Pronger still hopeful, but odds are not in his favor

Thanks to the National Post

It’s all but a done deal. Chris Pronger will never play another game in the NHL.

If only he’d realize it. If only he could say it, and if only the announcement could ease a burden he would place on the Philadelphia Flyers if it were finally revealed in full.

While it’s a noble cause he’s undertaking, the slow, painful process of recovering from a severe eye injury and concussion suffered back in October of 2011, Pronger is fooling himself and doing a bad job of fooling all of us with the notion that his goal is to get back to playing shape. But he sort of has to.

Under his current 35-plus contract, he cannot simply retire because it would create a massive hit to the club’s salary cap now, and next year when the cap ceiling is set to be reduced. Since he’s hurt and on LTIR, he cannot simply be bought out of his deal, per the rules laid down in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

So, we get the delicate dance the 38-year-old (ex-NHL) defenseman undertook at the Skate Zone in Voorhees on Thursday afternoon, one which opened up cordially and pointedly enough.

“I want to thank the organization for all their support. It’s been a tough 16, 17 months and they’ve been fantastic, from Mr. Snider to ‘Homer’ and the medical staff and the coaching staff, teammates. It’s been from that side of it a wonderful experience. Not great being hurt, but the way I’ve been treated by the staff, ownership, management has been fantastic. I can’t speak enough about what that’s meant to me and my family,” Pronger said.

It’s a tribute to the kind of person, the kind of teammate, the kind of player Pronger had been for this organization that he showed up today, of all days, as the Flyers are struggling to maintain playoff position and face the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight on home ice.

The effects of his post-concussion syndrome are such that he may have trouble dealing with the all-out aural and visual assault of the in-game experience at Wells Fargo Center, but he’s going to give it a go: “I should be able to make it through the game if I want to stay. I’ve made improvements. I still have symptoms, I still get symptoms with loud noises and a lot of moving parts, bright lights, things like that. Not to the level it was. But I still do get them. There’s a lot of things that have gotten better.”

One thing which remained sharper than ever was Pronger’s rapier wit and no-nonsense handling of the media assemblage.

Upon hearing from Tim Panaccio, asking for the umpteenth time about the symptoms he felt as he stood before them, Pronger quipped “Right now I have a headache, but I just saw you, so…”

Despite Pronger’s drive, his will to succeed and his desire to improve day-by-day, there’s one thing that he cannot really overcome — the opinion of qualified medical personnel, from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center — who disagree in a very understated way about the undertaking.

“I have some vulnerabilities that they are very worried about. That may or may not go away. No matter how long it takes.”

Speaking of those vulnerabilities, the very fact that Pronger did not wear a visor attached to his helmet led directly to the sequence of events that led him to this point. Perhaps if he had, the full force of the follow-through from the stick of Toronto’s Mikhail Grabovski on October 24, 2011 may not have led to such serious consequences.

Yet when the issue of mandatory visor usage came up, in light of the freak eye injury suffered by Rangers defenseman Marc Staal on Tuesday night, the 18-year veteran gave a typical, yet revealing response.

“My answer is probably about 10 minutes long. I would be for it, but the problem is you go down a slippery slope of allowing the league to start implementing their own rules and what are they going to change next? I think guys can do it. I don’t think it would be an issue. I just think you go down a slippery slope if you start allowing wholesale changes to stuff that players have had the ability to do on their own.”

And if it were his own child?

“If he’s over 18 he’s more than welcome to. It’s his life. You can advise and consent, but you can’t make somebody do anything.”

From the sound of the following, it’s exceptionally difficult to reconcile Pronger’s desire to suit up for the Orange and Black with his need to square himself away for his own sake and for his family’s future. Like Rick DiPietro and countless other NHLers who have had to deal with their livelihood suddenly taken away, Pronger was not immune to periods of anger and depression.

“I think you get agitated quickly…you’re on edge as it is. Pissed off you can’t play a game that you love, and that you have a headache, you’re more pissed off that you’re light-headed or dizzy and your kid comes over and you snap, and you’re not the father you want to be. I still get a ‘grrr’ from time to time but I’m getting better with it. You can sit there alone, depressed with the ‘why me’ but then you snap out of it, start doing things for yourself, your kids and your wife. I want to be there for my family.”

If you need any more proof that a comeback isn’t in the offing, here’s a bit about #20′s daily routine as it pertains to physical activity and fitness:

“I’m at a stage now where they want me to push the envelope to see where symptoms occur. I get up. I have breakfast. I go workout. I go to my eye appointment…I can’t say I’m really doing a lot. I’ve been pushing pucks around. I’ve been on the ice and I’ve gotten symptoms and tried to do some things and it didn’t go very well. I can’t run. Anything where I have to move my body fast. If I ride a bike where my heart rate gets up to high, I get symptoms. pretty much anything where there’s a lot going on.”

It’s anybody’s guess how and when the announcement will be made, but at the current pace, we can expect periodic updates culminating in Pronger standing in front of a podium again in the Spring of 2016, once his mega-contract, signed in the Summer of 2009, finally expires.

Until then, the brave face will be put up front, the right words will be spoken but the truth will always lurk, unspoken, just beneath the surface.