Chris Pronger’s No. 44 will be retired into history on Monday night, permanently bedecked in the rafters at Enterprise Center. For sure it will be a beautiful sight and an official homecoming. But to truly honor Pronger and his playing style the banner should display slash marks and some faded blood stains. I was going to suggest some loose teeth …
Pronger already has been honored with induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. That’s the ultimate honor. The St. Louis ceremony will be a more personal and sentimental affair, with Pronger pulled into the bosom of the Blues’ family. The 6-6 Pronger already stands tall among the best defensemen in NHL history. And with this homage in his home-base arena, Pronger will rise higher.
It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. It couldn’t happen to a meaner guy. That’s Pronger: A man with a warm heart, sharp elbows and abundant passion. A guy who could make you feel like family. During his Blues’ career I went to his house one time for lunch and an interview, and I have to say it was delightfully unexpected to see this giant gently preparing the meal in his kitchen. But on the other hand, if I aggravated Prongs with something I’d written – it happened a few times — I felt like hiring a bodyguard. Just kidding. That wasn’t necessary. Pronger wasn’t quick to forgive, or forget, but in time he got over it. And you always knew you were OK with him as long as he (A) made you the frequent target of barbed-wire insults, or (B) invited you to post up with him for a round of tequila shots.
As chance would have it, I ran into Pronger in the airport garage after flying home from Baltimore. I was there to bury my father, Bernie Sr. Prongert must have sensed I was down, because he couldn’t have been friendlier. I told him of my sad news and immediately saw another side of Pronger: compassionate, tender, and connected to my feelings. I will never forget that moment.
I’m sorry for including myself in this, but I do so only to offer a fuller picture of this fascinating individual. It’s relevant because the personal testimony applies to Pronger’s career; we could see his many sides on the ice.
As I wrote about Pronger in 2015, upon his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame:
Pronger was a towering figure on skates, all arms and legs and carrying a mean stick that gave opposing forwards reason to pause before they wandered into his space. With an extra-long reach, Pronger could easily pluck the puck from opponents or deliver a whack that made them stop in their tracks. At times he was an actual prong.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like for forwards to park in front of the net or venture into the corner for loose pucks. They had to keep chins up and eyes open. They had to look over their shoulders. They had to be aware of Pronger’s location at all times, because soon he’d be coming at them like a deranged giraffe.
Pronger was a Blue between 1995 and 2004, and I never covered a more tenacious competitor during my time in St. Louis. I’m talking about all sports; not just hockey. Pronger defended his territory with an all-out zeal. He made no friends out there and had enemies in every NHL arena.
That was one side. Pronger’s saltiness was a key ingredient, but at times it would dominate his reputation in a way that overwhelmed the appreciation of his tremendous skill.
He was as smart as he was ornery. He made fast, accurate reads with the puck to transport the Blues into the offensive zone. He was best known for doing the cleanup in front of his own goaltender – and pity the fool that expected to set up in the crease, as if parking an RV. That’s when Pronger would turn his hockey stick into a nightstick. And he’d put away the nightstick and use his long-armed, broomstick reach to sweep away pucks.
This intimidating policeman was also a skilled craftsman.
For opponents he was the devil with the Blue Note on.
To Blues fans, he was the annoyingly immature teenager who became the big, protective brother the franchise could lean on.
For this sportswriter, he was one of a kind. I’ll never see another sports personality like Pronger’s. And that’s the way it should be.
In the 1999-2000 season the Blues went 51-19-11-1, and Pronger was the big wheel for the team that had the NHL’s best record. He scored 14 goals, set up teammates with his 48 assists, and finished a preposterous +52. He was rewarded with the Hart Trophy (league MVP) and Norris Trophy (league’s best defensemen.) Only one other defenseman in NHL history, Bobby Orr, managed to win both trophies in the same season.
Pronger had a mean game, yes. But his mind was even sharper than those elbows. When Pronger got possession of the puck with the chance to motor the Blues on the attack, he’d rarely hesitate – immediately processing the scene in front of him. He’d find the opening, make a perfect pass, and the Blues would be on their way.
