NHL99: Chris Pronger’s objective on the ice wasn’t ‘to make friends,’ but to win

Welcome to NHL99, The Athletic’s countdown of the best 100 players in modern NHL history. We’re ranking 100 players but calling it 99 because we all know who’s No. 1 — it’s the 99 spots behind No. 99 we have to figure out. Every Monday through Saturday until February we’ll unveil new members of the list.

A few days before Christmas, somewhere in a Nashville hotel, Chris Pronger is swearing at me. We’ve been on the phone for 59 seconds. It’s the first time we’ve ever spoken.

Pronger knows why I called. We made a list, I’d told him, and he was on it. There was a panel. A bunch of people voted. I was one of them. And the end results put him — the prototypical No. 1 defenseman, a vital bit of connective tissue between eras and the owner of an edge pronounced enough to, for some, blot out bits of his greatness about him — at No. 35.

“Oh,” he says, “What the f—?”

Before The Word crosses his lips, I know why he’s mad, and I’m ready for it.

“You were higher on my ballot. That’s why…”

He cuts me off. “Uh-huh. That’s what they all say.” Sure, I tell him, but it’s true, and that it might’ve been part of the reason I drew this particular straw.

“Yeah. ‘Cozy up to him and he won’t yell at you too much.’ And you can tell ’em I said that to you. I’m sure that’s the reason.” He’s cackling now, and he calls my editors “bastards.”

He’s right about the first part, and I tell him so. Every conversation like ours has its challenges, and one of mine is to not get the roastmaster treatment from one of the best to do it.

He corrects me. “Roasted again.”

The elephant in the room for every discussion about Pronger’s legacy — including ones that he’s participating in — is the mean streak. Or the “borderline play.” Or the dirty stuff. Or the filthy stuff. Dean McAmmond and Ryan Kesler might have gotten the worst of it, but there’s no real way to be certain. Plenty of his opponents have gone on the record about it. Some even now, in their 40s and 50s, refuse to do the same.

Pronger is divisive and he will be for as long as hockey is played. It’s a bed he’s made for himself. By and large, he’s comfortable sleeping in it.

Ideally, he says his game would be foregrounded a bit more. It’d at least come up more quickly than, say, his elbows.

“That’s the first thing that everybody talks about, do you know? I prided myself on my first pass. I prided myself on quick, clean exits out of our zone,” he says. “I think if you asked my teammates, they’d probably say the same things.”

Sure would. And they’d say more. Pronger himself, in this spot, undersold his impact; the man was a 6-foot-6 all-situations battleship, a triple-gold winner and the first (and only) defenseman since Bobby Orr to win the Hart Trophy, in 1999-2000 with the St.Louis Blues. Success followed him, and it wasn’t by mistake. A nice first pass is important; it also did n’t come up in his Hockey Hall of Fame biography of him.

“Prongs had a great feel for the temperature of the game. He could change it with a big hit, a big play, a fight. If you were a GM or a coach and made a list of the things you needed and wanted from a No. 1 defenseman, I’m not sure Chris is missing any,” Blues teammate Al MacInnis told Eric Duhatschek in 2015. MacInnis, you’ll recall, is also on this list.

“(His passing) and puck-handling skills, man, they were elite,” MacInnis said. “I played mostly special teams with Prongs, power play and penalty killing, and he was so good with the puck — he could hit the open guy, no problem at all. He had physicality, a great stick, hockey sense.”

Pronger brings up his point production — 0.60 per game is 48th among defensemen — as something that lagged a bit behind his all-timer peers for a reason.

“I probably could have (gotten more points), but what would I have sacrificed? I was trying to win. My job was to shut down the other team’s top line,” he says. “Could I have played on the power play more? Probably. But in discussions with the coaching staff, it’d be like, ‘Well, we want you ready to go against the top line after our power play is over. We need you fresh.’

“So it’s a balancing act. There has to be sacrifice for success on any number of fronts. Discipline, training, preparation, working on your weaknesses — you have to continually evolve.”

The first pass comes up again, too. For Pronger, it’s representative, nearly symbolic: “Teammates wanna be on the ice when you’re on the ice because they know they’re gonna get pucks. They know they’re not gonna get sucker passes. Those little things add up over time, and they add up over the course of a career.”

The biggest point of pride in that career — the time he believes he was at his best — was coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, when rules were changed to benefit smaller, more skilled players. His rationale is simple; he proved people wrong. Plenty of people, in and around the game, thought that would be the end of players like him.

“I remember, clear as day, I was gonna be a dinosaur,” he says. As it went, changes that eliminated some physicality, legal or otherwise, helped him more than they hurt.

Pre-lockout, Pronger says, he’d get challenged to fights all the time, and he’d mainly turn them down. “’You’re a fourth-liner,’” he’d tell them. “I play 30 minutes. Not gonna do that. How does this help me? How does this help my team win?”

