With the Oilers secure in a 4-1 third-period lead over the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday, one glassy-eyed fan heaved to his feet in the cheap seats and, swinging his sloshing beer cup as a baton, led the tall and the small in a rousing chant of “Pronger sucks! Pronger sucks!”
The six-foot-six Anaheim Ducks defenceman can expect a lot more where that came from when he makes his first return to Rexall Place since last spring, when he helped ignite the Oilers’ playoff rocket-ride that fell just one game short of the Stanley Cup.
Fans in the Alberta capital have been slow to forgive or forget Pronger’s shocking announcement just days after the fateful Game 7 that he wanted out for personal reasons.
Pronger’s former teammates agreed Monday that any booing or jeering will have an effect.
“It’ll probably give him a little more energy,” said goaltender Dwayne Roloson.
Pronger, they said, was more machine than man on game day – a cold-eyed Terminator with a six-foot hockey stick and an instinct for the jugular.
“He’s one of the few guys who could just block this (booing) out and play through it and that’s a sign of the mental toughness that he has,” said Oiler head coach Craig MacTavish.
“It’s pretty tough to get him off his game,” added winger Jarret Stoll. “Not too much bothers him or if it does he doesn’t show it. He’s a great player. You’ve got to get on him by getting physical and not letting him have time with the puck to make plays.”
After signing a five-year, US$31.25-million deal with the Oilers in 2005, the 32-year-old Pronger led the team in playoff scoring. He played 30 minutes a night and shut down the opposing team’s big guns.
But 11 months into the deal, the native of Dryden, Ont., requested a trade citing family reasons.
Some fans branded him selfish – and the fact Pronger declined to specify the exact reasons for wanting to leave only exacerbated the situation. Online whispers became cutting, vicious and personal. Lawsuits were threatened.
The former Hart Trophy winner was traded to the Ducks for draft picks along with forward Joffrey Lupul and defenceman Ladislav Smid.
Pronger is off to a great start this season, putting up 26 points (4-22) in 25 games, tops among all NHL defencemen. His plus-16 rating is second only to the plus-22 of Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom. He and Scott Neidermayer are two towers on the blue-line for a team that is fighting for first-place overall.
The Oilers met the Ducks in Anaheim a month ago and lost 6-2. Pronger had three assists and was plus-3.
In Edmonton, fans are debating how to welcome him back. On radio and in print, some wish him well, while others want to publicly burn old Pronger jerseys, throw pacifiers on the ice or turn their backs on him in pre-game warmup.
“You know the fans will be on you, so it’s never easy,” Pronger said Sunday in Anaheim. “We’ll see how it goes. It’ll be nice to go up there and enjoy the crowd.
“The fans treated me great when I was there.”
The game is a sellout and the Oilers say the pay-per-view numbers may beat even the benchmark 13,000 who signed up to watch Mark Messier’s sweater get retired.
“This could be the biggest one we’ve ever had,” said team vice-president Allan Watt.
It’s also seen as a test for the Oilers, who are moving up in the standings and are riding a five-game win streak.
Oilers centre Shawn Horcoff urged fans to keep the game in perspective.
“When you lose a superstar it’s a hard pill to swallow, and I understand where they’re coming from and I’m sure Chris does, too.
“We just hope they show a little bit of class.”
Might be a tall order.
During Friday’s 5-1 win over the Blackhawks, the Molson Maestro was on his feet – and in the choir sat a young copper-blonde clad in a blue Oilers shirt bearing No. 44 with Pronger’s name on the back.
Added on – in slashing strips of grey duct tape – were three letters, thrust up at 45 degrees to smash into the back end of the surname for an all-caps collage of bitterness.
With an exclamation mark.