Thursday, March 07, 2013

Not giving up: Pronger returns to Philadelphia, says much, but doesn't say retirement

Thanks to CSN Philly
by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 
Voorhees, NJ -- Chris Pronger isn't retiring, has some good and bad days while dealing with post-concussion syndrome, but in his first appearance before local media since his last on-ice appearance, on Thursday afternoon at Skate Zone, showed he clearly hasn't lost his sense of humor.

"Right now I have a headache, but I just saw you, so..." Pronger quipped to former nemesis Tim Panaccio when asked for the umpteenth time how he felt while at the podium.

The 38-year-old hasn't played a game for the Philadelphia Flyers since November of 2011, but his presence still looms large over a franchise he helped guide to the Stanley Cup Finals three years ago.

We haven't heard anything from the Dryden, Ontario native since that fateful Saturday evening in Winnipeg when he played his final NHL contest, but insight into his life beyond hockey, 16 months on, came in a piece run by Canada's Sportsnet on Wednesday.

But there he was, a study in contrasts, looking outwardly professorial when on the inside, things are far from that orderly and precise.

Pronger naturally began his remarks with regard for the team which provided him with his final NHL home.

"First, I want to thank the organization for all their support...from Mr. Snider to 'Homer' to the medical staff, coaching staff and teammates. The way I've been treated has been fantastic. I can't say enough about what that's meant to my family. I've made some improvements from where I was but I have a lot of work ahead of me."

When asked why he kept silent at the outset of the season: "I just didn't think the time was right. The focus needed to be on the hockey team and those who are playing."

But pressed for something meatier, a hook, a hint on whether this really is the end of the line, the Pronger we knew and loved (while wearing the Orange and Black, anyway) roared to the surface: "This doesn't look like this type of conference, so no. I'm trying to work towards getting healthy."

For someone who isn't retiring, Pronger seemed a bit circumspect, philosophical at times during the 28-minute gathering, saying, "I think everybody who has ever played a professional sport wants to go out on his terms, but as we all know that rarely happens."

Interesting thoughts, given that today is the 15th anniversary of Penguins defenseman Darius Kasparaitis' hit on Eric Lindros, which gave the then-Flyers captain a Grade III concussion -- at the time the most severe of his career -- and kick-started the degeneration of the health of a game-changing player in NHL history.

Whether Pronger's idea is to get back onto the ice at some point or to try and focus on having a good future life beyond the game, there are many roadblocks facing someone who sustained such severe injuries in a short period of time. He spoke about difficulty in speech and thought patterns, revealing:
"If I've done a lot sometimes (the day before) I'll wake up with a headache. My cognitive ability comes and goes at times. Sometimes I'll start talking and get going and forget where I am, then start back up again and keep going."

There was also this little telling nugget, courtesy of some unnamed sources from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who have worked with him through this troubled time: "I have some vulnerabilities that they are very worried about. "

And of course, while he wouldn't take the obvious bait from a reporter in light of Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro's comments about his own struggles to deal with debilitating injuries, Pronger did admit there continue to be bleak times on his road to recovery.

"I think you get agitated're on edge as it is. Pissed off you can't play a game that you love, and that you have a headache, you're more pissed off that you're light-headed or dizzy and your kid comes over and you snap, and you're not the father you want to be. I still get a 'grrr' from time to time but I'm getting better with it."

But in true hockey spirit forged in tough country in small-town Western Ontario, and honed through 18 years in the NHL, the husband and father to three children knows he has to continue the fight every day.

"You can sit there alone, depressed with the 'why me' but then you snap out of it, start doing things for yourself, your kids and your wife. I want to be there for my family."

One of the things he's doing for his teammates, is providing support as they face another stiff test with a home game against the Pittsburgh Penguins later tonight. Despite the sheer magnitude and volume of both the pre-and-in-game festivities plus what will be an amped-up and vocal crowd, Pronger says he's going to give it a go in the stands tonight.
"I should make it through the game if I want to stay. I still have symptoms with loud noises, moving parts and bright lights. It's not as bad as it used to be, but it's getting better. I don't have peripheral vision. I keep having to get stronger and stronger glasses."

Then, it's right back to the grind, where Pronger and his team of medical personnel are keeping a close watch on his progress.

"I can't do anything where I'm moving around a lot. I can't run. I lift a little bit. I'm at the stage now where they want me to push the envelope and see what I can do and where my symptoms return."

Despite his cautious optimism and drive to return to the ice, it's not hard to see the writing on the wall, script which may be hidden, or invisible to Pronger himself but obvious to everyone who has followed this drama ever since the Flyers captain left the ice clutching his face, in obvious pain, on home ice two Octobers ago. 

Besides, as an injured player he can't be bought out per rules of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, and really can't retire or risk serious complications to the Flyers' salary-cap situation, which is tenuous at best right now and slated to get more complicated when the ceiling decreases for next year. 

Still, it's hard not to think that deep down inside, he knows that a return to hockey is a logical impossibility.

"I miss going out and playing in the heat of battle with my boys. I miss the adrenaline rush. I got no regrets. I played hard every night played to win, was lucky to win a Stanley Cup and a couple of Gold medals."

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