PHILADELPHIA -- "Who are they to tell me I'm old?" Chris Pronger was saying after a workout at Skate Zone the other day. "Who are they to tell me I can't play?
"How do they know what's going through my mind?"
If Chris Pronger didn't stand 6-6, weigh 230 pounds and have a longstanding reputation for painful unpredictability, this is how I might have answered that last one:
"Well, Chris, you've left quite a trail of evidence."
Fifteen seasons' worth. Fifteen seasons of vicious hits and intimidation, delivered with the speed of a scorer and the balance of a goaltender. Fifteen years of things he's not always proud of, things that have left him as loathed in places as he is feared, things that have left an impression that sometimes what goes through his mind is, well, sinister.
"I've made a lot of mistakes in my career," he said. "And they've been well-documented. YouTube wasn't even around when I came into the league."
He laughed. The Internet was barely a rumor when he entered the league at 18, playing for the Hartford Whalers and coach Paul Holmgren and, occasionally, alongside his current coach John Stevens.
Pronger has since played with an incredible array of people long gone from the ice, people like Wayne Gretzky and Craig MacTavish and Brad McCrimmon, some of whom now coach or work for the front office of teams he plays against. He has also been worked over by the NHL's ever-changing rules and monetary system, and has worked it, too. Some in the league offices believed the seven-year, $34.5 million he signed with the Flyers in July is a case of the latter, which is what had Pronger in a little (feigned) lather that day late last week.
The theory goes as follows: Pronger has no intention of playing the last two seasons of his contract, when he will be 41 and 42 years of age and he will be paid $525,000 in each of those seasons. Because the NHL's salary cap is based on the annual average income, Pronger's deal will actually count $5 million annually against the cap, which is less than the $6.25 million due this season, the final year of his old deal.
Pronger's is one of two contracts signed over the summer that have come under the scrutiny of the league. Chicago signed 30-year-old Marian Hossa to a front-loaded 12-year, $62.8 million deal in which he would receive $750,000 in each of his final two seasons.
"Age discrimination?" I asked.
"Maybe I have a case for that," he said with a smile. "Maybe I should file an exploratory lawsuit."
There's the hint of a prank in his smile, as if he's about to shoot a rubberband off the back of your neck or whiz a bottlecap through your eyebrow. He has been booed by hometown fans in Edmonton, was once criticized as the reason the Blues could not get over the hump in his eight seasons as captain there. You don't have to look these things up. He tells you about them as a way of explaining how he came to be this 35-year-old fitness machine, able to play 30 minutes on some nights, able to play almost every night.
"Every year after the season I've been feeling better and better," he said. "You learn the game more. You learn how to play the game better, more efficiently. Make better decisions on ice. Know when to play more physical. Know when to play more energetic, more intense. You moderate yourself better."
He has played in an average of 68 games over 15 seasons. That takes into account lockouts, and two season-shortening injuries incurred while still in his 20s. Average out the games he has played since turning 30, and Pronger's average jumps to around 76 games a season.
Still, of the nearly 1,000 players competing in the NHL last season, only eight were over age 40. Only one, Mark Recchi, played in more than 60 games.
Pronger recalled that when his Edmonton team made an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Finals one year, "There were like 10 guys taking shots just to play, and then you see how many of those guys had surgeries after the season."
"I don't buy the hunger part," he said. "I buy the drive. The will to win. You've got to push yourself through the dog days of January and February. You have to go through tough times to get strong. I've gone through a lot of (stuff) in my career. Getting booed, getting traded. You need that. You need some sort of mechanism that says, 'OK I need to push myself to get better.' I need to work harder in practice, lift more weights, ride the bike, do more sprints. There's a reason you got here. You have talent. That got you here. Now, the question is, 'Can you stay here?' You see guys come and go all the time. The guys who stay around are the ones who push themselves, who have that drive to be the best."