TORONTO – Imagine oil and water being inducted in the same Hall of Fame class.
OK, strike that: Imagine oil and a bag of rusty nails that will make you bleed if you even look at them the wrong way being inducted in the same Hall of Fame class ...
That’s essentially defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, medium build machine-like hockey deity who spent 1,564 games with the Detroit Red Wings; and fellow defenseman Chris Pronger, 6-foot-6 blunt instrument of destruction who intimidated the NHL in 1,167 games with five franchises – six if you count the fact that he’s not yet retired and the Arizona Coyotes hold his contract.
Yet there they were, under the stained glass dome of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, accepting their Class of 2015 rings, having reached this unmatched level of individual achievement in the NHL through two divergent very paths.
Pronger on Lidstrom: “I think everybody has to be comfortable in their own manner, and in their own ways. Obviously he played the game in a polar-opposite way from the way I did.”
Lidstrom on Pronger: “We brought different elements to the game. He brought something that I didn’t really bring: Being a mean player, and being tough to play against."
Pronger on Lidstrom: “His cerebral nature and the way he played the game … while he wasn’t physical, he was always in the way. As a defenseman, that’s all you really need to do.”
Lidstrom on Pronger: “I didn’t find in myself that type of toughness. But he was very valuable to his teams. He was their leader.”
Pronger had 1,590 penalty minutes in 1,167 games. Lidstrom had 514 in 1,564. To hear them talk about their polar-opposite styles, they were just born that way.
“It’s how I always played. Growing up, minor hockey, I was always that kid. Hitting, sticking, slashing, spearing,” said Pronger. “I don’t know if you know, but I have a bit of a temper.”
Could Lidstrom ever have been a meaner, edgier player?
“I probably could have,” he said, with a laugh. “But it wasn’t in my nature. Maybe there were some very rare occasions when I had to be.”
Two very different defensemen. Two very different individuals. And yet one end-point for their journeys as hockey legends.
The Perfect Human
“I kinda chuckled the first time I heard that.”
The NHL is filled with decades of player nicknames – your “Boom Booms” and your “Rockets” and your “Little Balls of Hate.” Lidstrom’s was created after a locker room compliment from a teammate was overheard by a reporter, and then proliferated:
“The Perfect Human.”
Hyperbole aside – I mean, he was a minus-2 in 2010-11, so, c’mon, “perfect?” – Lidstrom always viewed the moniker as an honor. He took pride in his preparation, in his conditioning, in the way he carried himself on the ice and off.
Athletes run away from the word “role model” like a kitten hearing a vacuum cleaner, but Lidstrom charges into it head-on. Especially when it comes to having inspired a generation of young Swedish defensemen who are now dominating the NHL, from Erik Karlsson to Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
“When I hear that, it makes me proud. Really proud. That players looked up to me when they were kids. That wanted to play like me, or thought of me as a role model. That makes me feel really proud,” said Lidstrom.
Lidstrom was that young defenseman in Sweden back in 1988. His dreams of playing in the NHL weren’t necessarily predestined to come true: His senior-level coach used him sparingly, and didn’t envision him as a top six defenseman. Lidstrom didn’t attract a lot of attention because of that ice time, and because he didn’t fit the template for any type of defenseman that used to get scouts’ tongues wagging. He wasn’t the second-coming of Bobby Orr, nor was he a physical presence.
But the Detroit Red Wings, by happenstance, knew there was something special about Lidstrom. European scout Christer Rockstrom discovered him, and soon director of scouting Neil Smith soon flew out to Sweden to give his stamp of approval.
"He had a great understanding of the game. Nobody could beat him. Just think of a younger version of what you saw in the league all those years,” Smith told the Canadian Press.
The Wings selected him No. 53 overall in the third round of the 1989 draft, as an 18 year old. He debuted with the Red Wings in 1991-92, scoring 60 points in 80 games and coming less than 40 votes from topping Pavel Bure for the Calder Trophy that season.
Two years later, coach Scotty Bowman arrived in Detroit to find Lidstrom well on his way to being a special player in the NHL. Dave Lewis, his assistant coach, handled the defense.
“The only thing we did was move him to the left side,” said Bowman, who originally had Lidstrom paired with Paul Coffey as a right defenseman.
“Not that it made a lot of difference. Those kinds of defensemen can play both sides.”
What Bowman realized he had with Lidstrom was something rare in the NHL, at least for defensemen: a player he could build a gameplan around.
This happens frequently with goaltenders – the proverbial “building from the net out” mindset. It also happens in other sports like the NFL, as defensive schemes are drawn up around, say, a dominant middle linebacker.
In that regard, think of Nicklas Lidstrom as Mike Singletary (excuse the comparison, Detroit Lions fans). The Red Wings took the left wing lock from Europe, imported the defensive system to the NHL and knew that Lidstrom would be out there for 28 minutes a night as its backbone.
