"What better way to get back to your roots and your childhood than playing in an outdoor game and playing in front of, I don't know, 35,000 people and enjoying yourself out in nature and the elements? It certainly should be a lot of fun, and it should hopefully be able to bring back the fun." -- Chris Pronger
The Philadelphia Flyers defenseman is from Dryden, Ontario, a city of 8,200 people that fits the old saw, "While it may not be the end of the world, you can see it from there."
Dryden is a remote outpost on the Trans-Canada Highway, five hours west of Thunder Bay and 4 1/2 hours east of Winnipeg. You know, the middle of nowhere.
Like a lot of places, it's struggling in today's economy, especially since the paper mill closed a few years ago, but it was a thriving place when the Pronger brothers, Chris and Sean, were growing up.
"It's a tight-knit community and great place to raise a family," said Sean Pronger, who played for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings, Boston Bruins, Columbus Blue Jackets and Vancouver Canucks during an eight-year NHL career from 1995-2004. "If you like the outdoors, it's a great place to live. People travel a long way to vacation here in the summer."
Sean Pronger said only informal hockey games were played outdoors. His minor-hockey league games were all played at Dryden Memorial Arena -- except for one year.
"Our rink burned down my first year, when I was 5, and we played our whole season outdoors," he said. "I don't think we had competitive games outdoors at any other time, except against our buddies which would have been more competitive than league games. I remember one of those times the wind blew the snow off the ice on Wabigoon Lake and we skated out there all day."
Chris Pronger's Flyers have been struggling lately, but he's hoping an extended road trip will help the club get back on track before it opposes the Boston Bruins on Jan. 1 in the Winter Classic.
"When you're struggling like we have, it's nice to get back on the road and kind of get away from everything and try to bond on the road and really find ourselves, find our identity again," Chris Pronger said. "I think we've lost it through this last little stretch. Going on the road, getting together, having team dinners and being around the guys and getting the group together is always a good way to kind of get over what ails you.
"We've got a number of division rivals we're going to be playing as well as the Winter Classic, which is a big event for us and our team and organization. We obviously want to get the ship back on track and get playing well and start winning some hockey games. Going on the road, there's no time like the present."
Pronger was asked if the Dec. 5 coaching change from John Stevens to Peter Laviolette was a factor in the Flyers' recent struggles. He was also asked if learning and implementing new systems were the problem. Pronger said neither of those things was as big a factor as losing the sense that hockey is fun, at every level, and losing is no fun. He said the Flyers most important task is finding ways to have fun while winning.
Chris Pronger said the Winter Classic can play a big role in restoring fun to the Flyers' dressing room.
"It's the perfect setting, to be honest with you," he said. "What better way to get back to your roots and your childhood than playing in an outdoor game and playing in front of, I don't know, 35,000 people and enjoying yourself out in nature and the elements? It certainly should be a lot of fun, and it should hopefully be able to bring back the fun. I'm hoping that the fun will already be back in our game before the first. But it would definitely be a step ahead and a step in the right direction."
Playing outdoors won't be a stretch for Chris Pronger, who played plenty of outdoor hockey games in Dryden.
"There were an awful lot of them," he said. "It was pretty much every day, whether we were playing street hockey or playing at the outdoor rink, Milestone Rink. It was a two-block walk from my house. Whether it be after school, going to the outdoor rink, and playing or after school setting up the two nets out in front of our house and playing a little brand of street hockey with full contact, fighting and all the fun stuff that happens throughout the course of a fun hockey game.
"But it was a lot of great memories with a lot of great people."
Sean Pronger is two years older than Chris, but he was a good big brother -- always bringing his younger sibling with him. Chris Pronger was asked if it was fun playing against the older kids, Sean included.
"Yeah, there was a lot of bleeding noses and things like that, but it was a lot of fun," he said. "I got to challenge myself playing against older kids."
Sean Pronger said he knows where Chris got most of those bloody noses.
"We'd be at the Milestone Rink three or four times a week and if we weren't there, there was a road-hockey game in front of our house. Chris and I would always battle. We were two of the better players in our town so they would split us up. We'd be the captains and pick the teams. But pretty soon, they'd have to put us on the same team because we were fighting so much and ruining the game for everyone. Then, we'd have to put more players on the other team so the teams would be fair."
"When he was in Atom or Pee Wee, he was always better than his age group," Sean Pronger said. "Heck, he was better than our age group. It was around that time that they changed the age groupings. I would play two years of Squirts, move on and he'd start Squirts but then when they changed the ages, we played together one year and you could see how much better he was.
"Chris is a real student of the game and always has been. He knew everything about hockey at a young age. He was always collecting hockey cards and memorizing the stats.
"I would put him in the top 10 in hockey sense in the NHL. He really thinks the game better than anybody. Sidney Crosby is another one like that. Chris has the whole game, the whole package. I would put him at the top of my list in hockey smarts."
Chris Pronger said he grew up in a place much colder than Boston can ever get and knows his team's equipment managers will be prepared for all weather possibilities.
"You never know what the weather is going to be like. It could be 40 degrees in Boston or it could be minus-10," he said. "It could rain. It could snow. It could be bright. You might have to use the football shading under your eyes. I know some guys use the tinted visor to help them with the sun and the glare from the ice and things like that.
"I've talked to a few guys that have played in it, and you really don't know what you're going to get, to be honest with you, because you don't know what the weather is going to be like. The weather and Mother Nature are probably going to play a bigger factor than anything else throughout the course of the game, with the conditions, whether it snows, rains, it's sunny, cloudy, all the things I just mentioned. It's probably going to be the biggest factor, more than anything.
"I didn't get a chance to see last year's game. I saw the (2008 Winter Classic) Pittsburgh-Buffalo game and parts of the (2003 Heritage Classic) Edmonton-Montreal game, and that one was super cold, which I'm hoping is not the case for this one.
"But I saw the Buffalo game. It was nice (weather) for a while, and then the snow. What better way to showcase hockey outside when you're seeing a little snow falling? That makes for a very serene setting and the ultimate hockey picture."
Contact John McGourty at email@example.com