Brett Hull slid over to Craig Conroy on the St. Louis Blues' bench and croaked, "He's not even breathing." Teammate Chris Pronger lay on the ice. His lips were turning purple, his skin was the color of neglected teeth. Pronger had been knocked off his feet by an industrial-strength Dmitri Mironov slapshot—struck in the chest near his heart—during a playoff game against the Red Wings. He thought to himself, This is Detroit, do not stay down, get to the bench, but upon clambering to his skates the 6'6" defenseman collapsed onto the ice like a cardboard skeleton. Pronger's heart had not stopped but it had skipped a beat. Cardiac arrhythmia. He was 23 years old. And he could have died.
If sports were crammed with so many moments of truth, as we often pretend, May 10, 1998, would have been the one when the white light shone, the bells chimed and life changed for Pronger. The fact is, nothing did. No epiphany. No lessons learned. No perspective gained. He still recalls the event in a riot of detail—gazing up at hovering faces above him and thinking, Guys, what's up? and walking on a cardiologist's treadmill in St. Louis the next day while wearing his dress shoes—but other than a lingering curiosity about cardiac arrhythmia, it was merely a day in the life. Two nights later he played more than 41 minutes in a double-OT loss to the Red Wings because that is what he does. "I was young enough and dumb enough to not understand what could have happened," Pronger says, showing a gap-toothed grin that resembles David Letterman's.
The difference is that Letterman apologizes for his transgressions and Pronger does not. He also does not explain or complain, except to referees. "Sometimes I'm just making it look good," he says of his grousing. "You go to the [penalty] box, you've got to make it look good."
Pronger, now 35 and with his fourth team in six seasons, is sitting at his desk in his home office, autumn sunlight slanting through the blinds. The crowded shelves—there are books on finance, biographies, hockey histories, a picture of him at the White House with president George W. Bush—say as much about him as do the Hart and Norris trophies he won in 2000 that also have pride of place in his ordered world. Through the door he hears his children scamper around their new home, an expansive colonial in South Jersey. Pronger had picked up his five-year-old, George, at school that afternoon. He had brought his boy a number 20 Philadelphia Flyers jersey.
Pronger now plays for a team that can claim to have a culture, albeit one sometimes regarded as primitive. The bellicose Flyers really do stand, and stand up, for something. And in 1974, the year that Philadelphia bullied its way to the first of two straight Stanley Cups, Pronger was born to be a Flyer. He has been suspended eight times for malfeasances involving kicking, elbowing and other improprieties (over the past three decades, only retired defenseman Bryan Marchment has been suspended more often), which means director of hockey operations Colin Campbell, the NHL's VP for violence, probably has him on speed dial. Campbell hit Pronger, then with Anaheim, with a pair of one-game suspensions in the 2007 playoffs, first for wallpapering Detroit's Tomas Holmstrom into the glass from behind in the Western Conference finals and then for nailing Ottawa's Dean McAmmond with an elbow in Game 3 of the Cup finals. "I was trying to hit [McAmmond] with a forearm, but he ducked," Pronger says. "He's laying on the ice, I'm back to the bench and I'm like, Hmmm, that's going to be costly."
The smile, again.
No, the cardiac event in 1998 did not rock Pronger's world, give him a deeper appreciation of the fragility of life or whatever these incidents are supposed to do, but it did offer indisputable proof: Contrary to popular belief, Pronger actually has a heart.
The Wachovia Center scoreboard shows 0.5 seconds left in the third period, but the "ultimate defenseman" (as Devils goalie Martin Brodeur calls Pronger) is not yet finished with his day's work. Philadelphia left wing Scott Hartnell and Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang are wrestling on the ice behind the Penguins' net, with Letang's teammate Chris Kunitz hovering. From his vantage point on the near blue line, Pronger doesn't like the odd-man crush. He skates in briskly, sheds his gloves and—as if he were a rodeo cowboy and Kunitz, his former Ducks teammate, were a recalcitrant steer—grabs Kunitz's jersey around the collar. Pronger now has Hartnell's back and Kunitz's neck, which pretty much makes him the ideal Flyer. When penalties are announced, Pronger's misconduct earns as loud a cheer as any this night from a crowd disenchanted with a 5--4 loss to its intrastate rival.
Pronger always makes an impression, beyond the jersey burn on Kunitz's neck. Besides an assist and another goal he creates when his power-play slap shot shatters Matt Cooke's stick and leaves Pittsburgh to defend with what amounts to three and a half men, Pronger's handiwork this night includes a bloody welt on Jordan Staal's right forearm from a two-handed slash and some scrapes on Sidney Crosby's back from an unpenalized cross-check in the first minute. "He's good at what he does," Crosby says. "He's been doing it a while." Pronger resides in an amoral world in which he does not make the rules, just bends them. At practice the following day, as Hartnell deflects the Penguins' claim that he bit Letang's right index finger during the scrum ("I'm not a savage," Hartnell protests), Pronger shrugs. If Letang's fingers had been in his teammate's mouth, he reasons, it was the responsibility of the Penguins' player to remove them.
"Oh, yeah, Prongs is dirty, for sure," says Conroy, now with Calgary. "I thought he might be a little dirty when I played with him, but the first time I played against him he's grabbing, cross-checking. I'm like, Whoa, he could be taking a penalty on every shift."