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Title defense foremost in minds of Ducks' defenders

by Adam Kimelman

Chris Pronger and the Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup last season. Watch Chris Pronger highlights
There’s little Chris Pronger hasn’t accomplished during his 14-year professional hockey career.

He’s won a Hart Trophy and a Norris Trophy in the same season. He’s got a gold medal from the Olympics and a World Cup title under his belt. And the final piece of the puzzle came last June, when he hoisted the Stanley Cup.

With winning hockey’s Holy Grail came numerous benefits. His day with the Cup included parties in his hometown of Dryden, Ontario, and also at his house in Irvine, Calif.

In Dryden, his high school rink was renamed Chris Pronger Arena, and he was given the key to the city.

Back in California, Pronger and his wife, Lauren, watched their two sons -- 5-year-old Jack and 3-year-old George -- eat cereal out of the Cup. That night, the Prongers hosted a private house party with the Cup that featured a performance by the band Sugar Ray.

When a multi-platinum band willingly plays at your house, you know you’ve made it.

With fame, fortune, an over-stocked trophy case, a treasure trove of money and a young family at home, just what motivates the 33-year-old defender to keep strapping on the pads and hammering opponents 82 nights a year?

“I think, just like anyone else, the competitive drive,” Pronger said. “You want to win. Once you’ve tasted winning, you want to get that feeling back. All hockey players have that drive in them, that will to want to win. It’s tough to put into words. Bragging rights, to say I’m a winner, I’m a champion. And once you’ve tasted that, you want to get back there again because it’s so difficult to do.”

Anaheim Ducks at
Detroit Red Wings
Sunday, Feb. 10
3:30 p.m. ET

The NBC NHL "Game of the Week" drops the puck on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2008 with the Anaheim Ducks visiting the Detroit Red Wings as NBC enters its third season as the network broadcast partner of the NHL with a new innovation: the NHL will offer flexible scheduling for NBC's nine regular season dates (see below schedule).

NBC will select from up to four games on Sunday afternoons. Thirteen days prior to the scheduled games (on Mondays), NBC, in conjunction with the NHL, will select one of those games as the "Game of the Week" to be broadcast during the NBC window.

All games will be broadcast in high definition.

Pronger’s blue-line compatriot, Scott Niedermayer, has a resume similar to that of Pronger. Niedermayer is renowned for winning titles at every level of hockey, from the Memorial Cup and World Junior Championships, to Olympic, World Cup and World Championship titles, to four-time Stanley Cup champion. He’s also won a Norris Trophy and last season’s Conn Smythe Trophy.

But when Ducks training camp opened in September, Niedermayer was home with his family while Pronger inherited the captaincy and started the laborious task of guiding the Ducks through their Cup defense, starting with the season-opening NHL Premiere series against the Los Angeles Kings in London.

“Right since we finished in June up until (early December), I was not ready to commit to the season, to the training camp when it started,” Niedermayer said when he announced on Dec. 5 that he would play again this season. “I thought I was basically retired at that point. In early July, I let (Ducks General Manager) Brian (Burke) know that I thought my hockey career was done or close to it. That’s the way I was leaning at that point.”

Without Niedermayer -- as well as Teemu Selanne, who just ended his flirtation with retirement -- the Ducks struggled through the early part of the season. They finished October with a 4-7-2 record after a start that included not just the trip to London, but a three-games-in-four-nights road trip through Detroit, Columbus and Pittsburgh when they returned to North America.

“It probably was a little bit (exhausting),” said Pronger of all the early travel. “You don’t want to admit it. You try to push through things like that, you try to make the best of the situations, but I'm not going to sit here and say I felt great coming back from it. That’s just natural. You’re going to be jet lagged. It’s 10 hours time change for us. Like going over to Nagano in 1998 (for the Olympics), going to Turin (for the 2006 Olympics). It was a little different, and then to come back we had three or four home openers. It was tough.”

Despite the early struggles, the Ducks have righted the ship, and are right in the hunt for a playoff berth in the Western Conference. Leading the way has been Pronger, who has displayed his usual strong two-way play.

Through 57 games, Pronger has 11 goals and 26 assists, seven power-play goals and four game-winning goals. He’s third in the League in ice time, averaging 26:57 per game, and neither age nor winning has done anything to his dull his nasty side, as he led NHL defensemen with 102 penalty minutes.

And while Pronger may have been a minus-6, he anchors a defense corps that at the break was seventh in the league in goals allowed per game (2.49), and was tied for the second fewest even-strength goals allowed (69).

And now he’s got help in Niedermayer, who returned from his three-month sojourn on Dec. 19.

“The longer it (time off) went, it didn’t feel like it was complete,” said Niedermayer.

During Niedermayer’s time away from the game, he said he spoke to Pronger about their respective futures.

“I talked to some of the guys while I wasn’t playing,” said Niedermayer. “I’m sure we talked a little bit about it. I think it’s a very personal decision.”

It’s a decision Pronger isn’t quite ready to make. While he joked that he won’t be around as long as Chris Chelios -- “I’m not going to play when I’m 46.” -- he said his drive remains, “through the roof. I can’t tell you how high it is.”

He certainly has no intentions of leaving the game like Niedermayer did. While Pronger said he’s won so much already, it isn’t close to enough.

“I don’t think you want to be; ‘OK, I won it, I’m done, I’ve accomplished it,’ ” he said. “You want to accomplish it again, and you want to do it again and again and again. It’s that drive in you. And when that drive’s gone, you hang it up. That’s kind of what Scotty was going through last summer. He didn’t know if he wanted to do it again. He didn’t know if he wanted to put his body through the grind, didn’t know if he wanted to train this summer, didn’t know if he wanted to compete. You see him back now, he had the three months off to kind of contemplate what he wanted to do, and it was still in him. Still probably bothered him watching our games, seeing what happened in our games. That drive was still there, that will to compete was still there. I think that’s probably the biggest reason why he’s back.”

"I’m committed for this year and that’s really my focus right now. When it comes to next year, I’m definitely going to make a decision early." - Ducks defenseman Scott Niedermayer

Niedermayer said he reached the point where the desire to compete outweighed his desire to move on with his life.

“There was no one moment, it was a gradual thing, just the feeling developed,” he said. “Some people said one day you’re going to wake up and know. It was more of a gradual thing. I was watching a bit more hockey, and just feelings became stronger and stronger that I needed to be back there and wanted to be back there.”

Whether he’s back there for more than just this season is a question for which Niedermayer has no concrete answer.

“What I looked at was making a decision for the rest of this year,” said Niedermayer. “If you had asked me in the middle of the summer, then where I am now, I’ve had a change of heart, a change of plans. For me to say that I probably won’t play next year, that could change, depending on how this year plays out and many things. You think about a lot when you’re making a decision like that. I’m committed for this year and that’s really my focus right now. When it comes to next year, I’m definitely going to make a decision early. It doesn’t really benefit anyone by letting it linger. But I’ll cross that bridge hopefully in early summer.”

Niedermayer and Pronger each hope that by then, they’ll have added to their respective trophy cases.

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