Chris Pronger of the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Photograph by: File, Getty
CHICAGO — Listen to Chris Pronger field questions about Chicago Blackhawks’ mammoth winger Dustin Byfuglien, and you get pretty much the whole picture.
“He scored three game-winners in the last series, all from the slot, so . . .,” someone began.
“Congratulations,” Pronger cut in.
But . . . surely a guy as big as the 257-pound Byfuglien presents problems.
“Sure,’’ said the Philadelphia Flyers’ 35-year-old defenceman. “John LeClair was pretty big. I could go down the list of guys who were pretty big in this league. If you want me to break down my credentials, I’ll do that for you. But maybe we’ll just wait for the games and see what’s going to happen. How about that?’’
Sarcastic. Arrogant. And headed for the Hall of Fame, whenever he decides to call it quits, though right now, it’s hard to believe that a man who has led three different teams to Stanley Cup finals in his 30s is anywhere near the end of the line.
The attitude, though, is part and parcel of the Pronger Factor, which completely transformed the 2006 Edmonton Oilers, pushed the 2007 Anaheim Ducks over the top and now has brought a fractious, 18th-place overall Flyers outfit, complete with a mid-season coaching change, to within four wins of its first championship in 35 years.
Each of Pronger’s three finals has come in his first year with a new team. Maybe there’s a pattern here.
“Oh, totally, he’s arrogant,” agreed Craig Simpson, the former Edmonton star-turned-assistant coach and now Hockey Night in Canada analyst, who was on Craig MacTavish’s Oiler staff the year Pronger brought life back to a stagnant franchise. “I don’t think you could play that sort of overwhelming ’I’ll take care of things’ role if you don’t feel that way. He’s one part of the puzzle that’s constant — a guy who gobbles up minutes, and plays against the best players every night, who allows you to get your matchup and win it most times.
“He’s got such a strong personality, as a coach or teammate you’re always balancing the push-back. It’s the elephant in the room a lot of times, but on a good team with confident guys around him, I think it’s a component you can handle.
“I don’t know if this is appropriate, but the greatest line from Muck (former Edmonton coach John Muckler) was when we started to become not a great team, but everyone was going, ‘Yeah, but a great bunch of guys. Everyone works hard, good guys.’ Muck goes: ‘Well, maybe it’s time we got some a—holes who can play.’
“And maybe that’s what Pronger brings. He’s an a—hole who can play.”
And play, and play, and play — basically half of every game; 30 minutes of minimal stress for a head coach, because not many bad things happen during a Chris Pronger shift, unless they happen to the other team.
“I think he’s got to be regarded as one of the best D-men of all time,” said Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp. “He’s won Stanley Cups, he’s won Olympic gold medals, he’s been dominant in the old NHL and then, once the rules changed, he was still able to find a way to be on top of his game.
“I’ve played him a bunch in my career. He can play physical and be dirty out there, which everyone likes as long as you’re not playing against him. And he’s got such a long reach and he’s smart, he never really panics — he’s got so much poise under pressure.”
Under pressure is where the Hawks would love to put the 6-6, 215-pound veteran, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Maybe it’s the air up there, or the view, but Pronger sees the ice better than most and has a sixth sense about the space around him.
He also has a mean streak that manifests itself more than occasionally, as his litany of NHL suspensions will attest, including two in the late stages of the Ducks’ Stanley Cup run — one for trying to plant Detroit’s Tomas Holmstrom through the glass, and again in the final for a concussion-causing elbow to the head of Ottawa’s Dean McAmmond.
“There’s a fine line when you’re a six-foot-six guy,” Simpson said, in Pronger’s defence.
“On the ice, you’ve gotta give him some rope. Rarely does he do something so stupid that it costs you a game. He’s pretty good at picking his spots. He might get a really bad penalty, but you’re probably down by three at that point, and sure, it’s ‘let’s live to fight another day’ but he’s just letting you know it’s going to be a hard fight. I don’t remember him, at critical times, losing his mind.”
Like a lot of the very best hockey players, Pronger puts up a pretty good wall when it comes to talking about himself. It’s not from lack of ego, he just doesn’t like to advertise.
Though he wouldn’t characterize his three Cup appearances with three teams in the past five springtimes as coincidence, he wasn’t taking credit.
“Well, starting with Edmonton, they hadn’t made the playoffs a whole lot over the five or six years before I got there, and when I got there expectations rose — and it was just a matter of us believing in the room that we could win every single night,” he said.
“Anaheim, the expectations were already high, they’d been to the conference finals the year before. They thought I was a guy who might help push them over the top, but the expectation was to win the Stanley Cup — that’s what the team was put together for, and we managed to accomplish that. It wasn’t really me going in there and changing anything, it was just adding a guy . . .”
Last summer, when GM Paul Holmgren pulled the trigger on a deal for Pronger that sent Joffrey Lupul, young defence prospect Luca Sbisa, two first-round picks and a third-rounder to Anaheim, there was no guarantee it would work the way it has.
Pronger’s overbearing personality clashed with captain Mike Richards’s Bobby Clarke-like presence, and there was a lot of pulling in different directions before order was restored, but the Flyers looked good coming into the season, and they look good now.
“Expectations were high, we didn’t necessarily live up to those off the hop,” Pronger said. “But it was just a matter of us finding our identity as a team.”
In the end, the identity settled on pugnacious, committed, sneaky-dirty, dangerous . . . and just a little arrogant. Where do you suppose that last bit came from?
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