Post-lockout Pronger? He's a winner

CHICAGO -- In the moments after the Anaheim Ducks dispatched the Ottawa Senators in Game 5 of the 2007 Stanley Cup finals, the Ducks swarmed around netminder Jean-Sebastien Giguere in wild celebration. All but one.

Off by himself, defenseman Chris Pronger could be seen gathering up the game puck before joining his teammates. It might have been seen as a self-centered thing to do, gather up a puck for his collection rather than joining his teammates.

"Guess who he gave the puck to? He gave it to me," Brian Burke, then GM of the Ducks, told ESPN.com. "He said, 'You brought us all together, this is your Cup, this is your puck. I've got a lot of time for Chris Pronger.'"

Burke's affection for the big defenseman is no surprise. Along with helping bring the Ducks their first Stanley Cup, both men are large personalities who dominate whatever stage they're on.

When the media converged on the United Center to start ramping up for the Stanley Cup finals Thursday, Pronger's assigned seat was surrounded by reporters and camera crews. He did not disappoint, talking for more than half an hour.

And with Pronger, you have to keep your wits about you, or you'll find yourself sliced and diced.

Take this exchange with veteran USA Today hockey writer Kevin Allen.

Allen: "One final thing for you ..."

Pronger: "You had me rattled Kevin. I don't get rattled easily. Maybe I'm getting tired."

Allen: "You could be. You have played a lot of minutes."

Pronger: "Next."

Allen: "Many of us have written that you're playing probably as well as you did even in your prime ..."

Pronger: "I'm not in my prime?"

Allen: "Well, you're supposed to be beyond your prime according to your age."

Pronger: "Supposed to be. You just said I wasn't in my prime."

Allen: "Well, maybe I misspoke, but how do you feel about the way you've been playing? Do you feel like you're playing as well as you did when you were 26 or 27?"

Or how about this exchange a few minutes later with NHL.com writer Dan Rosen. He asked about Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook, who idolized Pronger growing up.

Pronger: "What, are you trying to make a play on my age again? Is that what you're doing here? I know how old I am. I know when I was born. I'm not afraid to tell you."

Rosen: "What year?"

Pronger: "Don't worry about it. Look it up on my hockey card, bud. I've got a bunch of hockey cards. You want one?"

Or our question to him about why he seems to have played his best hockey since the lockout.

"I don't know, that's for you to figure out," Pronger said with a smile.

We tell him we could, but it would just be conjecture without his input.

"Well, I'm sure that's still what it's going to be, if I give you something," he said.

And then he answered, as he almost always does.

"Probably partly maturity. Older, wiser, more experienced. Having kids. Takes your mind off your troubles at the rink when you've got to go home and take care of your family and do all the rest of that," he said. "You don't have a lot of time to play the pity card, woe is me if I have a bad game, your team's struggling. The kids are always there, they're happy, they're smiling, excited to see you.

"So, it brings you back down to earth and kind of gives you a little kick in the pants and lets you know what life's really about. It is just a game we're playing here."

He's right, of course, and few have played the position as well and for as long as Pronger. A former Norris Trophy and Hart Trophy winner as the league's MVP, all Pronger has done since the 2004-05 lockout is win. Before the lockout, he was prone to losing his cool and taking bad penalties at crucial junctures of games or series.

Now, he is practically Zen.

"The thing that probably surprises me in a good way ... is how calm he is, how focused he seems, how comfortable he seems with the situation we're in," Flyers teammate Daniel Briere said. "You look at him and he just feels right in his element right now.

"Even when we were down 3-0 against the Bruins, there's no panic in his voice, in his actions. He's just been in control, and this is business and this is the way to go."

Pronger admitted, in the past, he might have worried about how he was playing and what people were saying about him.

"I'm still my own worst critic," he said. "I'd be pissed off 'til the next game probably if we lost. I wasn't the easiest on myself at times."

Not anymore.

"I don't read the paper, I don't watch the news, I don't read clippings, I don't do any of that stuff," Pronger said. "Whether it's good or bad, I don't really care what's being written because I got other things to worry about and that's actually served me pretty well over the last five years I think."

We're not sure we totally buy the media blackout thing, though. We recall the Olympics in February, when Pronger had some sharp comments after some Canadian broadcasters suggested he was too old and slow for the competition.

Regardless, he looks anything but over the hill this spring. At the ripe old age of 35, Pronger leads all NHL players in the postseason with an average of 28:48 a night in ice time. He has 14 points and, perhaps more surprisingly, only 18 minutes in penalties.

"I feel like I'm playing better than I did then. I feel that as the years have gone by, I have learned to play the game more efficiently and better," he said. "You're not as emotional and you take a step back a little bit, take a deep breath and let yourself relax to get your wits about you. I feel like I'm in a good place right now, but we'll see how it goes."

Beyond the nuts and bolts of his game, there is the ferocity that has led some to describe him as one of the dirtiest players in the game. Twice during the 2007 playoffs, Pronger was suspended. "He doesn't like anybody," Burke said.

In the Eastern Conference finals against Montreal, Pronger went after former teammate Travis Moen.

"Chris ran right over him," Burke said, not without a touch of admiration. "This kid's been a special player for a long time. That's what he does. He can take on a lot of weight in a playoff series. That's something very few guys can do."

In 2006, when the Ducks were just ascending to a place as a legitimate Cup contender, they were beaten by the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference finals. As far as Burke was concerned, Anaheim was beaten by Pronger, then an Oiler.

"He beat us in the conference finals. He beat us by himself," Burke said.

In the team's postmortem Burke asked what the Ducks needed to do to get over the top. "We all agreed, that's the guy that we need," Burke said.

The fact Pronger happened to become available that offseason is a big part of the Ducks' history and story of their 2007 championship run and the mythology (or in some cases demonology) of Pronger himself.

When his wife became unhappy with life in Edmonton, Pronger asked then Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe to move him. The GM kept Pronger past that trade deadline and the Oilers went to Game 7 of the Cup finals against the Hurricanes (Pronger's current coach, Peter Laviolette, was behind Carolina's bench then). But Lowe later admitted publicly at the NHL draft he was going to trade Pronger. Fans in Edmonton were outraged. Pronger was pilloried in the press and rumors ran rampant at the "real" reason he was leaving.

After three seasons in Anaheim, the Ducks dealt him to Philadelphia at last June's draft for a collection of picks, prospects and young talent. He was touted as the missing piece to a Stanley Cup puzzle that has been 35 years in the making in Philadelphia.

In September, when the NHL brought its star players to New York for a series of media interviews, Pronger visited the ESPN.com room and was asked about the big price the Flyers had paid to get him. Pronger's eyes lit up and he joked there wasn't room on the ice for all those draft picks anyway.

"There was a lot of pressure coming in. You know, saying that he was the one, the last piece that we needed in the summertime," Briere said. "I remember [Flyers GM] Paul Holmgren trying to deflect a lot of the pressure. But at the same time, it was like he didn't care about that. He was totally fine with it. There's a lot to be said for that.

"There's a lot of guys on this team that can be difference-makers, but you look at Chris and he doesn't mind it, and I think it helps throughout the dressing room for everybody."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.