Chris Pronger: Safety Police

By Tim Wharnsby on November 05, 2014



For some, Sunday is a day of rest. But Chris Pronger was one busy bee this past Sabbath Day.

Shortly after he met with reporters to discuss being honoured by his junior team, the Peterborough Petes, before their 6-3 victory over the Barrie Colts at the Peterborough Memorial Centre, he was on a conference call with Stephane Quintal and the rest of NHL's player safety department.

They discussed the headshot Nashville Predators defenceman Anton Volchenkov put on Calgary Flames forward Michael Fernland and looked ahead to the in-person hearing scheduled for Edmonton Oilers captain Andrew Ference on Monday after his hit-to-the-head on Vancouver Canucks forward Zack Kassian.

Volchenkov was dealt a two-game suspension. Ference was nailed with a three-game suspension.

The 40-year-old Pronger is in learning mode in his new position. But so far, so good. He's four weeks into his new role that raised eyebrows when he was hired last month because Pronger was one nasty dude in his playing days and because he still receives a paycheque from the Philadelphia Flyers.

"I think more was made of this than should have been," he said. "I know the optics. Everybody knows I'm getting paid by Philly. It's still there. But this allows me to move on with my life a little bit.

"I personally don't see it as a conflict. For me, you take the names and numbers off and you're left with two players with different colour jerseys. You look at the rule as it sits and you rule accordingly. Is this an illegal check to the head? Is this a slash, an elbow? Did this player break a rule or multiple rules?"

Pronger's career was cut short three years ago when he absorbed shots to the head in three separate games, including an accidental Mikhail Grabovski stick in his right eye.

Pronger checked in with two assists in a 6-4 loss in Winnipeg on Nov. 19, 2011 and never played again. He had post-concussion syndrome and still occasionally deals with the symptoms today.

He's under contract for another three seasons, including this year. Pronger won't retire because he will lose the remaining $5.15-million US on his long-term deal and if he retires the Flyers will get dinged for $4.9-million annually on the salary cap instead of getting relief by placing him on the long-term injury list.

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Pronger had a history of putting opponents on injured lists. At 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds with a massive reach, he was a tough hombre who often found himself in front of the league office to explain his actions. He was suspended eight times for a total of 22 games.

So he may have been the perfect addition to the player safety department in the way police consult with reformed criminals to help solve current crimes.

But how did Pronger land in the front office? Two summers ago, Pronger was summoned to New York to talk to commissioner Gary Bettman and his deputy Bill Daly about the big defenceman's precarious situation.

Their confab covered a wide-range of topics, including the on-ice state of the game. Bettman and Daly were impressed with Pronger's thoughtfulness and passion. Pronger expressed an interest of one-day working for the league. His long-term goal is to become a club executive. This was a positive stride in that direction.

"You have to know how decisions are made, how rules are made, the day-to-day operations of the league," Pronger said. "I'll have a say. I'll have an opportunity to go to general manager meetings. I have an opportunity to learn the league and all the young players."

After the NHL entry draft in Philadelphia last June, Daly approached Pronger to see if he was interested in joining the player safety department. Rob Blake had departed the year before to become the Los Angeles Kings assistant general manager. Brendan Shanahan bolted to become president of the Toronto Maple Leafs last spring.

Pronger remained intrigued. But Daly still had to replace Shanahan, which he did a several weeks later with the internal promotion of Stephane Quintal. After that move Daly had to make sure Quintal was open to hiring Pronger.

Quintal was on board. After more meetings between Daly, Bettman, Quintal and Pronger, the announcement was made.

"I had a few text messages from ex-teammates that simply went, 'Really, really,'" Pronger said with a hardy chuckle. "Overall, the reaction has been pretty positive. In the end, the players want somebody in there who has been there and done that, who understands it's a fast game and things happen quick and that mistakes are made.

"They have changed even since I played. Sometimes you cross the line. The rules are the rules. When you do, you get whacked. You get suspended. I know, I did."

Photo by Davey darling at en.wikipedia [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5], from Wikimedia Commons

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That's the Pronger most fans know. The Pronger that teammates, coaches and friends know is different.

He is a student of the game. His old assistant coach in Peterborough Jeff Twohey, who after Pronger turned pro went on to lead the Petes to a pair of OHL championships as general manager, recalls how Pronger would spend entire five-hour bus rides discussing the game.

"He would sit down next to me and you would think, 'Okay, he'll be here for 20 minutes' and five hours later he would still be there,'" said Twohey, now the assistant head scout with the Arizona Coyotes.

"Chris loves the game. If I wasn't first on the ice for the practice it was him."

Pronger also is quick with a quip. He can dish out a barb as severe as one of his slashes. But he's also a kind soul, loyal to teammates and friends.

After his two seasons with the Peteshe helped Peterborough win the 1992-93 OHL championshiphe was drafted second overall by the Hartford Whalers. When he arrived in Hartford for his first training camp, he phoned Twohey and asked him is there anyway he could give back to the Petes.

Twohey retorted that the old Memorial Centre barn was in desperate need of a new sound system. Pronger didn't blink and picked up the $600 tab. A few months later, when he played in his first game at Maple Leaf Gardens, he invited Twohey and his wife to the game as Pronger's guests.

There also was the time former Petes teammate, Ryan Black, and his wife lost their second child two weeks after birth. When Pronger was informed of the tragedy, he later flew Black to Anaheim to help him celebrate his first and only Stanley Cup championship in 2007.

Black was one of several players in Peterborough on Sunday to help Pronger celebrate his time with the Petes.

"I have a lot of fond memories from here," Pronger said. "This is where it all started. You form a lot of bonds. It's been more than 20 years since I played here, but when I see some of these guys we pick up like it was just yesterday."

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After wearing No. 6 in Peterborough, Pronger went on to don No. 44 with the Whalers, St. Louis Blues and Edmonton Oilers, No. 25 with the Anaheim Ducks and No. 20 with the Flyers for a combined 1,340 NHL regular season and playoff games.

Mike Van Ryn was a rookie when he played alongside Pronger with the Blues.

"The coaching staff didn't have to say a word to me that season because Chris would give it to me on the bench if I screwed up," said Van Ryn, now an assistant coach with the Kitchener Rangers. "It was the easiest season I had. I just gave him the puck and he would get us out of trouble."

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Pronger's health has improved slightly since his playing days ended. He can endure light workouts in the gym (he still weighs 220 pounds). But he still has problems with the vision in his right eye and the post-concussion symptoms return if he tries to do too much. He also revealed that he will undergo knee surgery on Wednesday after he injured himself in a recent practice for his 13-year-old son Jack's team.

He also remarked that a perk in his new role with the league is that the job allows him to stay at home in St. Louis to be with his family, his wife Lauren, Jack, 10-year-old George and six-year-old Lilah.

He's excited that as the assistant coach of Jack's team, he will be travelling to Quebec City for the renowned Pee-Wee tournament in February.

The trip will mark another round of reminiscing for Pronger. That's where he was drafted by the Whalers in 1993.

But before then, he has plenty to learn, plenty of on-ice incidents to rule on and more time to travel on the road to recovery.

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By Tim Wharnsby| November 05, 2014
Categories:  Sports
Keywords:  HockeyNHLsports

About the Author

Tim Wharnsby

Tim Wharnsby

Tim Wharnsby hails from Waterloo, ON.,  where he grew up cheering for his beloved junior B Waterloo Siskins. He has been a sports reporter at the Toronto Sun, Globe and Mail as well as CBC.

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