Pronger did it all. Killing penalties … while also trying to kill opponents. Working the point on the power play … looming over the offensive zone like The Arch. Mouthing off at the refs. Baiting foes into taking stupid penalties. Pronger’s vocal chords never rested, and that voice was the soundtrack for what would come later – some guy from the other team down on the ice, unaware of what just hit him.
With the possible exception of Yadier Molina, I’ve never seen a tougher St. Louis athlete. A substantial reason for my opinion comes from a 1998 playoff game, with the Blues playing at Detroit.
I’ll never forget being there the day Pronger was struck in the chest by a shot by Dmitri Mironov. It hit Pronger at the spot of his heart, and the sheer force of the blow took him down as if felled by a bullet.
It was early in the third period of Game 2 in the series, a contest the Blues would lose 6-1. But no one on either side cared about that. They were too shocked to acknowledge the scoreboard. Joe Louis Arena had never been so quiet during a game. This will sound awfully dramatic, but I speak for many who were there when I say this: we feared that Pronger wouldn’t get up. We fretted over the possibility of death.
After the game, Blues forward Blair Atcheynum described seeing Pronger in distress on the ice. The color had left Pronger’s face, and his eyes were twitching. The Blues were horrified and scared of the worst possible ending to a medical emergency.
“It’s just frightening to see a man buckle like that,” Atcheynum told reporters. “His eyes were rolled back in his head.”
Pronger was rushed to the hospital by ambulance. Blues trainer Ray Barile said Pronger lost consciousness on the ice for about 30 seconds. During the blackout the Pronger heartbeat went weak.
Blues physician Aaron Birenbaum said Pronger’s heart stopped briefly. “It’s not a common thing,” he told reporters. “But when anyone is hit on the chest wall over the heart, it certainly can cause arrhythmia.”
If this had happened in another sport, the athlete would have missed a few weeks and maybe even retired.
The next game was played two days later, in St. Louis.
Pronger not only dressed out, but he had an assist and led Blues skaters with 41 minutes and 35 seconds of ice time. The Blues lost 3-2. Those damn Red Wings would soon send them home for the summer. But after what we saw on that Sunday afternoon in Detroit, how could Pronger recover in time to play 41 minutes and 35 seconds? We knew that he had a strong, full heart … but this was amazing.
Moving ahead, the entire 2004-2005 NHL season was canceled because of a labor standoff between owners and playoffs. Blues owner Bill Laurie decided to put the franchise up for sale, and ordered team president Mark Sauer to do a destructive slash-and-burn on the team’s payroll to cut costs. Pronger had a big contract and was dealt to Edmonton for three players. It was a jarring transaction that played a significant role in the Blues’ bottoming-out to the league’s worst record in 2005-2006.
After being traded here in the controversial deal that sent Brendan Shanahan to Hartford, we watched Pronger grow up as a person and a player. After a rocky start – with people hating on Pronger because they resented losing Shanahan – peace was followed by happiness.
Pronger won over the St. Louis fans with his all-around excellent play, contentious attitude and commitment to the community. Chris married a St. Louis native, wife Lauren, and they started a family here. He was named team captain. His life was set – all but winning the Stanley Cup as a Blue. In Pronger’s 10 seasons of wearing The Note, the Blues made the playoffs every year and ranked sixth in the NHL in winning percentage.
Prongs was sent away with unfinished business. That awful trade to Edmonton was tough to take. It hurt everyone except the Oilers, who made the Stanley Cup Final after swiping Pronger from St. Louis. Pronger did win that Cup, but with Anaheim. If only he could have been a member of the St. Louis organization for that parade down Market Street on June 14, 2019. But Pronger was a thrilled as anyone when the Blues won that Cup. They were his team, always. This was his town, always. This is where he wanted to be, always.
The No. 44 will shine in the rafters tonight, welcoming Chris Pronger into the family again, joining the rafter immortals: Barclay Plager, Bob Plager, Bob Gassoff, Al MacInnis, Bernie Federko, Brian Sutter and Brett Hull. They’re Pronger’s eternal teammates, and he can’t be traded away. He’s a forever Blue.
This calls for a favorite Ella Fitzgerald song: “Blue skies, smiling at me, nothing but blue skies, do I see.”
Congratulations to Chris Pronger.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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