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Pronger may be Flyers' missing piece

by Chuck Gormley
Before the start of the regular season, newly acquired Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger was asked if there was a message he'd like to send to Eastern Conference opponents like Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

"I think you know the answer to that," Pronger said with a menacing grin. "We don't want to premeditate anything, now do we?"

Tonight in Washington, Pronger goes against Ovechkin as the Flyers take on the Capitals (7 p.m. ET) in a game broadcast on Versus in the United States and TSN in Canada.

Suspended eight times in his 15-year career, Pronger seems keenly aware of what his new team expects of him.

"To make sure teams understand whose net it is in front of our goal," he said.

For years the Flyers have yearned for a defenseman who hit like Ed Van Impe, skated like Joni Pitkanen, passed like Mark Howe, shot like Tom Bladon and defended like Eric Desjardins. They believe they have found all of those qualities in Pronger.

"Bobby Orr and Ray Bourque could do a lot of things great, but they didn't have the meanness Pronger has," Flyers Senior Vice President and Hockey Hall of Famer Bob Clarke said. "It's very, very rare to have all of that in one player. My own feeling is that Pronger is better than (Scott) Niedermayer. We've never had a guy with all that come through here."

The price the Flyers paid for Pronger -- Joffrey Lupul, Luca Sbisa and two first-round draft picks -- was extremely high. So was the amount of faith they showed in him by signing him to a seven-year contract extension worth $34.9 million. If Pronger fulfills the contract, he'll be playing in orange and black until he is 42 years old.

The only defenseman to win a Hart Trophy, a Norris Trophy, a Stanley Cup and Olympic and World Junior gold medals, Pronger says he's ready to take on any pressure that comes along with being the highest-paid player on the Flyers' blue line, saying no one expects more of him than himself.

Asked if he considers himself the best defenseman in the NHL today, Pronger smiles and says, "I guess we're going to find out real quick. I plan to be."

Despite his skyscraping size (6-foot-6, 223 pounds) and reputation as one of the meanest defensemen in the game, Pronger has been relatively quiet on the ice, making all of the simple plays and moving the puck effortlessly out of the defensive zone along with defense partner Matt Carle.
"We're a young team and we need a steady influence back there," Pronger said of his surprisingly calm on-ice demeanor. "If I'm out there running around with my head cut off, it doesn't set a very good example."

He then paused and smiled.

"Will there be times I get physical?" he asked rhetorically. "Yeah."

Flyers coach John Stevens, who briefly played alongside Pronger when both were defensemen in the Hartford Whalers organization, thinks it's only a matter of time before Pronger starts throwing his weight around and striking fear into the hearts of unassuming Eastern Conference forwards.
"I love guys who want to be physical and test the will of opponents," Stevens said. "He's a big man who plays a hard game. When he arrives, he arrives with an attitude, much like Derian Hatcher did. Some of the best defensemen in the league are over 35 years old and he's one of them."

Pronger said the reason he chose Philadelphia over other teams that pursued him over the summer is the Flyers' window of opportunity to win through the length of his contract. With Simon Gagne, Danny Briere and Kimmo Timonen in their primes and Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Scott Hartnell and Braydon Coburn approaching theirs, Pronger firmly believes the Flyers are built to go all the way this season and beyond.

"We in this room realize what the goal is," he said. "We're not out there playing for the runner-up ribbon. We're playing to win. Once we figure out all the dedication and all the intangibles it takes to get there, we'll put ourselves in that position.

"We don't want to win the Stanley Cup in October; we want to win it in June."

But if you ask the Flyers' newest addition for a deeper reason he's committing the next eight years of his life to the Flyers, he'll tell you it's because of the stability it provides his wife, Lauren, their two sons, 7-year-old Jack and 5-year-old George, and 1-year-old daughter, Lilah.
"We in this room realize what the goal is. We're not out there playing for the runner-up ribbon. We're playing to win. Once we figure out all the dedication and all the intangibles it takes to get there, we'll put ourselves in that position. We don't want to win the Stanley Cup in October; we want to win it in June." - Chris Pronger
"We've moved around some the last three or four years," Pronger said. "Change is good sometimes, but you get to a certain point in your life once the kids start getting older where you don't want to keep uprooting them and moving them along."

With any luck, Pronger will be bringing his family to Vancouver for a two-week vacation in late February. The three-time Canadian Olympian (1998, 2002, 2006) is hoping to be on the 23-man roster when it is announced near the end of December. He said playing in their home country promises to be a huge advantage for the Canadians, who will be trying to avenge a quarterfinal elimination by Russia in the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy.

"I think it's more taxing on players when it's in Europe," Pronger said. "And with the time difference I don't think it benefits the NHL all that much. But when it's in North America, like Salt Lake or Vancouver, we can get peak games on prime time and it shows off the sport."

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