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Pronger's strength, skill built Hall of Fame career

by Adam Kimelman / Philadelphia Flyers
At a scouting combine in Toronto prior to the 1993 NHL Draft, Ray Shero noticed a tall, lanky defenseman from Peterborough of the Ontario Hockey League unable to move the 135-pound bar at the bench-press station.

Shero, at the time an assistant general manager for the Ottawa Senators, remembers thinking the 18-year-old's inability to do a bench press wasn't going to hurt his NHL chances.

Shero was right.

On Nov. 9, Chris Pronger will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame with Nicklas Lidstrom, Phil Housley, Sergei Fedorov, Bill Hay, Peter Karmanos Jr. and Angela Ruggiero. It's a reward for an 18-season career that saw Pronger mix physical play with a skilled offensive game to become one of the best defensemen of his generation.

"You talk about a guy that when he was in his prime who had the total package," teammate Al MacInnis said. "He could fight, he would play with an edge. He would control the pace of the game any time he was on the ice. He would play against the other team's top line night in and night out. Played power play, penalty killing, everything. When he was in his prime, there wasn't a weakness in his game that you could exploit. "

In 1,167 games with the Hartford Whalers, St. Louis Blues, Edmonton Oilers, Anaheim Ducks and Philadelphia Flyers, Pronger had 157 goals and 698 points, and in 173 Stanley Cup Playoff games, he had 26 goals and 121 points.

He won the Stanley Cup with the Ducks in 2007, and helped the Oilers (2006) and Flyers (2010) reach the Final. He is one of two defensemen to win the Hart and Norris trophies in the same season, doing so in 2000 (Bobby Orr, Boston Bruins, 1970, 1971, 1972).

Pronger also is a member of the IIHF Triple Gold Club, winning a gold medal with Canada at the Olympics (2002, 2010) and World Championship (1997) to go with the Stanley Cup.

That success happened far from Pronger's tiny hometown of Dryden, Ontario, which has a population of 7,617, according to Statistics Canada's 2011 census. Helping his development was playing with his brother, Sean Pronger, who is two years older. Sean played 260 NHL games from 1995 to 2004.

"Having an older brother helps you from the standpoint of you have to keep up," Pronger, 41, said. "If you're going to come, you have keep up, you have to be able to play with the big boys. Always playing against older kids helped me learn how to develop and catch on at a quick pace in order to continue to develop and in order to keep up and play with kids that were much older than me."

Against players closer to his age, Pronger dominated during two junior seasons. Among those impressed was Brian Burke, who was Whalers GM.

"I fell in love with him the first time I saw him play in Peterborough," Burke said. "I remember driving out of the arena and saying to [assistant GM] Tommy Rowe, 'I've got to get this guy.'"

The Whalers got their guy, trading first-, second- and third-round picks at the 1993 NHL Draft, and forward Sergei Makarov, to the San Jose Sharks for the No. 2 pick, which Hartford used to select Pronger.

Pronger wasted little time showing he was ready for the NHL. Paul Holmgren, who was Whalers coach, recalled a conversation with owner Richard Gordon about how imperative it was to get Pronger signed for the start of the 1993-94 season.

"I said, 'Not only is he our best defenseman, he's probably our best player,'" Holmgren said.

Pronger emerged as one of the best players in the League during nine seasons with the Blues. He was a Norris Trophy finalist for the first time in 1997-98. In 1999-2000, he was second among NHL defensemen with 62 points, had a League-best plus-52 rating, and his 30:14 average ice time per game was second in League history behind the 30:36 he averaged in 1998-99. The Blues finished with a League-leading 114 points, and Pronger won the Hart and Norris.

"People don't realize the difference in most teams when you have the job to shut down and try to create offense against the top line compared to the second line," MacInnis said. "He did that night in and night out, and he did it at the top of his game. That's why he was able to win the Hart Trophy, and rightfully so."

Pronger was traded to Edmonton on Aug. 3, 2005, and in one season there, he helped the Oilers reach Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final, where they lost to the Carolina Hurricanes.

A year later, Pronger was back in the Stanley Cup Final, this time with Burke and the Ducks, who the Oilers defeated in the 2006 Western Conference Final.

Joining a defense that included Scott Niedermayer, Pronger and the Ducks won the 2007 Stanley Cup.

"It's something you dream of winning," Pronger said. "You look at all the guys before you, the excitement and the joy, finally completing that lifelong goal like that, it's pretty special. Your emotions get the better of you and you start to understand what it is exactly you've been able to accomplish that's been a goal of yours at that time for 20-plus years. It's pretty special."

Pronger made it extra special for Burke by giving him a one-of-a-kind keepsake: the game puck he retrieved at the final buzzer.

"I'm in the dressing room with my mom and dad, and he came over and he said, 'This is for you,'" Burke said. "He said, 'You put us all together, so this is for you.' And I still have it."

That wasn't the last puck Pronger picked up.

He became the talk of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final for snatching the puck at the end of the first two games after the Chicago Blackhawks defeated Pronger's Flyers.

Asked after Game 2 where that puck was, Pronger responded, "In the trash. Where it belongs."

"They wanted it, so I grabbed it," Pronger said. "You want to aggravate people, and people are going to talk about stuff like that."

The story became stolen pucks, not how the Flyers trailed the series 2-0. His teammates appreciated the levity.

"Totally shifted the focus from the team and the players and some of the guys maybe not playing as well as they should, to Chris Pronger stealing the pucks from the Chicago Blackhawks," teammate Daniel Briere said. "That relieved a lot of pressure on the rest of us."

Injuries limited Pronger to 63 games the following two seasons. The worst came Oct. 24, 2011, when he was hit in the right eye by the stick of Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mikhail Grabovski. Pronger returned two weeks later but wasn't the same player, and on Dec. 9, 2011, the Flyers announced Pronger was being evaluated for post-concussion syndrome.

Pronger said he tried for about a year and a half to play again, but his injuries were too severe. After serving as a part-time scout with the Flyers for two seasons, he is in his second season with the NHL Department of Player Safety.

"My eye still has some issues," Pronger said. "… I can get [concussion] symptoms, but they're not as strong or as painful, and that's a positive sign."

Another positive sign came when he got the call to let him know he would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

"To be able to hear that and realize the culmination of all the hard work and dedication and the way you played the game was being respected and honored in that fashion was pretty special," he said. "I don't think it's sunk in yet. It's still somewhat new. But it is one of those moments you always remember, that's for sure."

Follow Adam Kimelman on Twitter: @NHLAdamK

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