Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NHL Playoffs 2007 [Print without images]

Sunday, June 3, 2007
Pronger again indulges in reckless behavior

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

OTTAWA -- If we are to believe Chris Pronger, his second playoff suspension in a matter of weeks isn't the mark of a dirty player with little regard for his opponents or his teammates, but a cry for help.

How else to explain the actions of a supposedly elite player who for the second time this playoff season leaves opponents motionless on the ice with blows to the head, then suggests he is powerless to change his ways.

"I don't think I can, for me to be the type of player I can be," Pronger said. "Obviously, it's a fine line and getting finer every year, and we have to make subtle adjustments. But I don't think I can make wholesale changes and still be the type of player I can be."

A second suspension?

If the Anaheim Ducks took their medicine like big boys Sunday, they did manage to get one dig in at the NHL in the wake of the decision to suspend Ducks defenseman Chris Pronger for Monday's Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals.

Ducks GM Brian Burke said he thought there should have been two hearings Sunday, not just the one involving Pronger. Burke, who used to be the NHL's master of discipline before taking the Anaheim front-office job, said he thought a second-period hit by Ottawa forward Chris Neil (pictured) on Andy McDonald along the boards deserved a similar review by the league.

In both cases, no penalties were called by on-ice officials.

"Chris Neil's hit on Andy McDonald was reprehensible," Burke said. "You guys go back and break down the tape. He took six strides in from the blue line; he's going full speed, full extension, elbow right to the head. Our player skates away, [Neil] gets a free pass. Their player gets hurt, Chris Pronger gets a game.

"The most dangerous play in the game last night was not Chris Pronger's hit on Dean McAmmond. It was Neil's hit on Andy McDonald. That's the troubling part for us," Burke said.

On the play in question, Neil raced down the boards and extended his arms to hit McDonald. Although Neil didn't leave his feet to make the hit (generally a red flag for referees), he did extend his arms at McDonald's head. Later in the same shift, Neil crushed Sean O'Donnell with a shoulder check behind the Ducks' net.

How did Campbell react when Burke raised the issue?

"He said the player wasn't injured, so mind my own business. Obviously, I didn't share that view," Burke said.

-- Scott Burnside

Watch: Burke, Pronger react to news ESPN Video

That'll be of small comfort to Tomas Holmstrom, whom he bloodied in the Western Conference finals by smashing his head into the glass, or to Dean McAmmond, who may or may not play Monday night in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals, or to Pronger's teammates, who face the prospect of having to win on the road without their best player as they try to prevent the Senators from tying this series.

After the Holmstrom hit, the often irreverent Pronger suggested that it was physics that led to the injury -- he is tall and Holmstrom is not -- and that the overzealous Canadian media were at the heart of his one-game suspension.

Sunday, moments after the decision was handed down by the league, Pronger was slightly more contrite. He did not blame the media and seemed to accept the consequences for his actions.

"I've obviously been in front of them before and now I'm a repeat offender," said Pronger, who has been suspended by the league seven times in his career. "And they did the right thing here. It's a situation where there was a head blow, and that's obviously something they're trying to crack down on. And I don't blame them in any way."

This notion that Pronger is powerless to control himself, as though he has some nasty DNA that cannot be altered, is baloney.

This isn't a gambling problem or a drinking problem or some other clinical issue. This is a player who simply indulges himself with reckless behavior. Look around the league. Zdeno Chara, all 6-foot-9 of him, was a recent Norris Trophy nominee, but he doesn't resort to the kinds of behavior that has marked Pronger's play. Neither did Larry Robinson, perhaps the greatest big-man defensemen of all time.

This latest in a long list of similar self-indulgences occurred about two minutes into the third period in Saturday's Game 3. As McAmmond tried to pass 6-foot-6 Pronger -- having dumped the puck into the Anaheim zone -- Pronger delivered a stiff forearm/elbow to McAmmond's head that left the Ottawa forward unconscious.

Although Pronger did not speak to McAmmond, assistant GM Bob Murray did pass along the Ducks' sympathies.

"We're a physical team, we're not a dirty team. There's a big difference," Anaheim GM Brian Burke offered.

McAmmond, through the Senators' public relations staff, said he thought the hit deserved a suspension.

"It wasn't incidental. It's not like that couldn't have been avoided," McAmmond said in the release. "I'm feeling pretty much the same as I was [Saturday], -- a little bit 'headachy,' not feeling quite right. I'm going to do everything I can, or as little as I can, to feel good [Monday]. I want to play, but at this point in time, I'm not sure right now."

This second suspension of the spring is another piece of the strange alpha wave tracking Pronger's career from NHL superstar who couldn't deliver the goods in the playoffs to consummate playoff performer and darling of Canadian fans to 6-foot-6 dervish.

For much of the early part of his career, including a period that saw Pronger win both the Norris Trophy as best defenseman and Hart Trophy as league MVP, the knock against him was he didn't have the maturity to play in the postseason. In St. Louis, where the Blues spent vast amounts of money to build a winner, Pronger regularly melted down in the playoffs and took ill-advised penalties.

But a season ago, Pronger emerged as a bona fide playoff god with the Edmonton Oilers. He still played with his trademark snarl, but it was kept in check, it was controlled. Pronger's play in the postseason was a tour de force, and the Oilers were the toast of Canada, the Cinderella team from the West that upended top-seeded Detroit and powerful San Jose en route to the Stanley Cup finals. There were many who believed Pronger should have been named playoff MVP, not Carolina netminder Cam Ward, even in a losing effort.

This spring, though, Pronger seems to have regressed, and as a result, his actions have jeopardized his team's chances (and, by extension, his own chances) of earning its first Stanley Cup.

Chris Pronger
Chris Pronger becomes the third player in NHL history to be suspended twice in the same playoff year.

During the playoffs, so much of a team's success is tied to selflessness, a notion that no one player is greater than the needs of the whole, that players sacrifice everything from ego to ice time to their bodies so the collective good is served.

No one in the Anaheim Ducks dressing room will utter a disparaging word against Pronger. The man, on many nights, is a machine. He is averaging more than 30 minutes of ice time a game in these playoffs. He is second among NHL defensemen with 14 playoff points.

And yet for the second time in recent days, he has put his team in the unenviable position of having to play without him because he seems to have switched off that common-sense detector most humans rely on to prevent them from crossing "the line."

On some level in that dressing room, players must be asking where Pronger's selflessness is. Having been suspended once, Pronger surely had to know any other transgression was going to be viewed with disapproval by the league regardless whether it was as serious as the Holmstrom hit.

In the Western Conference finals, the Ducks rallied to win Game 4 when Pronger was watching from the sidelines and tied the series at 2. But that was at home. With Pronger watching Monday night, the Ducks face the prospect of allowing the Senators back into a series.

History shows the Ducks can win without Pronger, but they shouldn't have to.

Who knows how history will remember this moment of the Stanley Cup finals. But if the Senators come back to win Game 4 and go on to win their first Stanley Cup, history will judge Pronger harshly -- as it should regardless whether he can help himself.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.