Pronger skated out to a chorus of boos Tuesday as he made his first return trip to the Alberta capital since leaving the Oilers this spring following a shocking and publicly unexplained trade demand.
The 32-year-old former Hart Trophy winner was razzed every time he hopped the boards during the game and Edmonton’s fired-up fans even gave the business to his teammates Samuel Pahlsson and Joe DiPenta when they momentarily mistook them for Rexall Place’s newest pinata.
Fans felt angry and betrayed by the six-foot-six, 220-pound Pronger, who was the driving force behind an Oiler team that came to within one game of winning last spring’s Stanley Cup.
On Tuesday, they made the most of their first chance to reply when he jumped on the ice for pre-game warmup.
Fans in Oiler jerseys and garish blue wigs booed him when he touched the puck, rising up to shout “You suck!” and flash homemade signs in angry shades of neon green and orange as the helmetless defenceman swooped near the Plexiglas in his white jersey with the trademark duck-webbed D. The signs were comical to angry:
“Tell the Truth, Chris,” read one.
“Millwoods Hates Chris.”
“I made this Chris Pronger Sucks Sign for ‘Personal Reasons.”‘
“The Gap in Your Story is Bigger Than the Gap in Your Teeth.”
“Chris: 1985 Phoned; They Want Their Hair Back.”
Even Pronger sympathizers were abused, particularly the man in the Raffi Torres jersey who held up a green sign that read “Thank You Chris” in a yellow sunburst.
“Put that down, you loser!” shouted a voice from above.
Most of the signs were quickly removed by security staff in keeping with the building’s family friendly sign policy.
The sunburst got to stay.
As the puck dropped, fans in the sold-out crowd resumed their “Pronger Sucks” chants to go with a hearty round of “You Sold Out”, a long drawn-out “Prawwwwwwwngerrrrr!” and a rendition of “Pronger’s Wife!” in recogntion of the unconfirmed reports he left town because she didn’t like Edmonton.
Pronger had been the talk of the city almost a week before the return trip. Fans began chanting “Pronger sucks!” in the closing minutes of last Friday’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks. Airwaves and headlines were stoked with suggestions: boo him, throw pacifiers on the ice, burn your Pronger jersey, turn your back on him in pre-game warmup.
He arrived in Edmonton Monday from a balmy southern California to a city shivering in minus mid-20 C temperatures, with blowing snow and ice-slicked roads that resembled parking lots or bumper car rallies.
He reiterated that the decision to ask for a trade almost hours after the Oilers lost in Game 7 to the Carolina Hurricanes was driven for personal and family reasons that he would not elaborate on.
The native of Dryden, Ont., said he understood if fans wanted to vent their collective spleen.
“They’re passionate about their team and they can’t understand why I’m not here.
“It’s not the first building I’ve been booed in and it certainly won’t be the last,” added Pronger, who has also played with the Hartford Whalers and St. Louis Blues.
Pronger was traded to Anaheim for winger Joffrey Lupul, defenceman Ladislav Smid and draft picks.
He has been all-gold for the Ducks. Heading into Tuesday’s action, he had 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 the Ducks are first in the Western Conference.
The Ducks had never beat the Oilers in regular season play entering the 2006-07 season, but that changed when Anaheim won their first matchup of this season 6-2 on Oct. 25. Pronger had three assists in that game.
After an inconsistent start to the season, the Oilers are surging, having won their last five in a row. They were first in the Northwest Division heading into Tuesday’s play.