It’s difficult to miss Chris Pronger, even when he’s wearing a suit and tie instead of hockey equipment. That’s largely because he’s so big, but he’s also loud and boisterous and draws a crowd. Draft day 2013 was no different. Even though Pronger was behind the barrier separating teams from everyone else, he came to the front of the area to share his thoughts with anyone who would listen and a few who wouldn’t. And like John ‘Bluto’ Blutarsky in Animal House, it’s best to let him keep going when he’s on a roll.
The San Jose Sharks had just selected Swiss-born Western League star Mirco Mueller 18th overall and Pronger was touting his abilities as a soothsayer. “I called that one,” he declared. “When I left the table and (the Sharks) traded up, I said, ‘They’re picking Mueller.’ Doug Wilson takes all the Germans and the Swiss. Just look at his drafts, those are the types of kids he takes.”
It’s good to see Pronger again. It’s even better to see him back to something that, at least on the outside, resembles his former self. Ravaged by post-concussion syndrome and a serious eye injury, Pronger hasn’t been on the ice since Nov. 19, 2011, with the exception of “pushing pucks around” during his sons’ practices. And despite his public proclamations that he still holds out hopes of playing again, it’s widely believed his career is over. He has come a long way from the depressing days filled with despair when he would stumble around his house in the dark, but he’s even further from ever being fit to play in the NHL. A friend who went paddle boarding with him at a former teammates’ wedding said Pronger was sore for days after the experience. Thirteen career surgeries will do that to a guy.
“I’ll say it, Chris is never going to play again,” said Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren. “I have no problems saying it.”
Just because Pronger isn’t on the ice, however, doesn’t mean he isn’t intent on staying in the game. In fact, Pronger sat at the Flyers table during the draft because he’d done a fair bit of scouting defensemen last season. He’d pore over game tapes at home, then head out for short periods to watch some of the top prospects in person. He saw Darnell Nurse, who ended up going seventh overall to the Edmonton Oilers, several times. And he really liked Mueller.
Holmgren said the plan has been good for the Flyers and “good therapy” for Pronger as he prepares for life without the game as a player. Whether that means getting involved at the management level is something Pronger will contemplate over the next couple years, presumably while he sits on the long-term injury list and waits for his contract to expire in four years. Last year, he watched Scott Laughton, the Flyers first-round pick in 2012, and was part of the interview process. As much as it helps Pronger, Holmgren said he values his opinions, particularly when it comes to blueliners.
“Chris is one of the smartest guys in hockey I know,” Holmgren said. “He has a real grasp of the game and a real understanding of his position and everybody else’s position on the ice. He’s like Tom Brady as a player. He just knows that much about what’s going on.”
Pronger has long projected as an executive. Few players were more plugged-in and he always seemed to know a lot of gossip going around the league. He was always a student of the game, studying tendencies of players and being able to provide a thorough scouting report on almost every one of his opponents. And though he didn’t directly scout Samuel Morin, the 6-foot-6 defenseman from the Rimouski Oceanic that the Flyers took 11th overall in 2013, he did have a word of advice for the young man.
“I said congratulations and then I told him, ‘Keep your f—ing head up, kid,’ ” Pronger said.
Pronger’s concussion symptoms have abated, but problems remain in his right eye, which was struck by the stick of Mikhail Grabovski on the follow through of a shot in a game about a month before he stopped playing for good. The way Pronger explains it, when most people look at the horizon, then move their head, their eyes don’t move. His eye, however is unable to hold its position.
“Mine flickers, so I get dizzy if I’m moving it too fast because my eye is going like that,” he said. “I work on all that s— in therapy and we’ll see. We’ll see.”
The reality is the best Pronger can hope for is to be able to have a good quality of life post-hockey. Right now he’s in what Holmgren describes as “no man’s land.” That largely has to do with his contract status, which he and the Flyers created when they signed a seven-year deal worth $34.6 million in 2010. At the time, those deals were perfectly legal under the collective bargaining agreement and spreading the amount over seven years – his salary is just $575,000 in each of the final two years of the deal – served to bring the cap hit down to $4.9 million.
But since Pronger turned 35 during the deal, the Flyers have no way out of absorbing the cap hit for the next four seasons. He isn’t going to retire because he’s due $7 million in salary next season and $4 million in 2014-15. If he were to retire, he’d forfeit the money and the Flyers would still be on the hook for the cap hit the next four seasons. They can’t buy him out because the CBA forbids teams from buying out injured players, but the Flyers do get the cap relief by keeping him on the long-term injury list, the same way the Boston Bruins are dealing with Marc Savard.
Over-35 contracts were designed to prevent teams from circumventing the CBA, but it’s almost certain neither Pronger nor Savard – whose $4-million cap hit also runs the next four seasons, though his isn’t a 35-plus deal – will play again.
The league made an exception last season for Scott Gomez and Wade Redden, who weren’t on over-35 contracts but nonetheless were in limbo coming out of the lockout due to their mammoth contracts. Their respective clubs at the time (the Canadiens and Rangers) planned to make them compliance buyouts, but they had to wait until the end of the season in accordance with the new CBA. The NHL stepped in and allowed each team one compliance buyout prior to the start of the season and Montreal and New York quickly bought out Gomez and Redden so they could play in 2012-13. Pronger’s agent, Pat Morris, and Holmgren, would like to see a similar favor extended to Pronger to address his unique situation. According to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, there are no plans to make an exception.
For Pronger, there are ramifications. If he were to retroactively retire after 2011-12, he’d be eligible for induction into the Hall of Fame in 2015. As it stands, he’ll have to wait until 2020. He also can’t retire to concentrate on his post-career plans because of his contract status. And if he were to retire in two years when his yearly salary goes down dramatically, the Flyers would still be on the hook for his $4.9-million cap hit without the benefit of relief from the long-term injury list. Plus, those close to him opine he’ll still want the $1.2 million from the last two years of the deal. (Friends believe he may still have his communion money.)
It’s a bit of a mess to be sure. In the meantime, Pronger has moved back to his base in St. Louis with his wife and three children and is getting on with his life. That may entail doing some scouting the next four years, but he likely won’t fade away. And that’s a good thing, if only for the one-liners.
As he concluded holding court at the draft, Pronger reflected on the fact that it had been 20 years since he went second overall to the Hartford Whalers. After being selected first by Ottawa at the Colisee in Quebec City in 1993, Alexandre Daigle remarked that nobody remembers who went second.
“Nobody remembers No. 2, boys, nobody remembers No. 2 – all-time quote,” Pronger said. “Guess who ate the s— sandwich on that one?”
This story appeared in the Oct. 14 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Click to subscribe.