Trading Places

Times Staff Writer

Chris Pronger is about to move. Again.

The towering defenseman with the booming slap shot is getting out of a city. Again.

This time, the only ones who are paying attention to the Prongers packing up their longtime St. Louis home for Orange County are the movers. "Time to cut the cord," Pronger says with a confident smile.

No, there'll be no more drama. This journey for the Ducks' newest star is about finding contentment.

On and off the ice.

"It'll be a little different," he says with an easy cool as he awaits lunch at an Anaheim restaurant. "At the end of the day, it's still hockey. You still got to go out there and perform.

"Just because you're down in Southern California with a beach right there and you have the opportunity to lay on it, you still got to put the work and the time in to prepare."

The goal hasn't changed but much has in a short time.

It was only about six weeks ago that Pronger was leading the upstart Edmonton Oilers in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. They lost to the Carolina Hurricanes but won the hearts of their fans, who finally had a superstar to call their own.

The love affair, however, ended badly.

Within days of losing the Cup, Pronger asked to be traded for "personal reasons."

He still will not elaborate except to say, "It's something I had to do."

By July 3, he belonged to the Ducks in a transaction orchestrated by General Manager Brian Burke that shook the hockey world.

"He usually likes to make a splash," Pronger says of Burke, whom he has known for years.

But Oilers fans by then were seething, and a rough, circuslike atmosphere quickly enveloped the 6-foot-6 defenseman.

For the Ducks, the change was palpable. Over the next three days, they received several hundred calls seeking season-ticket packages. It quickly became clear that, for the first time in its 14-year history, the team is regarded as a serious Cup contender.

The Ducks made it to the Western Conference finals last season with proven stars Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne, experienced veterans Rob Niedermayer, Todd Marchant and Sean O'Donnell and a roster brimming with talented young forwards. The 31-year-old Pronger, who helped stopped the Ducks' advance toward the Cup, is seen as the missing piece.

"That's good," Pronger says of the sky-high expectations. "You look at teams like Detroit, Colorado and New Jersey. Those teams expect to win every year. They didn't win it every year, but they expected to win and their fans expected them to win. That's the level you want to get to."

The Ducks aren't there yet. In fact, success has been fleeting. In three trips to the playoffs, they failed to qualify the next season.

Pronger's resume is impressive: a former Hart Trophy and Norris Trophy winner as the league's most valuable player and top defenseman and a five-time All-Star.

He could be the difference.

It was his Oilers that went to the finals for the first time in 16 years -- after eliminating the Ducks in five games. Many believe Pronger was the best player in the postseason. He had 21 points in 24 games, the most by a defenseman since Brian Leetch had 34 for the champion New York Rangers in 1994.

Locals had called the 220-pound blue-line monster the Oilers' best player since Mark Messier. And Pronger seemed to enjoy the ride.

"When you're part of teams like that, that mesh and gel at the right time and handle the pressure of those situations ... it's pretty impressive to be part of that," Pronger says, reflecting.

It wasn't enough.

Pronger had come to the Oilers at the start of last season, signing a five-year, $31.25-million contract. He was fresh from St. Louis, where he had starred for nine seasons. But the Blues, needing to clear space under the new salary cap, traded him.

Edmonton thought that finally, after losing top players for years because it couldn't afford to keep them, it had a star it could hold onto.

By midseason, Pronger knew that wouldn't be the case.

"It's a tough decision to go to them and say, 'I don't think it's working out.' You know there's going to be backlash and people upset. It's never easy," Pronger says. "At the end of the day, you've got to do what's in your family's best interests."

The city's hockey-crazed fans reacted with disbelief, then rage. As Pronger puts it, "I went from being the man to being manure."

"The Pronger thing kind of came out of nowhere," says Jim Matheson, a longtime Edmonton Journal columnist. "It was like, 'I thought you loved the fans and the next thing, you're out the door.' Plus, I think a lot of people were upset at Chris because he kind of got out of town without 'fessing up to why he was leaving.

"To lose the Cup and then have that happen was kind of a double-whammy."

Pronger's family became a target of scorn. Reports surfaced that Pronger's wife, Lauren, did not like living in Edmonton, which drew a fierce reaction in cyberspace. Bloggers took to calling her "Yoko Ono."

The tumultuous exit also had an unseemly side. Website postings claimed Pronger had an alleged affair with an Edmonton television reporter and fathered her unborn child -- claims Pronger has repeatedly denied.

Even now, Pronger is pained. The rumors cut deeply, but he wasn't ready for the sharp criticism directed at his wife.

"Absolutely," he says, his finger pointedly tapping the table. "Now you've got to defend yourself and say, 'I don't know what you're talking about.'

"It's funny. One rumor is I get some newscaster pregnant and all of a sudden she comes out and says I don't even know the guy. Another girl comes out and says I don't know the guy. It's like a train that never ends.

"People want to make up stuff? I'll go with that. If they want to make it up about me, that's fine. But if you start bringing in my family, you're starting to get a little close ..."

Pronger has a theory about why the rumors began.

"It's to discredit me," he says. "Now I'm even more of a villain."

The 12-year veteran acknowledges that he has been less-than-candid about why he wanted a trade but wouldn't handle the situation any differently today.

"It was handled professionally by me," Pronger says. "It was handled professionally by the team."

Of the fans, he adds, "I can certainly understand their reaction. I just hope they understand -- from the fans to whomever -- my situation. It's perfectly within their right to understand or not understand."

Of course, the suitors immediately lined up.

Burke had long coveted Pronger, drafting him out of juniors when Burke was general manager of the Hartford Whalers.

"You can be a general manager for 25 years and never have one player of this caliber," says Burke, who now has two, the other being Scott Niedermayer.

"We've got Scotty signed for three more years," he adds. "We obviously got a lot further than anyone anticipated. This was a chance to make a statement to our fans and our players that we want to contend."

If Burke's successful wooing last summer of Niedermayer from the New Jersey Devils was the hit that took everyone by surprise, his pursuit of Pronger would be the blockbuster sequel.

The price was high. The Ducks parted with budding star Joffrey Lupul, who had a team-high nine goals in the playoffs, highly rated defenseman prospect Ladislav Smid and three potential high draft picks.

But in Pronger and Niedermayer, the Ducks now have a one-two punch that recalls Hall of Fame trio Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe and Serge Savard of the powerhouse Montreal Canadiens in the 1970s.

Coach Randy Carlyle says he's already thinking of ways to use the two but cautions, "It puts more pressure on us to perform."

Pronger is easing into his new team. He gave up his familiar No. 44 in deference to Rob Niedermayer and will wear No. 25. Pronger says he avoided No. 7 or No. 4 to ward off any comparisons to Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey or the legendary Bobby Orr.

Pronger is also resisting the temptation of the nearby beach, choosing to move Lauren and their two young sons, Jack and George, to Irvine where he would be "closer to the rink."

He hasn't played a game with the Ducks yet and his family is still settling in, but he is here and ready. When asked if fans should worry about him wanting to leave in a year, Pronger doesn't hesitate."No."

He takes a long look away, then says it again.

"No."

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