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Last June he moved his family back to St. Louis, where he spent nine years with the Blues (1995 to 2004) and where the lights in his home have dimmers. He still loses his train of thought. "I can be mid-sentence sometimes, and I'll draw a blank," he says. "You get used to thinking up ways to buy time so you can figure out what the hell you were just talking about. If I don't write things down, good luck. I was talking to my mom last night. I take another call, tell her I'll call right back, 10 minutes. Think I remembered?"
Pronger had been impervious to the dangers of the game: fists, sticks, 100-mile-an-hour slap shots he dived to block. But in the stillness and solitude of recovery he found fear and sank into depression. "It was a dangerous transformation because I didn't know how I was going to get out of it," he says. "The buzz was out of my life so fast, and I missed it.... You get isolated, depressed. You don't want to leave the house. You're trying to medicate yourself—six beers a night or whatever. You're not working out. You're eating chips and chocolate bars, all the staples of a sports reporter's diet. I was in a pretty dark hole, and my thoughts were swirling. I wouldn't say I was suicidal, [but] I can see where if you don't start going in the other direction, [you're] going to start getting [that way]. At some point I needed to scrap the woe-is-me card."
Pronger's rebound began with the new school year last fall, when he decided it was time to "be the husband and father I'm supposed to be ... even if [that meant] firing up the symptoms." The monotonic hum of an air conditioner, heating vent or refrigerator could be painfully uncomfortable. "I went to one of my kid's class plays," he says. "There was a sound in the building. When it's around and then behind you, it drives you nuts." He helped coach his boys' youth hockey teams, and in December he finally received medical clearance (he is a patient of Sidney Crosby's doctor, Micky Collins, at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center) to go on the ice with them. "I'm standing at the circle watching them go around, working on their crossovers," he recalls. "As I'm turning, I'm getting dizzy. I had to tripod it up"—lean on his stick—"and let them go around and just catch them on the other side."
After his eye injury, Pronger's right pupil enlarged, causing him to follow objects differently with each eye. When he rides an exercise bike, the bobbing of his head intensifies his headaches. When he reads, his eyes become sore. He has lost 45% of his peripheral vision. He is now vigilant about "pushing the bar"; he lifts light weights and does daily eye exercises that produce both headaches and improvements. He might stare at a series of beads on a horizontal string, adjusting his focus from bead to bead; scan handheld eye charts up and down, then sideways; read words while walking back and forth, because his eyes no longer move out as well as in. "After 50 minutes of all that concentrating," he says, "I usually lie down. It's too exhausting."
Though the NHL doesn't release concussion numbers, it has tried to stem a rising tide of head injuries in the last three years—some to stars such as Crosby—by making significant rule changes, including penalties for blind-side hits and suspensions for hits targeting the head. "Too many guys these days can empathize with Chris's struggle," says Pat LaFontaine, whose concussions cut short his Hall of Fame career in 1998. "Part of yourself is kind of gone. You have to make peace with what's left."
Pronger has not officially retired, and both he and Flyers G.M. Paul Holmgren use the phrase never say never when describing his prospects for returning to the ice. Their charade seems absurd, but it serves a purpose, since the team can dodge a yearly $4.9 million hit against its salary cap through the end of his contract in 2016--17 if Pronger is out with an injury. The Flyers will likely keep an office or a scouting job open for him, and he raves about Holmgren's support.
Until Pronger met with Philadelphia beat reporters last month, only his wife had consented to interviews, telling a TV reporter, "It's been a tough go at home. It's been a lot of trauma." But, says Chris, "she's out of the interview game now. It's up to me to speak up."
Pronger feels that the onus for solving hockey's concussion problems is not all on the NHL. He wants players to look out for themselves by talking about symptoms and protecting themselves on the ice. "Kids now go a hundred miles an hour, but they have their heads down and expect the referees to protect them," he says. "If a guy's coming at you and his head is in front of his body, where are you going to hit him?" Pronger grows animated, jabbing the air with his elbow.
Of course his career shouldn't end this way. Pronger should finish the way former Devils defenseman Scott Stevens did, belting people into next week right up to his final shift. He deserves a send-off like that of former Bruins great Ray Bourque, who finally hoisted the Cup as a member of the Avalanche in 2001 in a last act of triumph. Yet Pronger insists that you skip the pity. "[Other] people have it a lot worse," he says. "I'm here, right? I'll be fine."
At this he offers proof. "You wouldn't know it," he says, "but I got a headache just talking to you." Then he flashes his mischievous gap-toothed grin; his gamesmanship is now therapy. "You always do that to people, don't you?"