The iceman cometh back
Two security guards, earpieces in place, alertly scanned the area. Two lines of photographers and TV camera crews pointed their lenses toward the doorway of the posh ballroom at the city’s swankiest hotel. A local TV reporter gave live updates.
“They’re here. He’s in the building,” the reporter informed a waiting audience.
With the fuss usually reserved for a head of state, Ducks defenseman Chris Pronger returned to Edmonton for the first time since he stunned fans by asking to be traded two days after he had carried the Oilers to within a victory of a Stanley Cup championship. In a country that lives and breathes hockey, in a city whose civic leaders banded together to save the franchise in 1998, his demand for a ticket out was an affront.
Fans wanted answers. They still do.
Pronger offered no more enlightenment Monday than when he left in June, citing personal reasons. Because he declined to address rumors about his motivation and because fans haven’t forgiven or forgotten -- they warmed up with some derogatory chants about him during the Oilers’ game against the Blackhawks on Friday -- the reception he will get tonight at Rexall Place is sure to be chillier than the sub-zero temperatures that envelop this prairie city.
Before the Western Conference-leading Ducks left Anaheim, Pronger tried to steer conversation to teammate Scott Niedermayer’s 1,000th game tonight. He skipped the diversionary tactics at a news conference in Edmonton organized by the Ducks to satisfy dozens of interview requests. As cameras flashed and videocams whirled, he walked to the dais, sat and read from a piece of paper.
A few things “had gone by the wayside over a few months of media madness,” he said, such as thanking the Oilers’ general manager, Kevin Lowe, their coach, Craig MacTavish, their fans and his teammates for a remarkable playoff run.
“We’ve been talking about a lot of issues we probably shouldn’t have talked about,” he said, alluding to rumors about his alleged off-ice misconduct and the reluctance of his wife, Lauren, to live in Edmonton with the couple’s two children.
“It was a great year here playing hockey,” added Pronger, who was acquired by the Ducks for Joffrey Lupul, Ladislav Smid and three draft picks. “There certainly were fun times. We were one game short of making a great year unbelievable. I wish we could have done that but coulda, shoulda, woulda.”
The first question, shouted by a TV reporter, dripped with outrage. “Why did you leave Edmonton?” she asked. “There were so many rumors.”
Pronger smiled, without humor. “I’ve been asked that question a million times and I’ve answered that question a million times and my answer’s not going to change,” he said. “Personal family reasons, and that’s as much as I’m going to get into it.”
The reporter was undeterred: “There’s so many rumors.”
“There’s always rumors,” he responded.
“You’re just going to let them keep floating?” she asked.
“I’m not going to degrade myself and my family and substantiate or deny any rumors,” Pronger said. “It’s not what’s going to happen here.”
He made no apologies. Asked if he should have canceled a long-planned Mexican vacation to stay in town and explain his request, he said he had no regrets over his actions. He said he had hoped the matter would stay quiet and saw no reason to change his plans. “I’ve got a life to live,” he said.
His life in Anaheim is good. He’s thriving, the NHL’s top-scoring defenseman with 26 points. The Oilers are thriving, too. They’ve won five straight games and lead the Northwest division, but that probably won’t soothe fans infamous for jeering players they once considered heroes. The Edmonton Journal labeled him “Pronger the deserter,” and letter-writing fans said they would boo him.
Although the Oilers have provided extra security for Pronger, some fans reportedly plan to pelt him with pacifiers. His teammates might give him a wide berth on the bench “if that looks like a good strategy,” Niedermayer joked. "... I expect there to be booing and signs but we’ll hope for the best.”
Pronger said he’s prepared for anything. “I’m sure it’s going to be loud, boisterous just like I know they are. There will be signs and booing,” he said. “They’re passionate. They love their team, they love their city. Certainly, I understand where they’re coming from, but at the same time I’m on the other team now and I’ve got to go out and do my job. It’s not the first building I’ve been booed in and I’m sure it won’t be the last.”
Elliott reported from Edmonton and Stephens from Anaheim.
at Edmonton, 6, Ch. 56
Site -- Rexall Place.
Radio -- 830.
Records -- Ducks 17-2-6; Oilers 13-8-1.
Record vs. Oilers -- 1-0-0.
Update -- Former Duck Petr Sykora has 12 goals and leads Edmonton with 24 points. Lupul has seven goals but is a minus-5 on his even-strength shifts.
-- Eric Stephens