Anaheim Ducks superstar defenceman Chris Pronger returned Monday to a frigid, snow-covered Alberta capital for the first time since he led the hometown Oilers last spring to within one game of the Stanley Cup – only to demand a trade days later.
Many fans have neither forgiven nor forgotten and began gearing up for Tuesday’s matchup against the Oilers by chanting “Pronger sucks! Pronger sucks!” when the Blackhawks were in town last Friday.
But at a news conference in a downtown hotel ballroom, the 32-year-old tipped his hat to the Oiler faithful, calling them “some of the best fans in the world.”
“It was an unbelievable atmosphere here last year,” he said, calling the Rexall Place sellout crowds “the sixth man” on the ice.
“It was the most fun I’ve had in hockey in a long time. It was a year I’ll never forget.”
But the trade demand he made for personal family reasons will remain personal.
“I’ve been asked that question a million times and I’ve answered that question a million times and my answer isn’t going to change: it’s personal, family reasons and that’s as much as I’m going to get into it.”
Pronger is off to a great start this season, putting up 26 points (four goals, 22 assists) in 25 games, tops among all NHL defencemen. His plus-16 rating is second only to the plus-23 of Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom, and his Ducks are 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.
When he was traded last spring to Anaheim – 11 months into a US$31.25 million, five-year deal – some fans branded him selfish, particularly when he made clear he wouldn’t say why. The six-foot-six native of Dryden, Ont., wound up being dealt for forward Joffrey Lupul, defenceman Ladislav Smid and draft picks.
On radio and in print, some want to wish him well Tuesday, while others want to burn old Pronger jerseys, throw pacifiers on the ice or turn their backs on him in pre-game warmup.
There have been online whispers and rumours that have been cutting, vicious and personal.
Pronger wouldn’t address those: “I’m not going to degrade myself or my family by substantiating or denying any rumours.”
He said he’s enjoying life in southern California, but wouldn’t elaborate: “That’s private and personal.”
His ex-Oiler teammates have been supportive, he said.
“The guys were certainly shocked at first, but you talk to them and you kind of explain things.”
Those former teammates said earlier Monday that anyone who wants to boo or jeer the former Hart Trophy winner will find it has no effect, or perhaps the opposite.
“It’ll probably give him a little more energy,” said goaltender Dwayne Roloson after practice at Rexall Place.
Pronger, they said, is more machine than man on game day – a cold-eyed Terminator with a six-foot hockey stick, an uncanny knowledge of the game 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.
“Not too much bothers him or if it does he doesn’t show it,” added winger Jarret Stoll.
Pronger suggested the issue weighed heavily on him last year as the Oilers clawed their way into the playoffs as the bottom seed in the Western Conference before almost running the table.
As professional hockey players, he said, they shut out the distractions and focus on the game.
And the game, he said, gives back.
“You use the game as your exile from whatever’s going on around you.”