- Scott Burnside, NHL
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PHILADELPHIA -- If life was a slow straight line, then things would be much more manageable for Chris Pronger.
But life is not that. It is full of twists and turns, both literal and figurative, and those twists and turns continue to bedevil one of the most dominant defensemen in NHL history.
Recently, Pronger -- out of action with concussion-related symptoms since taking a stick to the eye in November 2011 -- stepped onto the ice with his kids. He hadn't skated all summer, but it seemed to be going well.
"I was surprised," Pronger told ESPN.com in a recent interview. "I was like, Oh, I feel all right. But I was just going in a straight line. And then all of a sudden, I started to spin and go in circles. ... I was like, OK, apparently this didn't get better."
He remains an imposing figure. In shorts and T-shirt, beard and glasses, if it's possible to be both professorial and imposing, that is the soon-to-be 39-year-old. With a rapier wit, Pronger continues to exude a zest for life, at least externally.
When Pronger met with a group of local reporters at the Wells Fargo Center later that day, he joked immediately that he had to leave. He grudgingly took a microphone while a communications staffer videotapes part of the conversation. He then tossed it aside in mock disgust when he found out the videotaping had stopped long before the end of the conversation and he had still been holding the microphone.
To see him like this, arching his eyebrows and rolling his eyes as he joked with those who have covered the Flyers on a regular basis, there is something somehow comforting, a reminder of a more familiar routine.
But if these moments hint at normalcy, they are just that: hints, a thin veneer that covers a life that is a million miles from normal. Perhaps more to the point for Chris Pronger, the new normal is the unknown.
The 6-foot-6 Pronger, selected with the second overall draft pick by the Hartford Whalers in 1993, continues to work with doctors to try to deal with symptoms from the combination of injuries that, essentially, cut his career short. Although most people believe Pronger's issues are strictly concussion related, they are much more complex than that. They involve Pronger's eyesight, the relationship between the body's optical center and things like balance, headaches and overall stability.
"A lot of the stuff that I'm doing now is more eye related, vestibular related," he said. "It's not concussion or what have you. I still get symptoms, but I think a lot of those are due to my eye.
"There's a lot of the things that still trouble me are things that are associated with my vestibular system and my ocular system and those are things that's an ongoing process."
Often Pronger receives advice from people on what he needs to do to get better. It is both touching and more than a little frustrating.
"I get letters and people calling, 'Oh, you go do this and you'll be fixed.' Meanwhile they don't even know what's wrong with me," he said. "They think, 'Oh, he's got a concussion.' Well no, I don't know if you saw the injury, but I got slashed in the eye. So it's funny. I feel for them. A lot of people that have sent me letters either had concussions or one of their loved ones had concussions.
"I get it and I understand it, but when they don't know the extent of my injury, it's hard for them to say they have a cure-all. Well this helped me, so it's going to help you."
The fact that Pronger receives such advice is a window on the medical challenges in dealing with these issues. The connection between concussions and other related injuries is in its infancy. Researchers and doctors are in some ways feeling about in the dark to understand the relationships and correct forms of treatment.
When a pro athlete is injured, the first question is invariably, When will you be back? Shoulders, knees, muscles, bones all have a more or less defined period required for healing and rehabilitation.
Not so for what ails Pronger and others like him.
He'd like nothing more than to know the answer to the question: When will you be better?
"There's no answer to what's the time frame; will it get fixed; how much can it get fixed; on and on and on," he said. "That's where we're at with all this. There is no time frame. There is no set, OK, you go and do these exercises, you go and do this surgery, you go do this and you'll be all better and you'll be able to do this and you'll be able to do that."
Pronger remains under contract with the Flyers and will continue to be until the end of the 2016-17 season, with an annual salary-cap hit of slightly more than $4.9 million. Last season, Pronger did some scouting from his home base in St. Louis. He watched games on television and sent notes to GM Paul Holmgren and the coaching staff.
Sometimes he would watch Flyers games, make notes about his perceptions and pass them along to Holmgren, the coaches or the players themselves. He occasionally scouted pro games, paying attention to potential free agents.
"Chris has a tremendous understanding of the game and how it should be played," GM Paul Holmgren told ESPN.com. "He's been a good sounding board for me" and for the coaching staff.
Pronger has spent time with young defenseman Luke Schenn and, in fact, had Schenn and his brother, Brayden, also a member of the Flyers, to his home in St. Louis in the offseason.
Assistant coach Kevin McCarthy, a former NHL defenseman and longtime NHL coach, is far more used to sending Pronger over the boards than he is in talking scouting issues. But even as a player, McCarthy said, Pronger wanted to be reminded of things, always striving to be better.
"I've never been around a guy that understands the game like he does," McCarthy told ESPN.com.
He said Pronger would come back to the bench and not only describe what happened defensively, but what everyone else was doing on the ice. His input is important, McCarthy added, because there is always value to hearing something from your peers, whether it's praise or constructive criticism.
Still, the constant backdrop through all of this for everyone involved -- Pronger, Holmgren, the coaches and the players -- is that he'd rather not be doing this somewhat awkward dance between being a player and being something else.
"I'm still paid as a player, still a dues-paying member of the [National Hockey League Players' Association]. So there are a lot of things I can't be a part of and I guess, for all intents and purposes, don't want to be a part of," Pronger said. "There's only so much you want to know."
Not that Pronger minded the chores he was asked to perform last season.
"It's twofold," he said. "It keeps you somewhat active, keeps your mind going and keeps you in the game, I guess a little bit. But as you were about to say, it can be frustrating. It is somewhat limiting. That's the position the situation I'm in right now. Kind of in limbo."
