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Original Issue


There comes a time in every defenseman's career when he has to
face a three-on-one, when he must stare straight ahead at the
trouble weaving its way toward him and figure out how to play
it. Chris Pronger was no exception, although one summer day in
1995 his three-on-one was a triple rye, a beer chaser and a
glass of Southern Comfort. They might as well have been Gretzky,
Lemieux and Lindros. "Right there," says Pronger,
dispassionately retracing the missteps in his 23 years, "was
probably the low point."

In a perfect world--or at least in the movie version--the
three-on-one would have been Pronger's epiphany. He would have
leaped from his chair, smashed the drinks to the floor,
renounced booze and immediately gone on to star in the NHL. Of
course life often gets in the way of good stories. Pronger
didn't put alcohol aside, but it became a smaller component of
his life. Then in the summer of 1996 he grabbed a calendar and
circled the weekends he felt he could get "brain dead from
partying." Finally, last summer he hired a personal trainer and
found he no longer needed a drinking datebook. Pronger still has
the odd beer, but it's odd as in occasional, not odd as in five,
seven, nine....He's the new captain of the St. Louis Blues and
the youngest player on Canada's Olympic hockey team,
responsibilities that leave scant room for a frat-boy mind-set.
The space allotted to partying on the knickknack shelf of a
still young life has been cleared, which is fortunate because
Pronger might need it for the Olympic medal and the Norris
Trophies he is going to win.

Numbers really don't do Pronger's game justice, though he was
leading the NHL in the plus-minus ratings at +21 through Sunday,
nor does his play evoke many adjectives. But it does invite a
verb: looms. At 6'5" and 210 pounds, Pronger looms on the ice,
holding his position, making sure nothing untoward happens. "You
can beat him," says Blues defenseman Al MacInnis, whose
anticipated six-week absence because of a separated shoulder
sustained on Dec. 13 increases the pressure, and attention, on
Pronger, "but his reach is so incredible you'll have a hard time
doing it. If you get by him, he can use his stick to hook and
recover. He's become such a good skater, coupled with his size,
that it's almost impossible to get around him."

When asked how well Pronger has been playing this season, St.
Louis coach Joel Quenneville offers a smiling but flinty "O.K."
Pronger, who had three goals and 10 assists at week's end, is
still sorting out when to jump into the rush and when not to.
Sometimes he coughs up the puck because he dawdles while waiting
for teammates to exploit the passing lanes that Pronger not only
sees but also anticipates. While Quenneville thinks his captain
might be the best of the seven defensemen Canada is taking to
Nagano in February, Pronger still has not hoisted his game to
the level he reached in the 1997 Stanley Cup playoffs. As the
Blues futilely tried to avoid elimination against the Detroit
Red Wings in Game 6 of the first round, Quenneville played
Pronger an astonishing 43 of 60 minutes. The former
flibbertigibbet, an athlete so casual that St. Louis teammates
privately called a light workout a "Chris Pronger practice," had
become the Blues' most dependable player. "His maturation is so
unbelievable I can't put it into words," St. Louis's star right
wing Brett Hull says. "I can't imagine anybody having to handle
as much as he has in such a short period of time."

This is the obstacle course the second player drafted in 1993
has had to survive: the pressure of a big-ticket contract in
small-market Hartford; a couple of car accidents while playing
for the Whalers; his arrest, with five other Whalers players and
an assistant coach, for participating in a barroom scuffle
during his rookie year; a second arrest, for drunk driving, 24
days later; a trade to St. Louis in 1995 for Brendan Shanahan,
one of the most popular players in Blues history; a hostile
coach in Mike Keenan; and the jeers of home crowds. Pronger
never has been far from a headline.

At 18, Pronger arrived in Hartford with a four-year, $7 million
contract--then the richest in Whalers history--and a bloated
reputation as the next Larry Robinson. Mrs. Robinson would have
been more aggressive that first season. Pronger offered little
banging for the buck. Big-time looming is not a style that will
turn around a franchise, especially one so forlorn. Although
Hartford cut its goals against by 81 in his rookie season, the
feat was buried in the rubble of a coaching change and a string
of alcohol-related follies by a last-place club. For the few
thousand fans who cared about the team, Pronger was a perfect
target--long, loose, lackadaisical.

"He frustrated the hell out of me in Hartford," says Blues
enforcer Kelly Chase, who played with Pronger on the Whalers. "I
wanted to kill him a few times. You could see he had talent, but
it was a ho-hum thing. He really didn't have any direction. He
was under a lot of pressure and just wasn't ready for the
responsibility. Of course that team wasn't exactly overloaded
with players who knew how to win."

