During what is now a Hall of Fame career, Nicklas Lidstrom garnered so much respect that he earned the nickname, The Perfect Human. Not The Perfect Hockey Player. Not The Perfect Defenseman. The Perfect Human. People called Chris Pronger lots of things during what is now a Hall of Fame career, too. None of them is suitable for publication on a website that might be viewed by young people. Many of those words begin with the letter ‘F’.
It was not easy to play the game the way Lidstrom did, but he made it look that way. Playing the game and preparing for it the way Lidstrom meticulously did and maintaining a ridiculously high standard on and off the ice presented its fair share of challenges. But it’s also not easy going to the opposing rink from the time you’re a kid and knowing that you’re going to be the most hated guy there. But like Lidstrom, Pronger embraced his role and status. Lidstrom wore the white hat and Pronger donned the black, and both of them managed to do it while becoming two of the most dominant defensemen of their generation.
The third in that group is Scott Niedermayer. All three are members of hockey’s Triple Gold club, meaning they’ve been part of gold medal-winning teams in the Olympics and World Championships as well as a Stanley Cup winner. Among them, they have nine Stanley Cups, five Olympic gold medals, three World Championships, two World Junior Championships and 12 individual NHL awards.
And as of Monday night, all three of them are Hall of Famers. As Pronger and Lidstrom accept their honors, along with Phil Housley, Sergei Fedorov and Angela Ruggiero, they do so as a study in contrasts. Lidstrom was quiet and reserved, using superior conditioning and positioning to thrive in a physical game without ever being physical himself. Never said a bad thing about anyone, nor had a bad thing said about him. He played the game at a lofty standard for two decades and, as evidenced by the fact he finished fifth in Norris Trophy voting in his last season in the NHL, left the game on his terms.
Pronger was neither quiet nor reserved. He had, and still has, a penchant for speaking his mind on almost every subject. It is not a characteristic that has dulled in retirement. When Alexander Daigle was taken ahead of him in the 1993 draft, he was quoted as saying that nobody remembers who was taken second. When reminded of that quote many years later, Pronger responded by saying, “So who’s eating the sh— sandwich on that one?” Pronger was a player who was so mean, so nasty, that he was suspended eight times during his career and had a particular penchant for jabbing the tip of his stick into the back of players’ legs. He won’t say how much of his salary he put aside each year to pay fines, calling it “an unlimited budget.” Late in a game in which his Peterborough Petes were losing to the Soo Greyhounds in the 1993 Ontario League final, Pronger squared up and shot the puck deliberately into the Greyhounds bench with Soo coach Ted Nolan as the intended target.
And as far as leaving the game, well, Pronger hasn't left yet. He's still on the payroll of the Arizona Coyotes and works in the NHL's Department of Player Safety. Pronger's approach to the game has taken an enormous toll on him physically and if not for his serious concussion issues, would still be playing today instead of going into the Hall of Fame.
But there were some similarities, too. Both players made an outstanding first pass out of their own zone. Both had incredible sticks to break up plays and each had an uncanny ability to get low, hard shots through traffic and on the net. At the Joe Louis Arena, Lidstrom would often miss the net on purpose, knowing the active boards at the rink would put the puck right back out in front of the net and on the stick of one of his teammates.
It was in their approach to the game that they were different. Lidstrom was a very stereotypical Swede, a guy who went about his business and sought no accolades, preferring to blend in rather than stand out. Pronger, on the other hand, never shied from controversy or from being the center of attention. He also showed up to the rink angry from the day he started playing the game in Dryden, Ont. There was no time that Pronger realized he had to play on the edge to be effective.
“I have to be honest with you, I always played that way,” Pronger said. “Even growing up in minor hockey, I was always the kid who was hitting, sticking, slashing, spearing. I don’t know if you know, I have a bit of a temper. It took me a while to grow up and mature and harness that in a better way later in my career, but growing up as a kid, I used to fly off the handle on and off the ice.”
Lidstrom, meanwhile, could not be something he was not. The physical game was never natural to him, so he never felt the need to play it. In the seven seasons in which Lidstrom played and the league tracked and published hits, Lidstrom played 548 games and registered 264 hits. To put that into perspective, six players in the league had more than that number just last season. It’s remarkable that a defenseman of his caliber would have an average of 0.48 hits per game over seven seasons.
“It wasn’t in my nature to be a physical defenseman,” Lidstrom said. “I wasn’t a big guy. I wasn’t making any bone-crushing hits and stuff like that. I think it was my positioning on the ice that helped me play a lot of minutes and make the right plays.”
Did he ever, ever make a dirty play? “Oh yeah, it happened. Maybe most people didn’t see it, but on occasion, it did happen.”
Despite their differences in style, each of them has an enormous amount of respect for the other. Their careers intersected so many times, both in the NHL and on the international stage. When Pronger was playing in St. Louis, the Red Wings would clash with him countless times during the regular season and playoffs. Since each played so much, both would find themselves on the ice at the same time.
“I think everybody has to be comfortable in their own ways,” Pronger said. “Obviously, (Lidstrom) played the game in a polar opposite way than I did. His cerebral nature and the way he went about playing the game, while he wasn’t physical, he was always in the way.”
And even though Lidstrom couldn’t fathom playing the game the way Pronger did, that doesn’t mean he didn’t admire it.
“First of all, I knew that he was going to play as much as I did, or even more,” Lidstrom said. “When he was with St. Louis, he was the guy you had to beat to score goals. I knew how tough he was as a player. He had that mean streak in him, too, that was hard to face.”
And there was one last similarity between Lidstrom and Pronger, and that similarity will likely be on both their minds for a moment during their inductions. Both players were mentored early in their careers by the late Brad McCrimmon, who was nicknamed The Beast. McCrimmon, who went on to be an assistant coach with the Red Wings and was killed in the plane crash that wiped out the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team in 2011, was Lidstrom’s first defense partner, then joined Pronger for Pronger’s first season when he was dealt from the Wings to the Hartford Whalers in the summer of 1993. He was a stern taskmaster with both players, both of whom were better for the experience.
Lidstrom recalled when he roomed with McCrimmon on the road that McCrimmon liked the room to be cool, so they would often sleep with the window open, even in the winter.
“He was a man’s man,” Lidstrom said. “He would let you know, ‘This is how it is.’ If Beast wanted the room cold, the room was cold. He would say, ‘Between two and four, that’s when we’re going to nap. So that’s when we napped.’ ”