Turned out, it was easier to stay fresh, he says, without “a 250-pound guy draped all over me.” Those teammates on the receiving end of his first pass? They had a whole lot more room to run.

He spent the next seven seasons cementing his all-time bona fides — a Stanley Cup with the Ducks in 2007, plus finals trips with Edmonton and Philadelphiabefore a horrific eye injury and post-concussion syndrome effectively ended his career at 37. Even then, it seemed like he had more in the tank.

If all those wins, all those honors and all that success weren’t an accident, neither were eight suspensions and 1,590 penalty minutes. Pronger doesn’t care; that was the cost of doing business. He was concerned about his teammates. He was not concerned about his opponents. It came through in a way it didn’t for other players, and certainly other stars. The physicality that made him great, in many instances, morphed into malice, and that’s reflected in the perception of him, public and otherwise.

“I’m sure there’s still a lot of guys that hate me,” Pronger says, “but c’est la vie. That’s how I played the game. I wasn’t out there to make friends.”

It might sound reductive. Most mission statements are, though. For him, it’s easy math. Then and now, he’s unbothered. What you do with that, he says, is your business.

“Was I a hard ass? Yeah. Did I play hard? Yeah. But what else did I do? I was a winner. I helped develop players. The helped players stay in the league. I helped young guys improve and get better,” he says.

“When you look at your body of work, it’s not always what you personally have done on the ice. It’s what you’ve done as a group, what you’ve done with teammates and friends. And you look back on that and go, ‘OK.’”

The big question is necessary. It’s been asked often enough for him to anticipate it. That’s what he does this time, too. We both ask it at the same time.

“Do I regret how I played the game? Do you think I didn’t have a target on my back? Do you think I didn’t have guys trying to take me out? A hundred percent,” he says.

“So guess what: You give or you receive. And I’m givin’. … I don’t feel bad, one bit, about that because they would’ve done the same thing to me. I know, absolutely not.”

Right, I say, but the most egregious stuff, the things you did that people still remember and still bring up…

“And still cry about all the time,” Pronger says. He’s hunting again. “I love it. People can’t turn the page, can they? I get the emotions involved. I get the hatred. I get the love affair. I get all of that part of it. But guess what? I don’t play anymore.”

Chris Pronger’s passing and puck-handling skills were elite. (Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images)

Pronger is happy away from the game. After his playing career ended, he spent three years with the NHL‘s department of player safety, the hockey equivalent of a hacker hired to lead operations for a digital security company. That, according to commissioner Gary Bettmanwas the point.

Asked if he misses that job, the cackle dials up to 11. “I don’t miss getting yelled at for stuff that’s in the CBA. It’s amazing to me that people still think these (suspension lengths and ends) are just random,” he says. “As (Stars GM) Jim Nill said to me one time, if both GMs are pissed and both players are pissed, then you’ve done your job.”

Well, I say, if not making anyone happy is the measuring stick, it seems like you hit the mark.

“Exactly. That’s what you’re trying to do. And then obviously, the media is always gonna go, ‘You should have gotten more,’ no matter what. It’s a thankless job. It’s much-needed, but it’s a thankless job.”

After leaving the NHL in 2017, he was part of the Panthers’ hockey operations department for three more years under Dale Tallon before leaving in July 2020 to focus on his family’s luxury travel company.

Asked if he’d boomerang back for the right front office job, he pauses for 10 seconds.

“I’m not actively looking, if that’s your question. I’m not sitting by my fire, sipping on a tea, going, ‘Geez, I wonder who’s gonna call me?’”

It’d be hard to imagine him doing that, I say.

“I’m not interested in the title, let’s put it that way. It has to be a unique opportunity. It’s more about the opportunity than it is about the title. It’s about unique markets. Places that probably haven’t won in a long time, where you have a chance with a blank slate or an owner that says, ‘You’re my guy. Go do it. You’ve got full control.’”

Pronger loves being his own boss — or at least, he says, only answering to Lauren, his wife and the co-owner of Well Inspired Travel. In his downtime, he’s doing as he pleases. He watches games that involve teams he likes — “I wanna see people pissed off, you know? And there are some games where you see that and you’re like, ‘Why are n’t more games like that?’ ”—And he does n’t bother with many others.

He hangs out on Twitter, talking about entrepreneurship and investments and, for a few hours in December, defending Jacob Trouba. He’s “grinding away” on some new posts about the financial lives of pro athletes, given how much people seemed to enjoy the last batch.

I ask about his vision, and he tells me it’s fine; he’s more nearsighted than anything, and he needs his glasses in the morning. This feels like our conversation winding down, so I thank him for the time and send him off to do better things in Nashville, where he’s celebrating a family friend’s 21st birthday.

As we’re hanging up, he has a question of his own.

“On that list, who’s ahead of me on defense?”

I told him to guess. He got them all, in order. There weren’t many, and there shouldn’t have been.

(Top photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)


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