There comes a time in every defense-man's career when he has to face a three-on-one, when he must stare straight ahead at the trouble weaving its way toward him and figure out how to play it. Chris Pronger was no exception, although one summer day in 1995 his three-on-one was a triple rye, a beer chaser and a glass of Southern Comfort. They might as well have been Gretzky, Lemieux and Lindros. "Right there," says Pronger, dispassionately retracing the missteps in his 23 years, "was probably the low point."
In a perfect world—or at least in the movie version—the three-on-one would have been Pronger's epiphany. He would have leaped from his chair, smashed the drinks to the floor, renounced booze and immediately gone on to star in the NHL. Of course life often gets in the way of good stories. Pronger didn't put alcohol aside, but it became a smaller component of his life. Then in the summer of 1996 he grabbed a calendar and circled the weekends he felt he could get "brain dead from partying." Finally, last summer he hired a personal trainer and found he no longer needed a drinking datebook. Pronger still has the odd beer, but it's odd as in occasional, not odd as in five, seven, nine.... He's the new captain of the St. Louis Blues and the youngest player on Canada's Olympic hockey team, responsibilities that leave scant room for a frat-boy mind-set. The space allotted to partying on the knickknack shelf of a still young life has been cleared, which is fortunate because Pronger might need it for the Olympic medal and the Norris Trophies he is going to win.
Numbers really don't do Pronger's game justice, though he was leading the NHL in the plus-minus ratings at +21 through Sunday, nor does his play evoke many adjectives. But it does invite a verb: looms. At 6'5" and 210 pounds, Pronger looms on the ice, holding his position, making sure nothing untoward happens. "You can beat him," says Blues defenseman Al MacInnis, whose anticipated six-week absence because of a separated shoulder sustained on Dec. 13 increases the pressure, and attention, on Pronger, "but his reach is so incredible you'll have a hard time doing it. If you get by him, he can use his stick to hook and recover. He's become such a good skater, coupled with his size, that it's almost impossible to get around him."
When asked how well Pronger has been playing this season, St. Louis coach Joel Quenneville offers a smiling but flinty "O.K." Pronger, who had three goals and 10 assists at week's end, is still sorting out when to jump into the rush and when not to. Sometimes he coughs up the puck because he dawdles while waiting for teammates to exploit the passing lanes that Pronger not only sees but also anticipates. While Quenneville thinks his captain might be the best of the seven defensemen Canada is taking to Nagano in February, Pronger still has not hoisted his game to the level he reached in the 1997 Stanley Cup playoffs. As the Blues futilely tried to avoid elimination against the Detroit Red Wings in Game 6 of the first round, Quenneville played Pronger an astonishing 43 of 60 minutes. The former flibbertigibbet, an athlete so casual that St. Louis teammates privately called a light workout a " Chris Pronger practice," had become the Blues' most dependable player. "His maturation is so unbelievable I can't put it into words," St. Louis's star right wing Brett Hull says. "I can't imagine anybody having to handle as much as he has in such a short period of time."
This is the obstacle course the second player drafted in 1993 has had to survive: the pressure of a big-ticket contract in small-market Hartford; a couple of car accidents while playing for the Whalers; his arrest, with five other Whalers players and an assistant coach, for participating in a barroom scuffle during his rookie year; a second arrest, for drunk driving, 24 days later; a trade to St. Louis in 1995 for Brendan Shanahan, one of the most popular players in Blues history; a hostile coach in Mike Keenan; and the jeers of home crowds. Pronger never has been far from a headline.
At 18, Pronger arrived in Hartford with a four-year, $7 million contract—then the richest in Whalers history—and a bloated reputation as the next Larry Robinson. Mrs. Robinson would have been more aggressive that first season. Pronger offered little banging for the buck. Big-time looming is not a style that will turn around a franchise, especially one so forlorn. Although Hartford cut its goals against by 81 in his rookie season, the feat was buried in the rubble of a coaching change and a string of alcohol-related follies by a last-place club. For the few thousand fans who cared about the team, Pronger was a perfect target—long, loose, lackadaisical.
"He frustrated the hell out of me in Hartford," says Blues enforcer Kelly Chase, who played with Pronger on the Whalers. "I wanted to kill him a few times. You could see he had talent, but it was a ho-hum thing. He really didn't have any direction. He was under a lot of pressure and just wasn't ready for the responsibility. Of course that team wasn't exactly overloaded with players who knew how to win."
But they sure knew how to put together a record, the kind on which your mug appears with a number. On March 24, 1994, at 3:55 a.m., Pronger, those five teammates and assistant coach Kevin McCarthy were arrested following a brawl at the Network club in Buffalo, which was owned by former Bills quarterback Jim Kelly. At the arraignment 7� hours later, Pronger pleaded guilty to one count of trespassing and was sentenced to 20 hours of community service. Like the other Whalers, he had violated coach Pierre McGuire's midnight curfew. Unlike the other Whalers, he was 19, two years under New York State's legal drinking age. A lingering image is of Pronger pulling his jacket over his face "like a drug dealer," in Hartford owner Richard Gordon's unfortunate phrase, in front of TV cameras outside the courthouse. Pronger still rationalizes his nightclub visit—"Do you want me to be part of that team with 30-year-olds or just sit in my room all season?" he asks—but when team bonding turns into bail bonding, look out.
Pronger was arrested again in Bowling Green, Ohio, on April 17, three days after the season ended, for driving his BMW under the influence while visiting his brother, Sean, who played for Bowling Green. He pleaded no contest and was fined $483. "Getting arrested a couple of days after the season, a reputation grows," Pronger says. "During the winter, drinking was never really a problem. But I would try to cram everything in during the summer. I wasn't addicted to drinking. Drinking for me was part of being with my buddies, more just going out with the boys."
That wasn't a good excuse in Keenan's mind. In July 1995, Keenan, then the Blues general manager and coach, had acquired Pronger for Shanahan, a premier power forward and minor god in St. Louis because of his good looks, engaging manner and civic involvement. Pronger was the anti-Shanny. When he reported to training camp, Pronger scored 46.79 in his VO2 max fitness test, which measures maximum oxygen consumption. That's good for an accountant or a Zamboni driver but was 44th out of 46 on the Blues, for which an acceptable score was 60. Keenan, who takes VO2 as seriously as H2O, went ballistic. "Are you crazy?" he screamed at Pronger outside the dressing room at the Kiel Center. "You're 20 years old. Do you know who I traded you for?"