Pronger's new season begins with new role

After missing 77 games last season, Chris Pronger is back for the Blues. And he's a letter lighter.

Updated: September 17, 2003, 1:50 PM ET
By Tom Wheatley | Special to ESPN.com

Chris Pronger
REUTERS/Tim ParkerChris Pronger suffered a broken bone in his forearm that eventually required radical surgery to repair.
"C'' is for comeback, not captain.

A half hour before the St. Louis Blues opened camp on Monday, Chris Pronger stunned his teammates by announcing that he wanted the ''C'' to stay on permanent loan to fellow defenseman Al MacInnis.

"I need to work on being healthy and trying to help the team that way,'' Pronger said, smiling and relaxed. "For now, I think it's in the team's best interest that Al remain captain."

Pronger was on hiatus last season in body, mind and monogrammed sweaters. He was in gruelling rehab after radical, career-threatening knee surgery and radical, career-threatening wrist surgery. He finally suited up for the last five games of the regular season, plus the seven-game playoff loss to Vancouver. But Pronger, not wanting to disrupt dressing-room chemistry, asked that MacInnis keep the "C'' upon his return and also declined an "A'' as alternate captain, as he did again on Monday.

"The condition I took it was that he'd get the 'C' back," MacInnis said Monday, still a bit shell-shocked 24 hours after Pronger broke the news to him privately. "There was no hint or any indications that he wouldn't be captain. But he wanted to come back status quo and have it not be an issue."

It was an issue the day Pronger was anointed team captain on Sept. 27, 1997, two weeks short of his 23rd birthday. Many critics -- including some veterans inside the dressing room -- questioned Pronger's maturity. The team's clear-cut leader then was MacInnis, who was headed to unrestricted free agency after the season. The team's new brain trust at the time -- president Mark Sauer, general manager Larry Pleau and coach Joel Quenneville -- did not want a captain jumping ship just as it was stabilizing from the Mike Keenan turbulence.

Pronger grew into the role and his enormous potential. He won both the 2000 Norris Trophy and the 2000 Hart Trophy, joining Bobby Orr as the only players to accomplish the feat. Pronger naturally became a target of other teams. As his frustrations increased, he became crankier behind the scenes. His good buddy, former Blues goalie Jamie McLennan, teasingly dubbed him "Cap'n Happy." Pronger was always notorious for laying the lumber on teammates in practice. But for the last year or two before his injuries, Pronger carried that forcefulness into the dressing room.

In a weird coincidence, it was the same charge made against Brett Hull, one of Pronger's predecessors as captain. Hull also was voted the Hart at a young age and had the team's marketing campaign built around him. As the team's focal point, Hull became the target of fan frustration when the Blues never got over the playoff hump. Pronger began fitting the same pattern. Especially when the quiet kid began developing Hullian outspokenness.

In a strange twist, Pronger showed his maturity and leadership skills by turning down the most visible leadership sign in sports.

"It was a classy move on his part,'' teammate Dallas Drake said.

"If he's the best player he can be,'' coach Joel Quenneville said, "that's the best sign of leadership that we can get from him."

Another sign is that after suggesting the move, Pronger did not make it official until getting input last weekend from Pleau, Quenneville and MacInnis. After his announcement Monday, someone in the media crowd asked Pronger what made the "C'' such a heavy load.

"This right here," he said, laughing. "These scrums. Sleepless nights. Things of that nature. Over the course of the season, it takes its toll. I want my play to speak for itself."

Hey, if we can get Chris Pronger back to his MVP status, I'll be the happiest guy in the world.
Blues captain Al MacInnis
Pronger didn't elaborate, but MacInnis did.

"Prongs has a tendency to throw everything on his back and go with it," the new captain said. "He's the type of guy who feels he has to do everything. And I don't mean that in a bad way.

"I just think that shows how much he cares. With the guys we have in the room, we have a lot of great leaders, guys who were captains on other teams.

"There's a lot of help in there. Hey, if we can get Chris Pronger back to his MVP status, I'll be the happiest guy in the world."

That ex-captains club -- which includes center Doug Weight from Edmonton, winger Scott Mellanby from Florida and winger Keith Tkachuk from Phoenix -- was impressed by Pronger's decision.

