ST. LOUIS -- Chris Pronger, he of one Stanley Cup, one Hart Trophy, one Norris Trophy and two gold medals, took to the ice during the Winter Classic alumni game for the first game since his career unofficially ended in 2012 because of concussions and an eye injury. Now property of the Arizona Coyotes but officially working for the NHL player safety department, Pronger sat down at Busch Stadium for a conversation about what he's doing these days and his career highlights and lowlights.
ESPN.com: How are you feeling?
Chris Pronger: Doing OK. Just finished this Winter Classic alumni game, and I thought I was going to feel a little worse. I guess these old bones had one last match in them.
ESPN.com: Tell me about playing for the Coyotes. How's that treating you? Is that going well?
Pronger: Well, currently I'm on IR with hurt feelings. No, I think we all know what that is. I guess it's a loophole within the CBA. With my situation and with my eye and head, my contract is still out there and active, but I'm unable to perform my duties. So I guess I get tossed around a bit in the ensuing years.
ESPN.com: What are the day-to-day consequences of your eye injury and your concussions? How have you had to change your life?
Pronger: I haven't really had to change too much. I try to stay in shape as best I can, work out as best I can. It's really just about managing symptoms or what the onset of symptoms can be caused from. For instance, in the game, I put a tinted visor on, which has really, really helped. Bright lights and flashes and things like that really bother my eye a lot. When you have a number of them, whether it's bright lights, pucks, tracking stuff, people moving, loud noises -- I'm sure there's none in a big stadium -- when I get a combination of those all at once, then I usually don't feel great. But if it's any one [of those], then I usually don't feel too bad.
ESPN.com: What does "not feel great" mean? You feel dizzy?
Pronger: I get a little dizzy. I get a little light-headed. I might get a headache. I don't feel sharp.
ESPN.com: Have you talked to other players who have had concussions? If you have, who was it and what did they tell you?
Pronger: I saw a picture of me and [former Chicago Blackhawks winger] Dan Carcillo on the ice yesterday talking. We were just talking about different things that players have done, whether it's seeing a guy in Atlanta who does a lot of concussion stuff with players or a guy in Newport Beach or Mickey Collins in Pittsburgh or whomever. We just kind of compare notes. "What you think of this or that, or how did it help, or did it help?"
Like I told [former Flyers GM] Paul Holmgren, [former Flyers owner Ed] Mr. Snider and my wife, I don't want to be bouncing around from doctor to doctor to doctor because you'll never know what did work. You've got to stick with the therapy, stick with what was prescribed and then see how you feel. And if you want to make a change after a certain amount of time, then you can do that.
I made a bit of progression with what I was doing, so I was comfortable with it and felt like I was getting better, and ultimately, you plateau. I mean, you're never going to be 100 percent. After you have knee or an ACL surgery or you have back surgery, you're never going to be 100 percent. You're never going to be how you felt maybe when you were 16 or 18 or whenever it was you were at your peak. You're never going to get back there. You can try to rehab and get as close as you can, but I think you have to be realistic and understand that you're not going to be 100 percent ever.
ESPN.com: What was your lowest point?
Pronger: There were some dark days. You try not to get into your little hole ...
Pronger: Yeah, you get depressed. Obviously, when bright lights and loud noises and things like that bother you, you want to be in the dark. Darkness becomes darkness. One begets the other, and then you're always wanting to be in the dark, you're always wanting to be away from people, and you turn into a bit of a loner. You don't want to hang out with people, and you don't want to go out because stuff either bothers you or you just don't feel good. You start eating like crap, it just spirals, and one day, you're like, "All right, I don't want to be fat, I don't want to feel like this anymore," and ultimately, you've just got to make a decision. I've always had pretty good willpower and discipline as a player, and at some point, you've just got to say, "This is what I'm doing, and I'm going to get out of it."
ESPN.com: Have you talked to anyone who has suffered a concussion and given them advice?
Pronger: Yeah, I talked to a few guys. Some were active, some were retired. Some of them were still really affected by the symptoms. You run into a door, everyday occurrences that happen all the time that you don't think will affect you do for somebody who struggles with concussion symptoms. You've really got to be cognizant of what you're doing at all times. You've got to be really focused and concentrate on taking care of yourself, eating right and doing all the things that allow your brain to function as fast as it can.
ESPN.com: How does this inform what you're doing for the league?
Pronger: I think it gives me a good understanding of where the players are at and what we're trying to do. I mean, hockey is a physical game. It should be a physical game, so we have to find that line [between] physical play and trying to protect the players from situations that are unavoidable.
Players need to take the onus of protecting themselves and protecting their careers. When you're hitting someone, you can hit them, but you don't have to maim them, you don't have to kill them. The purpose of a bodycheck is to separate the man from the puck so you can get that puck. It's not to hit that player. While there isn't a rule that states that, there's a puck there, and you want to have it.
You talk about how these two teams, Chicago and the St. Louis Blues, play. It's puck possession. It's controlling the puck. Everything they do relates to the puck. And for a while there, I think the game got away from that, and bodychecking became hitting. And I think now hitting needs to be bodychecking, and there's a fine line there.