Pronger's doctors want him to keep pushing the envelope, doing things that sometimes makes him feel poorly.
"There are times when you feel better than others, and those are the times when my doctors are like, 'You've got to keep pushing yourself.'" Pronger explained. "You don't want to get stagnant where you're always doing the same thing. You want to try and push the envelope and push the bar. We're past the scenario of, 'Oh well, stop if you get symptomatic.' They're like, 'No, you've got to try and push through and try and get to that next hurdle, trying to keep bumping up the ladder.' That's when you get symptomatic and that's when you feel like s--- sometimes."
It makes sense, in theory, but it's also a plan that provides a sobering reminder that he is nowhere near where he wants to be.
"There are times when you start to feel good and you're like, 'Oh, maybe I'm turning a corner,' and you go and do something random and it's like, Oh, you just get knocked on your ass," he said.
What bugs him?
Well, how about bright lights, loud noises, lots of motion.
"Doesn't sound much like a hockey game, does it?" Pronger said with a laugh that can only be described as rueful.
"You start looking at all the things that bother you: lights and noise and you start adding all those things up. And you go, OK, obviously these are things I need to work on and you need to be in these environments, but they make you feel like s---."
The team had asked Pronger if he'd do a couple of scouting trips, but he didn't feel up to it. Toward the end of last season, Pronger went on a road trip with the team, sitting in the press box, watching as kind of a test because it was something he hadn't done before.
"I felt like absolute s--- because I was up in the top [of the rink] and the lights and the noise," Pronger said. "Watch a game, traveled that night. I mean my eyes were burning, I couldn't even keep them open they were so sore."
It goes without saying that this is a particularly hard time of year for Pronger.
Not far away at the Wells Fargo Center, players are going through their first on-ice sessions of training camp. They are working out, meeting with coaches and having lunch together. The storylines are unfolding as they always do at this time of year: the arrival of Vincent Lecavalier and Mark Streit, the goaltending saga, the team's chances of getting back to the playoffs.
There is a natural order to things at this time of the year as teams prepare for the coming season, a routine that is ingrained in players' psyches. It's no different from the DNA chip that tells the birds to fly south or the whales to head down the coast.
It's training camp: Time to get down to business.
Pronger's DNA is still wired this way. But he cannot act on those impulses that have been triggered at this time of year since he was a kid.
"You see the guys, the anticipation of the season starting, the excitement, the buzz, the adrenaline rush of stepping on that ice for the first time," Pronger said.
"Starting the season, getting ready for the blood, sweat and tears and going out and battling every night and doing all that stuff. That's the part that's hard, getting that adrenaline fix, if you will, of coming to the rink every day with a purpose and knowing you're preparing for a game or preparing for a playoff series, whatever the case may be. You have set goals and things you're trying to achieve."
Pronger? Well, he took his physical, which will at some point lead to him being placed on long-term disability in order to give the Flyers salary-cap relief, and he's going to meet with the local media for a few minutes after this interview is over.
"Now my day is done," he said with a wry grin.
This injury has given Pronger unprecedented time with his family; his three children, ages 11, 9 and 5. It is something of which he is keenly aware.
"You have the ability and the option to be there more for your family and your kids and help raise them, whereas a lot of parents don't," he said. "It is a silver lining of being able to be around and help parent your kids and help be a part of their lives, be an active participant in raising your kids.
"I'm around a lot," Pronger added with a laugh. "Sometimes more so than they probably would like or I would like."
But being around is another reminder of the uncertainty -- uncertainty over how or when or if his medical issues will be resolved. And if there is a then, what he wants to do with the rest of his life.
"You're put in a position now where you've got to think about it, like, what do you want to do? And to be honest with you, I don't know," he said.
For a player who never backed away from a challenge, who was a difference-maker his whole career -- a Stanley Cup champion, twice an Olympic gold medalist, a Hart Trophy winner, a Norris Trophy winner, in short, a winner -- Pronger finds he must dedicate himself to not letting the uncertainty get the better of him.
"You don't want people playing the woe-is-me card or saying, 'Oh, I feel for that guy,'" he said. "Listen, there's a lot of good things going on and there's a lot of s--- things going on. There's bigger things in life to worry about than me having a headache or me having a blurry eye or whatever you want to say.
"I don't think people should feel sorry for me. It is what it is, man. It happened. And we've got to move past it and try to find something positive here."
It is one thing to give voice to those sentiments, but it is quite another to come to grips with them in your heart of hearts. And Pronger, as always, is candid in saying that it's an ongoing struggle. Just as there is no defined path to getting better, there is no defined path for accepting his lot in life.
He noted that there are days he wonders what he should be doing. "You've done everything and you're like, OK great, now what?" he said.
"It goes up and down. Some days you're high and other days you're down in the doldrums and you're depressed. Those are the times when you really need to have a grasp on yourself and have some willpower. That's where guys fall into becoming alcoholics or drug addicts or whatever. They want to have something to take the pain away, or whatever it is."
It's almost time to go. The other reporters have shuffled into the room and Pronger is getting ready to give them a few jabs, let them know they can't get away with anything, keep them in line as he always has.
"You need to really fight that urge of feeling sorry for yourself," he adds as the group approaches. "You've got to look for the positives. It's hard sometimes, but you've got to look for them somewhere and they can be small or big, it just depends."
Sometimes that means enjoying, even for a moment, a short, slow straight line and just trying to stay away from the twists and turns.
14dScott Burnside and Craig Custance