Weight: "I think it's a great gesture by Chris."

Tkachuk: "It shows a lot on Chris's part ... a lot about his character."

Mellanby: "It's an unselfish move, and it's the best thing for everybody."

As for the captain's reaction to Pronger's abdication, MacInnis smiled and said, "I asked him to take a look at my birth certificate."

MacInnis turned 40 on July 11. After shoulder surgery this summer, he is spending the first part of his 24th training camp on the sidelines as a precaution and can sympathize with Pronger's double-injury whammy.

"We tend to forget how hard these injuries of his are to come back from,'' MacInnis said. "You have to get your timing back. You have to get your game back, and the confidence you played with before."

With all the hockey pools and fantasy leagues, the human element sometimes gets overlooked. Talent alone isn't enough to offset the effects of reconstructive knee surgery.

"Look at Michael Peca last year," said Pronger, who sat out Tuesday's practice after his knee became swollen and sore. "Look at Steve Yzerman."

Then toss in the wrist surgery, a medical first for a big-league athlete. An inch of bone was removed from Pronger's wrist, which was originally broken by a sharp pass from teammate Alexander Khavanov on Feb. 27, 2001.

"I called for the puck,'' Pronger said dryly after that mishap, "but a slapshot probably wasn't the best way to get it to me."

They never listened to me before. Why should they start now?
Chris Pronger on his relationship with NHL referees
That Hullian wit, a Pronger trademark, is also back after a year's hiatus.

When asked if he can talk to the referees now without a letter on his shirt, Pronger smiled and said, "Why not? They never listened to me before. Why should they start now?"

Last season, Pronger's return to the ice -- and how the Blues were going to utilize him -- was a hot topic. The power play was stellar in his absence. Weight, a creative playmaker, took over at the left point with MacInnis at the right point. Tkachuk, Mellanby and top scorer Pavol Demitra meshed up front. On defense, rookie Barret Jackman and veterans Bryce Salvador and Khavanov divvied up Pronger's 30 minutes. And all thrived on the extra responsibility.

Jackman won the Calder Trophy playing with MacInnis, a Norris finalist; that pairing will continue this season. Salvador and Khavanov teamed and bloomed into legitimate top-four defensemen. Both alternated with Pronger after his return, but neither was as assertive alongside his masterful personality.

Will Pronger's return upset a 98-point applecart or the fourth-ranked power play that clicked at a 20.5 percent rate?

"I'll eventually get on there at some point,'' Pronger said with a smile. "First unit, second unit, who knows?"

"Are Dougie Weight and I going to start on the point on the powerplay?'' MacInnis mused. "Yeah, probably. That's up to the coaches. Prongs could come in and play in front of the net. He's done that before. He creates a lot of options."

That would displace Mellanby, an expert in physical play.

"Hey, when I came here I didn't expect to be on the power play at all,'' said Mellanby, who was a spare part in Florida.

As to where Pronger plays, or how much, Pronger grinned again and said, "We haven't gotten into strategy yet. I'm not the coach."

Quenneville, who is, said dryly, "We have no problem working him into the lineup."

Quenneville hopes to ease Pronger up to 25 minutes per game, which is MacInnis's projected ceiling as well. The plan is to save room for the budding defenders.

"We saw how capable the other defensemen were with added responsibilities,'' Quenneville said.

While Pronger started camp scrimmages with Murray Baron, a free-agent signee from Vancouver back for a second stint in St. Louis, the defense pairings might be in flux with Salvador out until November after wrist surgery. Regardless of who he's on the ice with, there is every reason to expect him to regain his previous form. Always a gung-ho offseason worker, he showed up with 220 rock-hard pounds on his 6-foot-6 frame. His forearms look like Popeye transplants, minus the anchor tattoos.

The new captain, for one, has no doubts about the old captain.

"I'm a firm believer," said MacInnis, "that once he gets in the swing of things, he'll be back to the level we're used to seeing him at."

Tom Wheatley is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "St. Louis Sports Folks,'' due out this week, and co-author of "Bob Plager's Tales from the Blues Bench,'' coming October 15.

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