“It took a while for teams to really dissect it. The real reason we did it was because Nick patrolled the middle of the ice. He had a forward on his left at all times, and the right wing was his partner. We always allowed the right winger to pinch in along the boards, and Nick could cover both sides when he did – for the forward or for the defenseman,” said Bowman.
“I’ve never seen a defenseman that did what he did offensively, and yet didn’t get caught up ice. His partners would get caught sometimes, but he was always back there.”
Lidstrom’s run as the NHL’s best defenseman might never be matched again. Think of it this way: Bobby Orr won eight straight Norris trophies, the last coming in an 18-team league where defensemen could score over 100 points. Lidstrom won seven of them from 2000-2011, but he actually finished second in the voting for three straight seasons before becoming the first European player to win the Norris in 2001. (The previous season, it was actually Pronger that topped him for the award by 165 votes.)
He was also the first European captain to win the Stanley Cup, capturing four of them, and the first European to win the Conn Smythe. Like Pronger, he’s a member of the IIHF Triple Gold Club.
Unlike Pronger in the NHL, he had to overcome the perceptions of what a “smooth skating European defenseman” could accomplish in the NHL, minus that clichéd North American edge.
In other words: The Perfect Human had to show that a lack of brutal physicality on the blueline wasn’t a flaw. And in the process, he rewrote the rules for how the NHL viewed defensemen from overseas.
“I don’t think manage around the league are looking at players from strictly being European. I think they’re looking at what kind of players they are – are they competitive, what can they do to help our team? I think that line between North American and European has been a erased a little bit,” he said.
Chris Pronger got the call from the Hall of Fame in a common place for ex-players – a charity golf tournament – with an unlikely audience.
“I was playing with a group of deaf people,” he said. “They were reading my lips. One of the guys walked up to me and said ‘congratulations. I understand you just got into the Hall of Fame.’ And I was like ‘what?!’”
On Friday afternoon, Pronger was called onstage by Hall of Fame selection committee president Lanny McDonald to accept his ring. He wore glasses, a well-tailored suit and what could be best described as “Kelsey Grammer hair.” A lot of terms came to mind to describe Pronger; perhaps it’s systemic from his storied past that one of them was “defendant.”
McDonald handed him his ring.
“Only two people have won the Hart and the Norris in the same year: Bobby Orr, and you. How does that make you feel?” asked McDonald.
“Annnnd that’s where it ends,” said Pronger, drawing a laugh as he quickly exited the comparison and sat with his class.
Yet like Orr, Chris Pronger is a defenseman whose skills-set has no equals. He was a great skater for his size. His offense (698 points) would fluctuate depending on his role, but was always impressive. His stick work (the legal kind) would break up many offensive chances before he had to lower the boom on an opponent.
But it was the “boom” that set him apart, of course.
Pronger was suspended eight times during his NHL career. Four games for hitting Pat Peake in the throat with his stick in 1995. Four games for a stick swing at Jeremy Roenick’s noggin in 1998. One game for leaving the bench to fight in 2001. Two games for cross-checking Brenden Morrow near his eyes. Two games for kicking Ville Nieminen in 2004. A postseason game for elbowing Tomas Holmstrom in the 2007 postseason. Another postseason game in 2007 for a brutal hit on Dean McAmmond. (Could you imagine two suspendable plays in the same postseason now?) And then eight games in 2008 for a skate stomp on Ryan Kesler’s leg.
(I recall after the last incident calling him “Stompy” for a time.)
But it was his early years as a brutal physical player who would win by any means necessary – be it an elbow to the head or a stick where it didn’t belong – that established him as one of the most intimidating forces in the NHL.
Well, that and the unpredictability factor: You never knew when Mount Pronger was going to erupt.
“It took me a while to harness that as a kid. I used to fly off the handle. Both on and off the ice. I’m sure my parents can attest to that,” he said. “My temper sometimes got the best of me. You learn how to handle it.”
How did he do it?
“To be honest, it’s once I had kids. You learn maturity. You learn patience. When you have your own kids, you have to stop being a kid yourself.”
That didn’t necessarily mean the suspensions stopped, mind you. Did Pronger use to portion out his salary in anticipation of his fines and suspensions as a player?
“It was an open-ended budget,” he joked.
He couldn’t play the same way today, and Pronger more than anyone else knows this. He’s now a member of the NHL's Department of Player Safety, reviewing hits for the League and determining suspensions for ones that, in his prime, would have been run-of-the-mill.
“It’s a much safer game now,” he said.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly first approached him about joining Player Safety after Brendan Shanahan left to take over the Toronto Maple Leafs. He eventually decided he wanted explore the opportunity. “I was intrigued. I met with Stephane, Gary [Bettman] and Bill and hashed through any … so-called ‘issues’ we had,” he said.
