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Chris Pronger was unprepared for the attack. In a darkened room of his house in suburban St. Louis last year, his son Jack, then nine years old, reached around Chris's unguarded right flank to embrace him around the waist. Caught unaware, the future Hall of Fame defenseman felt defenseless. "I snapped because I was frightened," he says. "I tell my kids [Jack, now 10; George, eight; and Lilah, four], 'You have to stop scaring me. I'm going to whack you or something because I can't see things coming anymore. It's not like it used to be.' "
At 38, the Flyers' former captain is nearly 18 months removed from a severe eye injury and a head injury, suffered in incidents three weeks apart, that drove him into what he calls "a black hole of depression." Pronger could once command a room with a presence befitting one of the game's most dominating players. He was uncommonly gifted and menacing, the first defenseman since Bobby Orr to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP. He won two Olympic gold medals with Canada, went to the finals with the Oilers (in 2006) and Philadelphia (in '10) and won a title in Anaheim (in '07). Veteran teammates deferred to him, and new ones cowered. "My first day I was intimidated just to meet him," recalls the Lightning's Matt Carle, Pronger's defense partner in Philly from '09 to '11. Pronger never hesitated to spar with opponents in the press, and sometimes he took shots at reporters too; he once asked if an opponent who had criticized him was headed to the minors and then checked to see if the writer knew how to spell demotion. He reveled in all forms of combat.
Today a room commands Pronger. It compels the man once accustomed to being in the spotlight to dim the lights and to be mindful of what he cannot see in his shrinking field of vision. Once fueled by the roar of 18,000 fans, he sometimes winces at the screech of a child. "Headaches, headaches, headaches," he says. "It takes nothing to get me to sensory overload."
On Oct. 24, 2011, Maple Leafs center Mikhail Grabovski caught Pronger's right eye with his stick while following through on a shot. "I still remember the screams," says Carle. "Prongs never let you know he was hurting, even when he blocked shots, fought, got slashed. That was the scariest thing I've seen." Pronger suffered damage to the eye. He was bedridden for four days but felt he had to return to the ice. "Unless you're dying, it's ingrained in our culture to play," he says. "Pain doesn't hurt; it's just pain."
He missed six games, then came back for five, insisting he felt fine even though, he says, "I was way off. Dizziness, nausea. I hid it. I didn't say anything. But in the games you're leaving yourself exposed to hits, making plays you wouldn't normally make." In Pronger's fourth game back Coyotes forward Martin Hanzal drove him into the boards from behind. "Didn't look bad," Pronger recalls, "[but] bells started ringing. I just didn't answer them." Two nights later he left the arena in Winnipeg feeling woozy and disoriented. He has not played since.
Pronger always delivered more punishment than he received. He would gladly slice into a chiffonade with his stick what his 6' 6", 220-pound frame was unable to mash to a pulp with a bodycheck. "You always knew that when you were in his house, you were going to get poked and knocked around," says Flyers winger Scott Hartnell, who played against Pronger for eight years until the latter moved to Philadelphia in 2009. "Chris was the best player in the NHL at knowing where you didn't have padding." Rival fans rained invective on him. (PRONGER WOULD SPEAR HIS GRANDMOTHER, one sign read.) His wild abandon earned him eight suspensions.
"I stuck some guys with a good one," says Pronger. "I'm guessing a few guys around the league heard about my injuries and started thinking, Ah, sweet karma.... I didn't play the game to make friends; I played the game to win. If what happened to me is a by-product of that, I accept it. I'd be a hypocrite to ask for sympathy now."
Pronger always seemed to have spare eyes above his ears. He possessed Gretzky-like vision on the ice and never seemed to panic with the puck on his stick. "Prongs had an unreal game," says Carle. "He played the three-on-two more aggressively than I knew you could play it. He took away time and space like it wasn't there. People were so intimidated by him, they always brought the puck over to my side of the ice. He just taught me to force them into making a play and he'd take care of the rest. His anticipation and his reads were incredible."
Since his injury, however, Pronger hasn't been close to the same. He failed his ImPACT Test (used by the NHL to evaluate players after they take a hit to the head) once he returned to Philadelphia from Winnipeg, and spent the next five days gazing into a fog while getting three to four hours of sleep a night. The man who could seemingly see everything—and say anything—was suddenly too sensitive to light and sound to engage with his family. Instead of playing on the trampoline with his kids, he'd toss them a baseball until his arm movements made him nauseous or dizzy. His wife, Lauren, "became the family rock, my referee," he says, "explaining to the kids why Dad can't play the same way anymore."
When friends and teammates reached out to him, he asked for space. He quickly tired of reassuring them when he could give no timetable for when he might feel normal again. He says, "I got sick of the same conversation: Hey, you look good. Really, how am I supposed to look? Isn't that what you say to old people? And by the way, I feel like crap, so go away."