Well, this wasn’t a PR move. That’s for sure.
As soon as the news broke Wednesday that Chris Pronger could join the department of player safety, critics howled. Pronger was suspended eight times in his NHL career. He was still being paid by the Philadelphia Flyers. A dirty player with a conflict of interest seemed like a poor addition to the group charged with cleaning up the game.
But this shouldn’t be about PR. And Pronger has never been about PR. And that’s one of the reasons he’s perfect for this job.
“To be honest with you, the way I played, I didn’t care if people liked me,” Pronger told Yahoo Sports late Friday after he officially joined the DPS. “As long as the guys in the room respect you and they’re willing to follow you, I don’t care what anybody else thinks, because you’re trying to win.
“At the end of the day, being in the player safety department is like being a referee. It’s a thankless job. Everybody hates you because you’re never going to do enough. I’m already hated.”
“I’ve got enough friends. I don’t need any more. Like me. Don’t like me. I’m not doing this because I’m trying to appease people.”
Why is he doing this?
“I think it’s interesting,” Pronger said. “Not to give back to the game, but to stay involved in the game and work on some of the major issues that are affecting the game and the health of the players.”
Pronger is just what the NHL needs. His history is an asset, not a liability. His connection to the Flyers is a philosophical problem, not a practical one. But to understand that, you need to understand the DPS, what Pronger will do, how he will do it and how this all came about.
Stephane Quintal leads the DPS. He makes the decisions on supplemental discipline. But the DPS is a group of people, and Quintal consults with the rest of the group. The DPS also does more than fine and suspend. It educates. Its ultimate goal is to change behavior.
Former players are an important part of that, especially those who played relatively recently, know what the NHL is like today and broke the rules themselves. Quintal fit that profile. So did his predecessor, Brendan Shanahan. They know what to look for. They can relate to the players.
Whom do players respect the most? Other players. Listen to Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Kesler. Pronger received his last and longest suspension in March 2008 when he stomped on Kesler’s leg and got eight games.
“You want someone in that position who’s played the game and understands what goes on,” Kesler said Friday. “He’s going to do a good job.”
Pronger spent the last two nights in the DPS video room at NHL headquarters in New York. But he will work out of his home in St. Louis – he hasn’t lived in Philadelphia since June 2012 – watching games, looking for trends, studying incidents. He will give his input to Quintal.
“People can look at my record as a player,” Pronger said. “But now, mind you, it’s as a player, correct? It’s not as anything else. I was playing a game, an emotional game. Now I’m sitting watching a game with no emotion. I’m just looking at a video clip or a TV screen and looking at it going, ‘OK, what happened? What precipitated it? What are the prior offenses, if any?’ All the things that everybody goes through. It’s pretty cut-and-dried.”
Quintal wants varied perspectives. From Damian Echevarrieta, he gets the perspective of the man who runs the video room and watches maybe more hockey than anyone else alive. From Patrick Burke, he gets the perspective of a former NHL scout – and the son of Brian Burke, a team president, former general manager and former NHL disciplinarian. From Pronger, he gets the perspective of someone who was suspended eight times and racked up 1,916 penalty minutes – and won a Norris Trophy, a Hart Trophy and Stanley Cup, too.
“He’s trying to get the mindset of the player,” Pronger said. “‘If you’re in this situation, how would you have handled it? What were you thinking when you did such and such?’ Those are all things that can be discussed and allow him to make up his mind what he wants to do.”
Pronger will participate in hearings – in phone and in person. He will call players to warn them if they came close to the line but didn’t cross it.
“I would hope they would understand they’re not going to be able to lie to me, because I know exactly what they were thinking,” Pronger said with a laugh. “Because I was in their shoes.”
He laughed again. Then he turned serious.
“On the other side of it, I think they’ll appreciate the fact that I know what they’re going through,” he said. “It’s a fast game, and stuff happens real, real fast. It’s just a matter of trying to curtail it as best you can.”
This is Pronger’s value.
“I obviously played on the edge and played with a lot of emotion,” Pronger said. “You can understand how things can go sideways fast. There’s a real effort, I think, in the league to teach the players more and understand where the line is and teach them how to handle different situations. Before, it was, ‘You’re suspended, and don’t do it again.’ Now, there’s video. There’s showing you what you did right, what you did wrong.”
Conflict of interest is inherent in this setup. Former players are … well, former players, which means they played for teams, had teammates and forged relationships.
“Any person who gets a job like this is going to have an affiliation with some team,” Pronger said. “Whether they’re still being paid or not, they will have been a longstanding employee of some team because they will have played for a long time.”
But players switch teams all the time, and they’re professionals. Pronger played for the Hartford Whalers, St. Louis Blues, Edmonton Oilers, Anaheim Ducks and Philadelphia Flyers. He captained three of those teams: the Blues, Ducks and Flyers.
“The one thing about Prongs is, he’s never played favorites,” said current Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf, a former teammate. “He’s never done anything like that. Even if you’re his best friend, if you screw up, he’s going to let you know about it. If he takes that same approach to that job, I think that you can get a level of consistency, I hope, that no matter if you’re the top-tier guy or a fourth-line guy, you’re held to the same standard.”
Yes, Pronger is still a Flyer on paper, but only on paper. His last game was in November 2011. His career ended because of concussions, but he couldn’t officially retire because of rules that would have saddled the Flyers with his salary-cap hit.
He left Philadelphia. He returned to St. Louis. He did a little scouting for former Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren, but when Holmgren moved upstairs and Ron Hextall took over as GM, he didn’t have a role anymore. He went to the draft in Philadelphia in June, but didn’t do much. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman asked how he was doing.
Early in the summer, deputy commissioner Bill Daly called to gauge his interest in joining the department of player safety. Pronger thought about it. After the NHL named Quintal the disciplinarian in September, Daly circled back and spoke to him seriously this time. Pronger did his due diligence, calling Rob Blake, another star defenseman who had worked for the DPS. He also made sure to speak to Hextall, Holmgren and Flyers chairman Ed Snider to get their blessing.
The Flyers will pay him $4 million this season, $575,000 next season and $575,000 in 2016-17. He will remain on long-term injured reserve. But it’s money due to him because of his career-ending injury. He does not work for the Flyers. His work for them is done. The Flyers, the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association all have signed off on this.
He will not offer input on incidents involving the Flyers, just to be safe – just as Patrick Burke does not offer input on incidents involving Brian Burke’s team, the Calgary Flames. What about incidents involving other Metropolitan Division teams or even other Eastern Conference teams? Will his Flyers connection cloud his judgment?
“No,” Pronger said. “Absolutely not.”
Why should anyone trust him?
“They don’t have to trust me,” Pronger said. “They can gauge by what I do. But at the end of the day, I’ve got to be honest with you, none of this is my call. Stephane Quintal is the head of the player safety department. He’s the one that ultimately makes the decision. I’m not going to be able to go in there and make them do what I want.”
This could be a great story. Pronger knows what it’s like to be suspended, but he also knows the pain of brain trauma. Asked if his experience with concussions gives him a new appreciation for player safety, he said: “I think it does.” He started to talk about his lingering symptoms. But then he stopped.
This shouldn’t be about PR. He has never been about PR.
“You’re never going to make everyone happy,” he said. “So you know what?”
Say what you want.
“I’ve got thick skin,” he said. “I can take it.”