ESPN.com: What do you think of today's game of speed and youth?
Pronger: The speed of the game now is the fastest it's ever been, and the players have never been bigger. When you add the two together, it makes for violent collisions. Whether they're meant to be or not, two players just skating 100 miles an hour, they happen to bump into one another, they're going to collide with something whether it's the boards, one another or into somebody else as well. Again, it goes back to that fine line: Is it too fast? That's when you're constantly looking at things, and you're constantly questioning. ... You're always trying to make things better without compromising the integrity of the game or the way the game is played.
ESPN.com: What do you do on a nightly basis for player safety?
Pronger: I'm the Midwest guy, I'm a director, I work underneath Stephane Quintal. There's a staff in New York in our war room watching games nightly. There's a dedicated coordinator for each game, and then Patrick Burke or Damien Echevarrieta are there overseeing those guys. They're clipping plays, not necessarily for supplemental discipline, but just so we have a reference point [as to] what was a good hit, what was a dangerous hit, what was a bad hit, a suspendable hit. On any given night, I might get two, I might get none, or I might get 15.
I get these clips emailed to me. I look at them, and then if [it] rises to a certain level, Stephane Quintal will ask for my thoughts, and I'll look at the play. The difference between me and, let's say, a referee is that I get to watch it as many times as I want in slow motion, different angles. I get to see every camera angle. And unfortunately, [the refs only] get a quick snippet. So we're able to see things that they're not able to see and see them multiple, multiple, multiple times.
And then you submit your thoughts to Stephane. He'll decide whether it warrants a hearing, and then the hearing ensues. And then the player and the GM and the agent and the PA have their chance to describe the play and talk about the player and whatnot. And then after that we'll get on a call and talk about the play and what the player had to say and see if it matches up with what we think we see. I've been on calls where the player has talked about and described something I didn't even look at, I didn't even see. So just because you're having a hearing doesn't mean you're going to be suspended. Players have come in and made good, justifiable arguments and walk away with nothing.
ESPN.com: Considering that you weren't the cleanest player in the league, how does it feel to be on the other side of the call now?
Pronger: It's a sign of the times. The league has changed. The way the game is now is light-years different than when I was in my peak.
ESPN.com: How so?
Pronger: There are way more cameras. There was no illegal check-to-head rule. You were allowed to hit a guy in the head as long as it wasn't an elbow. You didn't elbow him, you didn't cross-check him in the face, so what did you do wrong in the rulebook? There was no rule, so heads were not off-limits. You were allowed to hit the guy in the head.
Research and development into concussions and the medical field, all the rest of the stuff, that all takes time. And you start implementing rules. ... [H]ow can we get these hits out of the game? They come up with a rule, and as we've seen over the years, the rule has been refined to try to protect the players. And it gets refined, whether it's verbiage or additions or whatever. It's for the betterment of the players.
ESPN.com: This is the last season of your player contract. You will officially retire afterward, correct?
Pronger: I would imagine, yeah.
ESPN.com: Looking back on your career -- one of the best careers ever of a defenseman in the NHL -- what are some of the highlights for you?
Pronger: No. 1 being drafted. That's always the big goal. You always want to play in the NHL. For most players, you've got to get drafted first. ... But as a kid, you want to get drafted into the NHL, and you want to have a long career. ... You're always setting goals. You're always pushing yourself. It's not good enough to get there. You want to stay.
Then you want to be the best. You want to push yourself. You have all these aspirations. Coming here, [being] traded for a fan favorite [Brendan Shanahan] in St. Louis was not the easiest circumstances to come into. But having gone through it and the adversities I faced in those first 10 months probably made me a better player, made me work harder, made me appreciate the good times more.
And then the ensuing years, going to Edmonton, going to the finals, losing in Game 7 in a heartbreaker, then getting an immediate kick at it again the next year in Anaheim and winning, finally getting that monkey off your back and winning a Cup. And then getting to Philly and going there with another team. To be able to get to the finals with three different teams was pretty special. And obviously, the two Olympic gold medals in '02 in Salt Lake and 2010 in Vancouver and what those two teams went through was something I always remember about team bonding and chemistry. You try to learn from all your experiences, don't get too caught up in one single game, just understand the process and understand if the team is getting better. Ultimately, if you're making strides, no matter how small they are, you're going to get where you want to be.
ESPN.com: Any regrets?
Pronger: You can always go back. You said it: I had a pretty good career. Why would you change anything? There's always regrets. Maybe if I hadn't done this or I shouldn't have done that, but it kind of makes you who you are.
ESPN.com: What advice do you have for young players coming into the league now?
Pronger: Enjoy your time. It goes by fast. It was a quick 19 years, I can tell you that. One day I'm sitting on a bus with you in Peterborough, and the next day I'm sitting on a golf cart in Busch Stadium with you talking about my career. It goes quick. Enjoy every moment. Give it your all. Don't leave any chance left behind. You want to leave it all out there. You don't want to have any regrets.