Buffalo jail]," he blurts. "I was still a little hung over and not thinking properly."
Pronger, then a 19-year-old Hartford rookie, was arrested after a bar brawl and spent a night in the slammer. Twenty-four days later he got a DUI. Pronger doesn't think he had a drinking problem, at least during the season, as much as a getting-caught problem. "The big misconception is that I was a boozebag," he says. "Well, I was a boozebag in the summer at the time but didn't hardly drink in the winter. Maybe four, five times that year. Caught twice. Something bad happens, and people [say I have] a problem.... At least I'm in a position to tell [the young Flyers] that these things can get out of hand pretty quickly. Last year the media [in Philly] questioned this team's ability to stay in some nights."
Pronger is the Flyers' stay-at-home defenseman, a husband and a father of three who is more rattled when one of his children is sick than by the prospect of encounters with Crosby and Washington's Alexander Ovechkin. Before this season Pronger had played in the Western Conference, not on Neptune, since 1995. "Everybody makes a big deal of, Oooh, how are you going to stop this guy or that guy," he says from behind his desk. "Well, the same way I did the last 14 years, buddy. I'm thinking, Dude, you know who I've had to play against? Yzerman, Fedorov, Sakic, Forsberg—the best in the game. [The media] try to stir the pot before I play against Ovechkin, and I haven't said anything to [play that down]. I don't have the heart."
Uh, haven't we already concluded that there is medical evidence to the contrary?
Pronger tosses back his head and rattles the room with his laugh.
Now on SI.com
Michael Farber's On the Fly and Allan Muir's NHL Power Rankings at SI.com/nhl
"If you ever make him look foolish on the ice," Bri√®re says, "you know you'll pay."
So Bad, So Good
Sure they're awfully ornery, but these guys can really play
Mike RichardsFlyers C Plays with a relentless edge; his open-ice, shoulder-to-the-head hit knocked out Florida's David Booth in October.
Alex BurrowsCanucks LW Not afraid to use his stick behind the play, and embraces the role of villain. Also a solid point producer.
Scott HartnellFlyers LW Crashes the crease at high speed and runs defensemen hard, a trait that helps create room for offense.
Dion PhaneufFlames D One of the league's most dangerous hitters—just ask Detroit's Todd Bertuzzi (left). Phaneuf also has a lethal slap shot.
David ClarksonDevils RW Truly fearless in all situations, and has a knack for knowing just when and how to disrupt an opponent.