But they sure knew how to put together a record, the kind on
which your mug appears with a number. On March 24, 1994, at 3:55
a.m., Pronger, those five teammates and assistant coach Kevin
McCarthy were arrested following a brawl at the Network club in
Buffalo, which was owned by former Bills quarterback Jim Kelly.
At the arraignment 7 1/2 hours later, Pronger pleaded guilty to
one count of trespassing and was sentenced to 20 hours of
community service. Like the other Whalers, he had violated coach
Pierre McGuire's midnight curfew. Unlike the other Whalers, he
was 19, two years under New York State's legal drinking age. A
lingering image is of Pronger pulling his jacket over his face
"like a drug dealer," in Hartford owner Richard Gordon's
unfortunate phrase, in front of TV cameras outside the
courthouse. Pronger still rationalizes his nightclub visit--"Do
you want me to be part of that team with 30-year-olds or just
sit in my room all season?" he asks--but when team bonding turns
into bail bonding, look out.

Pronger was arrested again in Bowling Green, Ohio, on April 17,
three days after the season ended, for driving his BMW under the
influence while visiting his brother, Sean, who played for
Bowling Green. He pleaded no contest and was fined $483.
"Getting arrested a couple of days after the season, a
reputation grows," Pronger says. "During the winter, drinking
was never really a problem. But I would try to cram everything
in during the summer. I wasn't addicted to drinking. Drinking
for me was part of being with my buddies, more just going out
with the boys."

That wasn't a good excuse in Keenan's mind. In July 1995,
Keenan, then the Blues general manager and coach, had acquired
Pronger for Shanahan, a premier power forward and minor god in
St. Louis because of his good looks, engaging manner and civic
involvement. Pronger was the anti-Shanny. When he reported to
training camp, Pronger scored 46.79 in his VO2 max fitness test,
which measures maximum oxygen consumption. That's good for an
accountant or a Zamboni driver but was 44th out of 46 on the
Blues, for which an acceptable score was 60. Keenan, who takes
VO2 as seriously as H2O, went ballistic. "Are you crazy?" he
screamed at Pronger outside the dressing room at the Kiel
Center. "You're 20 years old. Do you know who I traded you for?"

Pronger's drinking had sidetracked him during the summer,
interfering with his conditioning program. "Certainly my lack of
conditioning slowed my development," Pronger says. "Some guys
stay after practice, but me, after taking a few shots, I felt
like I had to get off and take a nap."

Hockey had come so naturally to him that he had never been in
shape--in his first NHL training camp he finished last in the
Whalers' two-mile run. When his parents, Jim and Eila, visited
from Dryden, Ont., during Pronger's first season in St. Louis,
Keenan invited them into his office and told them he thought
their son had a drinking problem. "I guess they already knew I
wasn't a model citizen," Pronger says. In a game against the
Philadelphia Flyers on Feb. 3, 1996, Pronger played like Lot's
wife, making three errors that led directly to goals. St. Louis
fans had seen enough and began booing Pronger each time he
touched the puck until Keenan mercifully anchored him to the

There aren't many places to hide when you're 6'5", but later
that month Pronger took refuge in the impossibly long shadow of
Wayne Gretzky, whom the Blues had traded for on Feb. 27. The
acquisition of Gretzky and the conditioning benefits of Keenan's
killer practices, allowed Pronger to go about his business
efficiently and, for the first time in his career, relatively
anonymously. In a stirring seven-game Western Conference
semifinals that spring against Detroit, Pronger was magnificent.

"Chris was really under a microscope," MacInnis says. "Every
mistake he made was scrutinized. It could have gone either way
with him. It could have crushed him or it could have gone the
way it has. He's developed into a strong defenseman the last two
years, especially in the playoffs. You always gain more
confidence in the playoffs than in the regular season if you
play well, because of the importance of the games."

Nonchalance has turned into grace. The loping strides aren't
lazy but fluid. The game now unfolds at his pace, the blur of
hockey coming into sharp relief. The proof has been on the ice,
not in the bottle. Through Sunday, St. Louis ranked fourth in
the league with 2.32 goals allowed per game. Pronger is also
making his mark in the dressing room. He and goaltender Grant
Fuhr raged at some Blues forwards for "cheating" on their
defensive responsibilities after a 4-1 loss to the Edmonton
Oilers on Dec. 13. Pronger was asserting his leadership on a
team whose prominent players--Hull, MacInnis, center Pierre
Turgeon--all have at least 10 seasons in the NHL.

"He wants to dominate," Quenneville says. "He wants to dominate
every night."

Pronger has a chance. He already has stopped the toughest
three-on-one imaginable.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM MCISAAC/BRUCE BENNETT STUDIOS As New Jersey's Randy McKay found out, Pronger (44) knows how to keep the crease clear. [Chris Pronger and Randy McKay in game]

PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO At 6'5", Pronger is a towering defenseman who should bolster Canada's chances in the Olympics. [Chris Pronger and opposing player in game]