Thanks to all those suspensions over all those years, and his willingness to fence – physically and otherwise – with anyone who would come near, Chris Pronger has always been a polarizing figure for the almost two decades that he's played in the NHL.
Nobody sums up the term "old school" better than Pronger, someone who hasn't been involved much in the NHL's concussion discussion. Not until Thursday night, anyway, when his boss, Philadelphia Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren, took the unprecedented step of announcing that Pronger's concussion symptoms are so severe that he has been ruled out for the rest of the regular season and playoffs.
Think about that.
This is mid-December. NHL playoffs generally stretch until nearly the end of June. So in the opinion of the two specialists who examined Pronger this week – and diagnosed him with "severe" post-concussion symptoms – they do not believe his condition will appreciably improve enough in the next six months to permit him to play again this season.
And given Pronger's age (37), the truculent nature of his play, and the wear and tear on his body, it isn't outside the realm of possibility to think that his distinguished career could be over.
The Flyers' announcement came late Thursday night. In a week in which the face of the league (Sidney Crosby), its leading scorer (Claude Giroux), and its goal-scoring leader (Milan Michalek) are all out because of concussions, you'd think nothing would be surprising any more when it comes to head injuries.
But Holmgren's statement qualified as a shocker, given how definitive the diagnosis appeared to be. Officially, Holmgren had this to say: "After consultation with respected concussion specialists Dr. Joseph Maroon and Dr. Micky Collins, it is the opinion of both doctors that Chris is suffering from severe post-concussion syndrome. It is the recommendation of Doctors Maroon and Collins that Chris not return to play for the Philadelphia Flyers for the remainder of the 2011-12 season or playoffs. Chris will continue to receive treatment and therapy with the hope that he can get better."
The operative word is "hope." They don't expect that he'll get better, the best they can do is "hope" that it happens. Nobody was prepared to say that Pronger's symptoms will ever improve to the point where he can get well enough to play again.
Part of the issue –maybe even the greater part of the issue – is all the punishment Pronger has given and taken over the years. No one tried to play through injuries more than Pronger. Once, in his Edmonton Oilers days, we walked out of the Pengrowth Saddledome together following a game-day skate, with Pronger limping noticeably beside me. I asked what was wrong. Nothing, he replied, with that smile on his face. One hundred per cent.
Of course, Pronger didn't play that night, but that was the only match he skipped. He returned to the Oilers lineup and stayed in so he could play in the 2006 Olympics in Turin on what one coach said was essentially one leg.
Pronger was always like that; he had a high pain threshold, someone who had to be dragged out of the lineup by more than one doctor over the years. He never gave any quarter, and never asked for any either, and you know that trying to play through all the symptoms that he was suffering this year, on multiple documented hits (from the Maple Leafs' Mikhail Grabovski and the Phoenix Coyotes' Michal Hanzal to name just two) couldn't have done him any good.
Pronger is easily one of the most interesting and engaging athletes of his era, so the hope is he can find a way (safely) back to the Flyers' lineup and take one more run at the Stanley Cup. Pronger and Marian Hossa are the only two players, post-NHL lockout, to get to three Cup finals with three different teams and Pronger won in 2007 on an Anaheim Ducks team managed by Brian Burke, someone else who believes that the game is in danger of losing its physical charm.
Eventually we will hear Pronger's side of the story and that should make for interesting listening. As the concussion debate has moved to the forefront of professional sport, Pronger hasn't been much involved in the conversation. This might be a good time to start.