The new normal for Chris Pronger
Scott Burnside [ARCHIVE]
September 17, 2013
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PHILADELPHIA -- If life was a slow straight line, then things would be much more manageable for Chris Pronger.

But life is not that. It is full of twists and turns, both literal and figurative, and those twists and turns continue to bedevil one of the most dominant defensemen in NHL history.

Recently, Pronger -- out of action with concussion-related symptoms since taking a stick to the eye in November 2011 -- stepped onto the ice with his kids. He hadn't skated all summer, but it seemed to be going well.

"I was surprised," Pronger told in a recent interview. "I was like, Oh, I feel all right. But I was just going in a straight line. And then all of a sudden, I started to spin and go in circles. ... I was like, OK, apparently this didn't get better."

He remains an imposing figure. In shorts and T-shirt, beard and glasses, if it's possible to be both professorial and imposing, that is the soon-to-be 39-year-old. With a rapier wit, Pronger continues to exude a zest for life, at least externally.

When Pronger met with a group of local reporters at the Wells Fargo Center later that day, he joked immediately that he had to leave. He grudgingly took a microphone while a communications staffer videotapes part of the conversation. He then tossed it aside in mock disgust when he found out the videotaping had stopped long before the end of the conversation and he had still been holding the microphone.

To see him like this, arching his eyebrows and rolling his eyes as he joked with those who have covered the Flyers on a regular basis, there is something somehow comforting, a reminder of a more familiar routine.

But if these moments hint at normalcy, they are just that: hints, a thin veneer that covers a life that is a million miles from normal. Perhaps more to the point for Chris Pronger, the new normal is the unknown.

The 6-foot-6 Pronger, selected with the second overall draft pick by the Hartford Whalers in 1993, continues to work with doctors to try to deal with symptoms from the combination of injuries that, essentially, cut his career short. Although most people believe Pronger's issues are strictly concussion related, they are much more complex than that. They involve Pronger's eyesight, the relationship between the body's optical center and things like balance, headaches and overall stability.

"A lot of the stuff that I'm doing now is more eye related, vestibular related," he said. "It's not concussion or what have you. I still get symptoms, but I think a lot of those are due to my eye.

"There's a lot of the things that still trouble me are things that are associated with my vestibular system and my ocular system and those are things that's an ongoing process."

Often Pronger receives advice from people on what he needs to do to get better. It is both touching and more than a little frustrating.

"I get letters and people calling, 'Oh, you go do this and you'll be fixed.' Meanwhile they don't even know what's wrong with me," he said. "They think, 'Oh, he's got a concussion.' Well no, I don't know if you saw the injury, but I got slashed in the eye. So it's funny. I feel for them. A lot of people that have sent me letters either had concussions or one of their loved ones had concussions.

"I get it and I understand it, but when they don't know the extent of my injury, it's hard for them to say they have a cure-all. Well this helped me, so it's going to help you."

The fact that Pronger receives such advice is a window on the medical challenges in dealing with these issues. The connection between concussions and other related injuries is in its infancy. Researchers and doctors are in some ways feeling about in the dark to understand the relationships and correct forms of treatment.

When a pro athlete is injured, the first question is invariably, When will you be back? Shoulders, knees, muscles, bones all have a more or less defined period required for healing and rehabilitation.

Not so for what ails Pronger and others like him.

He'd like nothing more than to know the answer to the question: When will you be better?

"There's no answer to what's the time frame; will it get fixed; how much can it get fixed; on and on and on," he said. "That's where we're at with all this. There is no time frame. There is no set, OK, you go and do these exercises, you go and do this surgery, you go do this and you'll be all better and you'll be able to do this and you'll be able to do that."

Pronger remains under contract with the Flyers and will continue to be until the end of the 2016-17 season, with an annual salary-cap hit of slightly more than $4.9 million. Last season, Pronger did some scouting from his home base in St. Louis. He watched games on television and sent notes to GM Paul Holmgren and the coaching staff.

Sometimes he would watch Flyers games, make notes about his perceptions and pass them along to Holmgren, the coaches or the players themselves. He occasionally scouted pro games, paying attention to potential free agents.

"Chris has a tremendous understanding of the game and how it should be played," GM Paul Holmgren told "He's been a good sounding board for me" and for the coaching staff.

Pronger has spent time with young defenseman Luke Schenn and, in fact, had Schenn and his brother, Brayden, also a member of the Flyers, to his home in St. Louis in the offseason.

Assistant coach Kevin McCarthy, a former NHL defenseman and longtime NHL coach, is far more used to sending Pronger over the boards than he is in talking scouting issues. But even as a player, McCarthy said, Pronger wanted to be reminded of things, always striving to be better.

"I've never been around a guy that understands the game like he does," McCarthy told

He said Pronger would come back to the bench and not only describe what happened defensively, but what everyone else was doing on the ice. His input is important, McCarthy added, because there is always value to hearing something from your peers, whether it's praise or constructive criticism.

Still, the constant backdrop through all of this for everyone involved -- Pronger, Holmgren, the coaches and the players -- is that he'd rather not be doing this somewhat awkward dance between being a player and being something else.

"I'm still paid as a player, still a dues-paying member of the [National Hockey League Players' Association]. So there are a lot of things I can't be a part of and I guess, for all intents and purposes, don't want to be a part of," Pronger said. "There's only so much you want to know."

Not that Pronger minded the chores he was asked to perform last season.

"It's twofold," he said. "It keeps you somewhat active, keeps your mind going and keeps you in the...
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