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Classic Pronger

by Bill Fleischman / Philadelphia Flyers
bill fleischman
Chris Pronger is accustomed to high expectations. From his junior hockey days, to the Hartford Whalers drafting him, to playing for four other NHL franchises, Pronger is used to teammates relying on him.

Remember when the Flyers acquired Pronger from Anaheim in June 2009, two years after he helped the Ducks win the Stanley Cup? The Flyers were paying the big defenseman big bucks to help them advance deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs.

And that’s exactly what happened.

Pronger was a dominating player during the Flyers riveting run to the finals. If the Flyers had beaten Chicago, Pronger would’ve been a strong Conn Smythe Trophy candidate.

Talking about teams and fans counting on him, the 6-6 Pronger said,
“There were high expectations placed on me when I was drafted. I was involved in a pretty significant trade early in my career (for Brendan Shanahan). I was always the looked upon (to produce). You just kind of grow into that role. You learn how to play under pressure.”

Pronger, 36, has seen talented players who are unable to handle the pressure.
Chris Pronger was the Second Overall pick of the 1993 NHL Entry Draft by the Hartford Whalers. (click for photo gallery)

“Whether it’s a mental thing or whatever, they’re unable to answer the challenge,” he said. “The ones that aren’t kind of fizzle away. You see it in all sports. A lot of things can play into it: injuries, drug or alcohol problems, work ethic.”

Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren was the Hartford coach when the Whalers drafted Pronger in 1993 as the second overall pick (the first selection, by Ottawa, was the forgettable Alexandre Daigle). Following Pronger’s second season with the Whalers, GM Jim Rutherford asked Holmgren to visit with Pronger in his home town of Dryden, Ontario.

“We fished and worked out for three-four days,” Holmgren recalled. Before Holmgren boarded a plane for the trip back to Hartford, he called Rutherford to let him know that Pronger was in great shape.

That’s when Rutherford asked Holmgren what he thought of trading Pronger to St. Louis for Shanahan. By the time the stunned Holmgren returned to Hartford, the deal was completed. For years, Holmgren says Pronger sent him Christmas cards saying “thanks”. The half-joking inference was that Holmgren’s visit had led to Pronger’s trade to St. Louis.

As expected, Holmgren believes the Flyers are getting their millions worth from Pronger.
“He’s the ultimate pro,” Holmgren said. “He’s ready for every practice, every game. I think the younger players see that on a daily basis and have to be impressed.”

With Pronger’s years of experience, he knows how to pace himself. You rarely see him exert needless energy. As Flyers fans noticed in a recent game in Washington, Pronger also knows when to “go”. Late in the first period of the Flyers shootout victory, Pronger pursued the puck into the Washington zone and delivered a jarring check on Jeff Schultz.

“It’s understanding the game, understanding the flow of the game and when you need to do things,” Pronger said. “Going 100 miles an hour for a puck looks good, but if you have to wait for the play, there’s no point. It’s really about reading the play and knowing the defense is trying to do and you adjusting.”

Said Holmgren: “(Pronger) and Kimmo Timonen are two of the smartest defenesemen in the league when it comes to knowing how to play the game. There’s nothing they haven’t seen in the game. People ask me if Chris has lost a step. I say no, he’s playing the same as he did early in his career. The game is much faster now.”

Pronger agrees about more speed being the biggest change in the NHL since he broke in.

“The speed of the game has drastically improved,” he said. “(Also), the stick technology (is a factor): guys shoot harder. Goalies play a different style. There were a lot of stand-up goalies when I first started. Now, you look at Marty Brodeur as maybe the last stand-up goalie, but he’s kind of a hybrid the way he plays.”

Pronger said the NHL salary cap also has influenced the game. “The league is a lot younger,” he said. “There used to be two or three young guys on a team. Now, there are two or three old guys on a team.”
(Historical refresher: In Pronger’s first season in the NHL, the All-Star defensemen were Ray Bourque and Scott Stevens. Shanahan was a first-team All-Star forward with St. Louis. Later, playing for the Blues, Pronger was a first-team All-Star in 1999-2000. That season Pronger also won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP and the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defesneman. The Blues were ousted in the conference quarter-finals).

In Pronger’s one season-plus with the Flyers, I’ve noticed that he frequently enjoys interacting with media. He’s often funny and sometimes sarcastic. Remember Pronger’s reaction to Chicago’s Adam Burish calling him “the biggest idiot in the league” after the Stanley Cup finals. Asked if would retaliate the next time they met on the ice, Pronger replied, “Where, in the minors?” Later, Burish apologized for his ill-advised comments.
Pronger surrounded by media prior to his third Stanley Cup Final appearance.

“As I’ve gotten older, you understand (the relationship with the media) a lot more,” he said. “When I was younger, I got a bit of a reputation for being a hot head and speaking my mind maybe a little too much. A lot of times your reputation follows you.

“The game is about entertaining people. Giving the old cliché about `taking it one game at a time’ isn’t going to cut it. You need to give (the media) something to write, especially with our game. We’re trying to grow the game. (Fans) don’t want to read `the Good Lord willing, we’ll get them next game.’ They want to read what’s going on.

“(The media) is trying to drum up interest in the game. Most media members want to see the game successful.”

My experience is, most hockey writers see themselves as a conduit between the teams and fans. The writers are trying to convey the truth about what’s happening with teams. Sometimes that means writing critical stories. Depending upon your view, whether you’re in the media or affiliated with a team, a critical story is seen as negative.

With the Flyers strong start, expectations again are for success in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Anything short of reaching the finals again will be a disappointment for Flyers fans.

Pronger enjoyed being an integral part of the Flyers surprising playoff performance last season.

“It was a magical run to the finals,” he said. “It would’ve been a lot better story if we had been able to finish it off.” Smiling, Pronger said, “We’re not looking to take that same path again this year.”
If the Flyers continue their high level of play, the stress level will be easier on them and their fans.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.

Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter. He was the Flyers' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of "Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of "The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1982, he was an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.

He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.

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