The primary issue: Pronger was going to work for the NHL while at the same time having an active contract with an NHL team. His career ended in 2011 after suffering an eye injury and a concussion, but he’s still signed through the 2016-17 season on an over-35 contract that the Philadelphia Flyers signed him to before trading him (and his cap space) earlier this year to the Arizona Coyotes.
So, technically, Pronger enters the Hall of Fame while still being under contact to the Coyotes. Which is … weird.
But Pronger’s career had its share of unusual transactions. While Lidstrom played every game in the Winged Wheel, Pronger was traded four times.
There was the deal to St. Louis from Hartford for Shanahan, hastened by his off-ice problems that included a drunk driving arrest and another arrest for taking part in a bar fight with this teammates; he was traded to Edmonton for Eric Brewer, Doug Lynch and Jeff Woywitka in 2005, a financial decision from the Blues; he was traded from Edmonton, infamously demanding the deal, to the Anaheim Ducks in 2006 for a team that included Joffrey Lupul and what would end up being Jordan Eberle; he was traded to the Flyers in 2009 in a package that included Lupul again going back the other way, becoming de facto captain when the Flyers already had the ‘C’ on Mike Richards.
In each stop, Pronger exhibited the skills that made other teams covet him. The physical domination, doing the dirty work so other players didn’t have to. The veteran leadership. And, when it counted most, the postseason accomplishment: His runs with the Edmonton Oilers in 2006 and the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010 nearly earned him Conn Smythe honors in losing efforts; his only Stanley Cup championship in 2007 with the Ducks saw him lead the playoffs with a plus-10.
Lidstrom was also a strong postseason player, and a leader on his teams. Although their styles were again divergent.
“Trying to lead by example. Do the right things on the ice,” said Lidstrom. I spoke in the locker room too, but I wasn’t a very vocal guy, lots of times. But I’d just try to say the right thing at the right time, and then go out there and back it up on the ice. That’s what you do as a leader: You have to go out there and back it up on the ice.”
As for Pronger, he eventually got to that point of nuanced leadership: “I think my leadership evolved. As a younger player, I was too much of a screamer. Not a very good listener. As I got older, much like every part of my game, it kind of evolved. I watched other guys and how they led, whether it was the quiet leader on the ice or the blood and guts guy who leaves it all on the ice,” he said.
“I took pieces from players. Stevie Y in the Olympics. Mario Lemieux. Wayne Gretzky when he was in St. Louis. You have to try to continue to get better.”
I asked Pronger one of the lingering questions about that leadership: When he stole the game puck against the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2010 Stanley Cup Final, sparking an odd controversy, was that meant to take the heat off his team or just to take a run at the media for biting on the story?
“What?! What happened?!” Pronger asked mockingly.
Was that a form of leadership or were you having a go at the media?
“I guess that’s up to you guys,” he said, smiling to the reporters surrounding him.
Do Pronger and Lidstrom have anything in common?
“We both made a good first outlet pass,” said Pronger. “That might have been the end of the comparison.”
Stylistically, that’s not necessarily true. Both used positioning well, and used their sticks to break up plays like few others. Both were effective point players, getting shots through traffic to the net.
And while their styles couldn’t have been more different, they shared a common mentor: The late Brad McCrimmon, who lost his life in the 2011 Lokomotiv plane crash that claimed the lives of 43 people.
“He was my partner every game my first year,” Lidstrom told Craig Custance in 2011. “He was that steady defenseman who stayed home all the time. He protected me in certain situations too when things got a little too heated. He was a great partner to have.”
McCrimmon was Pronger’s partner when he started with the Whalers, too.
“Much like Nick, he was my roommate for two years, my partner for two years. We’d do to dinner and he’d break out all the sugar packets and salt shakers and show me how to break the trap. When you’re 19, 20 years old like that, you’re just a sponge. A lot of the things I did in my career, I did because of Beast,” said Pronger.
“If Nick and I didn’t have him as a mentor for us, early in our careers, you never know where you’d be.”
So there’s some common ground between Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Pronger, and here’s some more: They’re prototypes.
They have the honor of encompassing a set of traits that are applied to others by the mere mention of their names. A “Nicklas Lidstrom type” is a technically sound defenseman that will exude competence and confidence. A “Chris Pronger type” is undoubtedly a skilled player with a nasty streak that needs to be harnessed. You see both terms used every draft year; that won’t end any time soon.
But the ultimate common ground between Lidstrom and Pronger is located at the corner of Front and Younge streets in Toronto. It’s the ground on which the Hockey Hall of Fame is located, where these men will have their careers immortalized in etched glass.
One made it look easy. One made you pay hard. Both will go down as two of the best defensemen to have ever graced the ice.
“It doesn’t matter what style you have,” said Lidstrom of Pronger. “If you can help your team win, that’s what matters.”
Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.
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