Full disclosure: I really, really like Chris Pronger. On the ice, he was, in my opinion, one of the most dominant players of his era and a lock for the Hockey Hall of Fame. Off the ice, I consider him a friend. I’m honored to have been invited by him to share in the festivities when the Peterborough Petes raise a banner in his honor Nov. 2. I have his phone number in my list of contacts and we talk regularly, mostly about hockey, but of other things as well. During his career and even in the three years since he has played, Chris Pronger has filled my notebook and tape recorder with insightful, funny and downright eye-popping quotes. I find him intelligent, irreverent and refreshing.
I also have an enormous amount of sympathy for his current situation. Because he’s still listed as an active player for salary cap purposes, he cannot get on with his life. Because he’s still employed by and being paid by the Philadelphia Flyers, he’s stuck in a no-man’s land where he can’t retire and he can’t do much of anything else. Up until last season he was at least scouting for the Flyers, but that arrangement ended when Ron Hextall took over as GM in the off-season.
“(Hextall) likes a smaller (scouting) staff is what he told me,” Pronger said recently. “I didn’t push it. It was like, ‘To each his own.’ “
That’s why it pains me to write this: Under any circumstances aside from the present ones, I would enthusiastically endorse his hiring by the NHL’s department of player safety. As is the case with many other observers, I have no problem with the fact that he’s been suspended eight times by the same department that would employ him and he’s been guilty of some very serious on-ice indiscretions. The player on the ice and the person off the ice have little to do with one another. Pronger, more than anyone, would be able to get inside the mind of the offending player and I have no doubt he would be fair, reasonable and even-handed in his approach to discipline.
Most others, including the league, seem to be tiptoeing around the problem by saying that “technically” he’s still a Flyers player and that might create a “perception” problem when it comes to him working for the league. There seems to be this sentiment that as long as the league is on board and the NHL Players’ Association signs off on it, we can all move along and everything will be fine.
But it won’t. Pronger is an employee of the Philadelphia Flyers. He is still being paid by them, to the tune of $5.15 million over the next three seasons - $4 million this season and $575,000 in 2015-16 and ’16-17. To expect him or anyone to turn that kind of money down for any job would be ludicrous. And even if he could live without the $575,000 in each of the next two seasons after this one, to do so would handicap the Flyers to the tune of $4.9 million, which is his hit against the salary cap.
Even if the Flyers had wanted to use one of their compliance buyouts on him after the lockout, they were prohibited from doing so because league rules do not allow teams to buy out injured players. That creates a relationship between the Flyers and Pronger that could never, ever pass the smell test. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Tuesday night that, “Pronger doesn’t owe (the Flyers) anything.” That may be true and it’s true he’s being paid regardless, but if Pronger wanted to retire today he could do so and will have made almost $113 million in career earnings. What’s another $5.15 million when you have that much money? But Pronger doesn’t walk away because it would screw the Flyers, so he’s displaying an allegiance to them, as he should, right there.
“We believe any conflict is more notional than real,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an email to thn.com. “We also are confident in our ability to avoid situations where a conflict could become real.” But anyone will tell you that it’s not enough to be able to avoid the conflict. There has to be the perception that’s there’s no conflict there.
Do I think that Pronger would ever show any favoritism in his approach to discipline? No, not the Chris Pronger I know. In fact, he might even be harder on the Flyers just to prove that he’s not biased. But you simply cannot create that perception. You just can’t. And even though Pronger would not be involved in discipline issues involving the Flyers, what about their opponents in the Eastern Conference? What if players such as Daniel Briere in Colorado, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards in Los Angeles, Scott Hartnell in Columbus or James van Riemsdyk in Toronto find themselves in hot water? Pronger played with all of those players on a team that fought its way from seventh place in the Eastern Conference to within two wins of a Stanley Cup championship in 2010. There are bonds there that cannot be broken.
Do I think Pronger would favor those players? No, but just wait and see what the hue and cry would be from fans there if there was a perception that one of those players got off lightly.
And speaking of the NHL, I blame it for all of this. When it was clear Pronger was never going to be able to play again, the NHL stuck by its rules and said either Pronger had to sit for the next three years of his contract if he wanted to be paid and if the Flyers wanted the cap relief – do not pass Go and do not go to the Hall of Fame. And that’s fine. Those rules are there for a reason. But the fact is, the NHL allowed Chris Pronger to stay in this situation and felt it was justified in its stance.
But if the league were so concerned about Pronger, why could it not have made an exception for him after the lockout? Like every other team, the Flyers had two compliance buyouts available to them. If Pronger had been on that list, the Flyers would have had to choose among Ilya Bryzgalov, Briere and Pronger for their buyouts. They still probably would have chosen Bryzgalov and Briere, but that’s their fault for signing so many bad contracts over the years.
But how can the league possibly draw a line in the sand and insist it can’t be crossed, then even entertain the thought of taking him on as an employee? If that’s not a double standard, then your trusty correspondent has no idea what a double standard constitutes. If the league wanted to make an exception for Pronger, the time to do so was a couple of years ago. Everyone would have understood and Pronger would have been able to move on with his life. He probably would be a GM (or at least an assistant GM) by now and we’d be looking forward to seeing him inducted in the Hall of Fame a year from now.
The person I feel most badly for in all of this is Chris Pronger. It’s not fair that he has must remain in limbo. But it’s not fair, to him or anyone else, that he gets hired to work for the NHL.