Thursday, June 3, 2010
Whistles aren't a worthwhile distraction
By Melissa Isaacson ESPNChicago.com
PHILADELPHIA -- Bryon Russell is still waiting for the push-off call against Michael Jordan at the end of Game 6 in the 1998 NBA Finals.
Shaquille O'Neal backs into defenders with so much force, guys like Joakim Noah have been known to go airborne.
They say Wayne Gretzky intimidated refs in French and that Sidney Crosby flops and whines.
And then there's Chris Pronger.
The Flyers defenseman and first-class pain in the Blackhawks' collective backside this Stanley Cup finals has left permanent divots in Dustin Byfuglien; made Patrick Kane look like his face was run over by the Zamboni; and has, in the opinion of the Hawks, gotten away with everything but murder.
Meanwhile, in three games, the Flyers' 35-year-old future Hall of Famer has been called for one high-sticking penalty in the third period of Game 3.
We're not counting the inconsequential 10-minute misconduct call after the final whistle in Game 2 for his part in a towel fight with Ben Eager.
It has done nothing for Pronger's popularity in Chicago's dressing room, even as the Hawks grit their teeth and try not to talk about him.
"Sometimes you think it's going to be a for-sure penalty with the ref standing 10 feet away from him and there's no call," said Kane. "Sometimes, it's kind of unfair. [Byfuglien] takes a couple of penalties that seem to be weak calls and then he's just getting hounded and there's no call."
Sports are unfair. No, wait, that's not the lesson.
Life is unfair? No, that's cliché.
How about life in sports' biggest contests with sports' biggest superstars is often unfair and crying about it is not going to get the Utah Jazz an asterisk in the record books under the 1998 NBA world champion Chicago Bulls.
(*Note: Jordan actually pushed off Russell on the game-winning shot and oh yeah, he also may have made contact with Karl Malone on the steal that preceded it. However, it should be noted that Jordan swatted away players' hands on him throughout his illustrious career because everyone had their hands on him.)
Pronger, who used to get suspended for elbowing people in the head and stomping on their legs earlier in his career, says he has mellowed because of his wife and kids and has evidently saved the elbowing and stomping for the postseason. And because he elbows and stomps with great skill and precision that can be detected only if you're looking right at him, he is seemingly getting away with quite a bit against the Hawks.
Barry Melrose, ESPN hockey analyst and former L.A. Kings coach during Wayne Gretzky's tenure there, explains:
Chris Pronger is quickly becoming Public Enemy No. 1 in Chicago.
"[Pronger] knows when to do it. He knows how to do it. He's done it for a long time," Melrose said. "He's cagey. He's sneaky at it, so he's learned what he can get away with over the years and I don't think anyone is more in control of his emotions than Chris Pronger. You can tell when Prongs gets mad, but you never see him go over the edge with a referee or anybody. He's always very careful about stuff like that."
But does he get special handling by the officials?
"Sure, he gets preferential treatment, there's no doubt about it," Melrose said. "But I think Kane and [Jonathan] Toews get preferential treatment too. It's when you're a star, when you control the game. The great hitters get the extra call at the plate, the umpire always goes with the hitter. If he doesn't swing at it, it's got to be a ball and you see that with the star players in the NHL where you can't touch the quarterback.
"If Joe Blow from Flimflam, Manitoba, does what Chris Pronger does, he gets a lot of penalties called on him."
Surely, Joe Blow, unless he is also 6-feet-6, 220 pounds, would not bring to bear quite the same force as Pronger. But either way, Blow does not possess the credentials to get away with it.
"Hey, Chris Pronger is going to go down as maybe one of the 10 best defensemen ever to play the game," Melrose said. "He goes to Edmonton, they go to the finals. He goes to Anaheim, they win the Cup. He comes to Philly, they're in the finals. That's not by mistake, and he makes a living by shutting down not only the other team's best players but the best players in our game. And he's done that his whole career."
The Hawks still don't quite see the relevance.
"I don't know if that's something to be said that players in every sport get away with more things," Hawks center John Madden protested. "That's not the way the game is played. It doesn't matter who you are, all the rules apply."
In Flimflam, Manitoba, perhaps. In Philadelphia, this is simply not the case. Not was it the case when Melrose coached The Great One.
"A slash on Gretz was a penalty, a high stick, a lot of trippings, a lot of holdings, things like that," he recalled. "If he didn't get to the net and he fell, there was a good chance someone tripped him. But that's been since Bobby Hull was one of the best players in the league and that's since Bobby Orr was one of the best players in the league. All the sports protect their bread-and-butter guys."
The trick for the Hawks right now is to at least try to act as if this whole Pronger business is not bothering them. And they did attempt that on Thursday.
"I don't think Buff is frustrated at all," said Kris Versteeg of Pronger thrusting his hockey stick into the fleshy parts of Byfuglien's torso and neck, then dropping his stick and drawing a slashing penalty on the Hawks' big winger when he turns around.
"I think Buff loves it, he loves every second of it out there," Versteeg insisted. "He comes to the bench talking. He absolutely loves it."
The last "loves it" may have been pushing it a bit.
For his part, Byfuglien called his warfare with Pronger "an ongoing battle," adding, "but I'm enjoying it and it's something I can learn off too."
The Hawks can't deny Pronger gets preferential treatment, but Byfuglien isn't exactly complaining about it either.
"It gets a little tough at times and he gets away with things and you get called, but that's the way it is and there's not much you can do about it," he said. "That's the way it is."
Byfuglien may, however, want to consider working on pleading his case to officials.
"I just yell at them a little bit," he said when asked what he says to them.
And what do they say back?
"Sit down before you get more," related Byfuglien.
The one thing the Hawks are very adamant about is that Pronger is not -- repeat not -- getting into their heads in the way that, say, Jordan, took up residence in virtually every player who ever guarded him.
"If he gets inside my head, you'll know about it," barked Big Buff.
"I don't think it's that big of a deal," said Toews.
But Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said the team will use forums and mechanisms and be keeping an eye on Prongs. And Madden added, "We just know that there are some things going on we feel should be more closely monitored."
But in the end, said Toews, the Hawks are going to have to put up with it.
"It is what it is. He's going to go out there and be physical," Toews said. "It doesn't matter how many whacks you're going to take from a guy like that in front of their net, the second you turn around and give him one, you have to be careful because that's what they're looking for is retaliation.
"It's that type of thing where you have to try and accept and take from him, because it's the way he plays. It just seems like, you know, it doesn't go as noticed as it would for another player. That's just the way it is. He's done his job. We can still do more to try and take him off his game."
And if they can't, maybe the kid from Flimflam is available.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.