COMMENTARY: Former National Hockey League defenseman Chris Pronger might turn out to be a great hire by the league for their Department of Player Safety. Nevertheless, he should never have been considered for the job at all.
LOS ANGELES — The National Hockey League has proven, once again, that the way they handle discipline of its players leaves a lot to desired, and that’s putting it mildly.
This time, it was not an on-ice incident, or a way-too-short suspension, which is the norm in the NHL. Nor was it an off-ice incident involving a crime, or a substance abuse incident. Nothing like any of that.
This time, the problem might run deeper.
On October 10, the NHL announced the hiring of former stalwart NHL defenseman Chris Pronger to work in their Department of Player Safety, alongside Senior Vice President, Player Safety, Stephane Quintal.
Pronger was a stellar defenseman in the league—a Stanley Cup Champion, Hart and Norris Trophy winner, five-time NHL All-Star, and a two-time Olympic Gold Medal winner, just to name some of the accomplishments on his resume. His record of achievement is indisputable.
However, his record of disciplinary problems, which includes eight suspensions, and ran over much of the length of his NHL career, not to mention the appearance of a serious conflict of interest due to the fact that he is still on the payroll of the Philadelphia Flyers, are not just red flags. Indeed, they should have been disqualifying factors for this position, yet the league turned a blind eye to them.
Although the fact that Pronger was one of the NHL’s bad boys—a case can be made for considering him one of the league’s dirtiest players—could give him a unique perspective on meting out justice that a former player with a spotless record would not have, hiring Pronger goes too far in the other direction.
A good parallel is why computer hackers usually make for very bad computer/network security workers. Although they may have specific talents, in terms of detecting intrusions and helping to identify other hackers, when the time comes to testify in court, they generally have no credibility, a point that opposing counsel jumps on when they begin cross-examination. They point to the former hacker’s earlier illegal activity, easily destroying their credibility because of their past record.
Although Pronger would not be doing anything akin to testifying in court, he would be taking part in the process as judge and jury, with Quintal. One could argue this his record, as a multiple repeat offender, indicates disdain for the rules, and for respecting fellow players.
- In 1995, while playing for the St. Louis Blues, Pronger high-sticked Washington Capitals forward Pat Peake in the throat on October 29. Peake suffered a fractured thyroid cartilage. Pronger was suspended for four games.
- In 1998, Pronger was still with St. Louis when he slashed then-Phoenix Coyotes forward Jeremy Roenick on December 17—he took a swing at Roenick’s head. Pronger received a match penalty (deliberate attempt to injure). Four-game suspension.
- In 2001, Pronger, still with the Blues, left the bench to instigate a fight with then-Los Angeles Kings winger Kelly Buchberger on October 11. Buchberger had elbowed Blues winger Pavol Demitra, resulting in a broken nose. One-game suspension.
- In 2002, Pronger was still with the Blues when he cross-checked Dallas Stars forward Brendan Morrow in the face on April 3. Two-game suspension.
- In 2004, Pronger kicked Calgary Flames forward Ville Nieminen on March 14. One-game suspension.
- In 2007, Now with the Anaheim Ducks, Pronger hit Detroit Red Wings forward Tomas Holmstrom from behind during Game 3 of the Western Conference Final on May 15. Although Ducks forward Rob Niedermayer was also involved in the hit on Holmstrom, Pronger’s elbow drove Holmstrom’s head into the glass. One-game suspension.
- Also in the 2007 playoffs, in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, Pronger threw an elbow, which appeared to be intentional, striking Ottawa Senators forward Dean McAmmond in the head. McAmmond also struck his head on the ice after falling as a result of the elbow. McAmmond lost consciousness and had to be helped off the ice. One-game suspension.
- On March 12, 2008, Pronger intentionally stomped on the leg of Vancouver Canucks forward Ryan Kesler. Although Kesler was not injured, Pronger was suspended for eight games.
As mentioned earlier, Pronger’s record of achievement on the ice is indisputable. However, his record of blatant misdeeds as a multiple repeat offender, in a sense, thumbing his nose at the rules, and disrespecting fellow players, is also indisputable. Indeed, it is contradictory to put him into a position to make discipline-related decisions. After all, he lacks credibility on such matters, so much so that the NHL should have looked at other candidates. A former player with a few incidents on his record would be fine for the NHL Player Safety job. But this goes way, way too far in the wrong direction.
Perhaps even more critical is the fact that Pronger is still on the Flyers payroll.
To be fair, that is not his fault. He was forced to “retire” as a player due to an eye injury and a concussion. However, due to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Flyers cannot buy out Pronger’s contract without taking a hit on their salary cap. As such, he remains on long-term injured reserve—he is not officially retired, even though he will never play again.
Although none of that is Pronger’s fault, and even though he might end up being 100 percent fair in his opinions or decisions in his work with NHL Player Safety—he will not be involved in decisions involving the Flyers—the conflict of interest is still there. It is a fact, simply because he remains on the Flyers payroll.
For his part, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is not concerned about Pronger and conflict of interest issues.
“Chris’ case is unique,” Bettman said on October 8 here in Los Angeles. “There are salary cap reasons that he couldn’t retire. The fact of the matter is, that if we go that route, I’m not sure that presents any problem at all that we can’t deal with.”
“He’s done playing,” Bettman added. “He gets paid, no matter what, from the Flyers. He doesn’t owe them anything.”
Pronger may not owe the Flyers anything. But that does not change the situation at all given the fact that he remains on the Flyers payroll—the conflict of interest remains.
Again, Pronger might turn out to be entirely fair and impartial in his work with NHL Player Safety. But he might not. After all, he will be involved in decisions affecting other teams who are competing with the Flyers. But whether he can be impartial in those decisions or not is not the only issue. Perhaps more important is that these questions should not even have to be raised. After all, every time a decision is reached involving any team that either directly or indirectly impacts the Flyers, Pronger’s impartiality will be questioned. There will be no avoiding it.
Given the huge black hole in Pronger’s credibility, along with his obvious conflict of interest issues, he should never have been considered for the NHL Player Safety position. That he was considered at all, let alone hired, is yet another black mark on the league’s disciplinary process. It is another reason to point to when so many say that discipline in the NHL is a complete joke, and has been for years and years.
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