It was the summer of 1995 when I first met Chris Pronger.
Pronger, now 41, is being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday night in Toronto after helping Anaheim win a Stanley Cup and being a major reason why Edmonton and Philadelphia also reached the finals.
“Prongs” has come a long way from the tall, skinny 6-foot-6 defenseman standing uncomfortably behind a podium in St. Louis. The second overall pick in 1993 was the centerpiece of a controversial Blues trade that sent popular forward Brendan Shanahan to the Hartford Whalers.
Pronger arrived in town as a 21-year-old youngster still looking to prove himself in the league while Shanahan was a major talent and considered one of the top players in recent Blues history. I had just begun my first full season on the Blues’ beat.
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Blues fans were irate, especially at then-General Manager and coach Mike Keenan for engineering the deal. In the early games that season, Keenan drew his share of boos from the upset fans.
The unfortunate Pronger, who never asked to be thrust into that situation, played some of those early games with the added scrutiny of being booed nearly every time he touched the puck — by Blues fans.
Pronger struggled under the pressure and the spotlight and endured a few more bad times than good during his early days here. That included criticism from Keenan, who tended to drop reminders about who Pronger had been traded for, possibly trying to motivate the young defenseman.
Pronger kept growing on and off the ice. He was listening to and learning from veterans like Hall of Fame defense partner Al MacInnis and others while maturing in experience and physical stature.
Pronger moved from uncertain performer to winning the Hart Trophy in 2000 as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player as well as the Norris Trophy for top defenseman. No NHL defenseman had won both awards since Bruins Hall of Famer Bobby Orr did it in 1972.
As his career blossomed, Pronger used his incredible reach and one of the longest sticks in existence both as a magic wand and a weapon. He read plays quickly, freeing up teammates for breakaways with long outlet passes from deep in his own zone.
Opponents usually took great pains to tread lightly in his area. He was tough to get around and even tougher to get through and if someone did, they typically paid the price with a body check or a bruise from Pronger’s stick.
Pronger routinely played more than 30 minutes a game, almost always matched against the opposing team’s best players and in the toughest situations.
His final NHL totals with the Blues, Hartford, Edmonton, Anaheim and Philadelphia included 157 goals and 698 points in 1,167 games, with another 26 goals and 121 points in 173 playoff contests.
The playoff contest I remember the most occurred during the 1998 Western Conference semifinals against the Detroit Red Wings.
I rarely made road trips with the team in those days, but was covering this one in Detroit’s Joe Louia Arena and witnessed something I hadn’t seen before.
Pronger was hit in the upper chest with a shot by Dmitri Mironov and went down. Pronger tried to get back up briefly and then immediately went down on the ice, unconscious for a short time. After quick medical treatment, Pronger was taken to a nearby hospital and it was determined later that he had suffered cardiac arrythhmia.
His heart had stopped briefly, then was beating irregularly before eventually returning to normal. Being a hockey player, Pronger was back in the Blues’ lineup two days later for Game 3, a game that reached double overtime.
He finished the series, which the Blues lost in six games to Detroit, but it remains one of the most scary sequences I’ve witnessed in 30 years as a sportswriter.
“I was just watching that whole segment for the first time about three weeks ago,” Pronger said in a recent NHL.com interview. “My eyes roll back in my head and then I went down. At the time, you’re young and you don’t take it that serious. But as time goes on, you read about these types of incidents and that kids die from it. I was lucky.”
Pronger became an all-star defenseman during his tenure with the Blues from 1995 to 2004, but his departure from the franchise was just as controversial as his arrival.
Then-Blues owner Bill Laurie was trying to sell the team and received advice that the process might me easier minus Pronger and his expensive contract.
Never mind that Pronger was the team’s best defenseman or had fought valiantly through a wrist injury that nearly ended his career to return to his all-star level of play.
The ownership group forced then-GM Larry Pleau to trade Pronger and the players the Blues received from Edmonton — defensemen Eric Brewer, Jeff Woywitka and Doug Lynch — never amounted to anything close to an even swap.
Brewer was a veteran NHL defenseman who, just like Pronger before him, found himself targeted for criticism by Blues fans who were not pleased with trading a popular and talented player.
Pronger liked to test new or younger reporters who dared approach his dressing room cubicle. He could be sarcastic at times, but was always a solid media option who could provide refreshing insight on practically any topic.
After dealing with the heart scare and wrist and knee injuries, it was post-concussion syndrome that eventually took him off the ice. After doing some scouting for the Flyers, he is now in his second season with the NHL Department of Player Safety.
That’s a bit ironic for someone with 1,590 career penalty minutes, but Pronger definitely knows both sides of the game.
He’s been hated, loved, feared and praised over the years. He intimidated, but also commanded respect and attention and played with a hard edge.
Now it’s time to give him his due in the Hall of Fame.