Adds Flyers center Daniel Brière, "If you make him look foolish [by beating him one-on-one], you know at some point you'll pay. It makes you more tentative."
Pronger nurtures what San Jose captain Rob Blake, his Team Canada defense partner at the Turin Olympics, calls "his mystique," a carefully cultivated international man of misery thing. He probably won't fight you—he has fought just eight times this decade—but he can. He will certainly not be afraid to brand you with his extra-long, 64-inch Warrior stick. His last suspension, in March 2008, was his longest, eight games for stomping on the calf of Vancouver's Ryan Kesler. Whether the glass is half full or half empty, the lip has a jagged edge for a defenseman who had 1,489 career penalty minutes through Sunday, in addition to 146 goals and 478 assists. After his first 24 games with the Flyers, his average ice time of 26:40 was third among NHL defensemen, and his 18 points led Philly blueliners.
Pronger is convinced that that unpredictability is almost as important a tool as his hockey smarts, his laser first passes and his heavy shot. "You might spear a guy in the face, fight a guy, elbow a guy, slash a guy or just make a clean bodycheck... If they don't know what I'm going to do, I hold the trump card," says Pronger, who signed a seven-year, $34.45 million extension with the Flyers after being traded from salary-cap-strapped Anaheim last June. "They're nervous Nellies. Maybe they'll move the puck a little too soon because they don't want to get slashed or speared again. I get people complaining in SI that I'm the dirtiest player in hockey"—he tied Dallas's Steve Ott for first place in a poll of 324 NHL players last season—"and people say, 'I can't believe you like that.' I tell 'em, 'Why wouldn't I?' Means I'm doing my job."
There is no other NHL player so comfortable in his own thick skin who also has the ability to make almost everyone else uncomfortable. Boos in opposing rinks are mother's milk—Pronger still wears a bull's-eye in Edmonton, a city he asked out of just days after helping the Oilers reach Game 7 of the 2006 Cup final—and he simply doesn't care what anyone except Flyers coach John Stevens and his teammates think. "It's good to have that arrogance," Brière says. "He just knows."
Pronger plays with admirable economy, typically positioning himself within a small radius from the front of the net in the defensive zone, rarely running out toward the boards to deliver a hit or a message, a measured approach that helps explain why he can play so many minutes at his age. He also can be efficient in interviews. When a reporter mentioned at a preseason media session that Pronger had been traded three times since the lockout, Pronger joked, "Yeah? So? What're you getting at?" He shadowboxed the question another moment before saying, "You know who also got traded a lot? Wayne Gretzky." Pronger turned to Zack Hill, the Flyers' public relations man, and said, "See, that's how you answer that question."
Just as veteran defenseman Brad (the Beast) McCrimmon was imported by Hartford to help mentor Pronger 16 years ago, the Towering Infernal is nursemaid to a team with conspicuous young talent such as captain Mike Richards and forward Jeff Carter. Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren, who at various times was Pronger's coach and G.M. with the Whalers, says, "Pronger being with young guys who are searching to see what it's all about ... [well, his] professionalism can really help them."
But Pronger has told Holmgren and Stevens that he plays the power play and the penalty kill but really does not play Mary Poppins. "I can talk to these kids until I'm blue in the face, but it doesn't matter," Pronger says. "At the end of the day they're going to make mistakes and have to learn from them. They might not make the same mistakes that I did. They might not make them as big, on and off the ice."
Although he is not about mulligans in a career that counts three Olympics and four first- or second-team All-NHL selections, Pronger does not hesitate when asked to name the one thing he might have done differently. "The jean jacket over my head [leaving a Buffalo jail]," he blurts. "I was still a little hung over and not thinking properly."
Pronger, then a 19-year-old Hartford rookie, was arrested after a bar brawl and spent a night in the slammer. Twenty-four days later he got a DUI. Pronger doesn't think he had a drinking problem, at least during the season, as much as a getting-caught problem. "The big misconception is that I was a boozebag," he says. "Well, I was a boozebag in the summer at the time but didn't hardly drink in the winter. Maybe four, five times that year. Caught twice. Something bad happens, and people [say I have] a problem.... At least I'm in a position to tell [the young Flyers] that these things can get out of hand pretty quickly. Last year the media [in Philly] questioned this team's ability to stay in some nights."
Pronger is the Flyers' stay-at-home defenseman, a husband and a father of three who is more rattled when one of his children is sick than by the prospect of encounters with Crosby and Washington's Alexander Ovechkin. Before this season Pronger had played in the Western Conference, not on Neptune, since 1995. "Everybody makes a big deal of, Oooh, how are you going to stop this guy or that guy," he says from behind his desk. "Well, the same way I did the last 14 years, buddy. I'm thinking, Dude, you know who I've had to play against? Yzerman, Fedorov, Sakic, Forsberg—the best in the game. [The media] try to stir the pot before I play against Ovechkin, and I haven't said anything to [play that down]. I don't have the heart."