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Cullen: The best hockey player I ever played against

Scott Cullen
1/25/2013 4:04:09 PM
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It looks like the end of the career is near for the best hockey player I ever played against.

(It may not be. Maybe there is still a happier ending to the story, but it caught my attention in this first week of the NHL season, when his NHL team could desperately use him.)

Every Canadian kid that played a reasonably competitive level of hockey growing up has stories about someone they played with or against that went on to fame and fortune. This is mine.

Hockey is such a pervasive part of Canadian culture that there are countless intersections between okay players (like me) and the really special players who become household names.

We play on youth teams, in summer leagues, shinny at local arenas, maybe junior hockey, whatever, but we all pretty much have at least the faintest connection to someone who has lived the dream of making it to the NHL.

Sometimes we also find out that being a special player as a teenager isn't what makes a player special later on but, if you've been around the rink long enough, there are too many examples of players that seemed destined for greatness that never made it and, conversely, some that didn't have high expectations, yet somehow persevered enough to make it big.

Growing up in Kingston, I played youth hockey with and against some guys who were eventually NHL prospects, but didn't quite pan out, like Brandon Convery.

In various minor hockey tournaments, we would cross paths with players that went on to bigger and better things. As a kid who was always into stats I seemed to take note of names and numbers more than most (if not all). I recall, after moving back to Kitchener, playing against Andrew Brunette and his Rayside-Balfour team in the finals of a Midget tournament in Prescott, Ontario.

Our university team (Wilfrid Laurier) went 21-2-1 one year and still finished second in our division because Steve Rucchin was a force at Western Ontario.

Our Midget AAA coaches told us that a young defenceman on our team would reach the NHL. He was, indeed, a first-round pick in the NHL, but Nick Stajduhar's career (two NHL games) probably didn't pan out the way he or the Edmonton Oilers had hoped.

I'm pretty sure Jason Dawe chipped my front tooth in a summer tournament. It wasn't an incident, not even deserving a penalty, but these things happen, you know?

At my high school in Kitchener, Ontario, Cam Stewart was a local legend, having scored 138 points (with 174 penalty minutes) in 46 games in his final year of Junior B competition with the Elmira Sugar Kings, before getting drafted in the third round by the Boston Bruins and earning a full ride to the University of Michigan. Cam played a couple hundred NHL games as a hard-hitting checking forward before injuries cut his career short.

When I started playing in that same junior Junior B league, our Kitchener Dutchmen team was comprised of mostly local kids, moving up from the Midget AAA Greenshirts. We did win the Sutherland Cup (All-Ontario title) in my second season and had a handful of guys grab scholarships, but that first year we were mostly just a collection of guys while other teams in our league had some players that went on to more prosperous hockey careers.

Scott Walker, a smooth skater who would fight anyone, played for the Cambridge Winter Hawks and played more than 800 NHL games mostly with Vancouver, Nashville and Carolina. Rem Murray was a skilled scorer on a powerhouse Stratford Cullitons team and skated in 560 NHL games with the Oilers, Rangers and Predators.

But the real draw for scouts in our league that year was a trio of 15-year-olds: Chris Gratton in Brantford, Todd Harvey in Cambridge and Chris Pronger in Stratford. In a league in which most players ranged in age from 17 to 20, these highly-touted kids turned heads in every rink.

Gratton was playing on a veteran-laden Brantford team that was full of big bruisers and Gratton already had the size and strength to fit in. He didn't wreak havoc like some of his teammates, but the older guys made sure that he wasn't messed with either.

Harvey was a different animal. He played in the league the year before (as a 14-year-old!) and was both a big scorer and scrapper. That he went on to play more than 700 NHL games (including playoffs) wasn't a surprise. The surprise turned out to be, given all the hype he received as a 14 and 15-year-old, that he was a grinder in the NHL instead of a star.

But Pronger, he stood out. For one thing, he was 6-foot-5 and about 160 pounds, so he was as rail thin as any hockey player I'd ever seen (and if anyone knew about rail-thin hockey players, it was yours truly), but Pronger was also extremely poised with the puck and an excellent skater, especially for a kid who could have been a gangly mess given his size.

Stratford was a perennial powerhouse in the Midwestern Junior B League in that era, with future NHLers like Ed Olczyk, Nelson Emerson and Rob Blake among those that played there before it was Justin Bieber's home town. Their team that year was no different, and I recall them lighting us up at least once for a dozen goals, but it was easy to see why everyone was so enamoured with Pronger.

While he wasn't as aggressive as, say, Harvey, Pronger was already quite liberal in his use of the lumber (something that carried through to his pro career), in some ways reflecting what hockey was like 20 years ago, when obstruction, hooking and slashing were accepted parts of the game. He was also doing what it took to survive when playing against guys who had to hit him as often as possible if they were going to have any hope of containing him.

It was easy to see why scouts loved Pronger. With that frame, skill and disposition, he was surely going to be a great pro if he stayed on track (and maybe put on a few pounds).

He moved on to the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League and was the second overall pick in 1993, behind Alexandre Daigle.

There have been challenges along the way, including a wake-up call with a trade to St. Louis after some poor off-ice decisions in his first couple years with the Hartford Whalers and he's still none too popular in Edmonton after demanding a trade following their run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006.

But, Pronger has played 1167 regular season NHL games, plus 173 more in the playoffs (which is the most among "active" defencemen by a wide margin; Sergei Gonchar, at 125, ranks second), has won a Hart Trophy, Norris Trophy, a Stanley Cup, two Olympic Gold Medals (representing Canada four times at the Olympics) and is a lock to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame when his time comes for induction.

I've been at TSN long enough that I've seen NHL careers begin and end, seeing players go from fresh-faced teenagers to grizzled and worn-down veterans in that time, and the sporting world serves as an accelerated reminder about the cycle of life.

Time stops for no one, least of all those who make their livelihood in such a physically-demanding pursuit.

Word hasn't been good on Pronger ever since he suffered a concussion in November, 2011. Nothing has been made official about his status nor does it need to be anytime soon. Maybe there is still a comeback possible, some way to put a happy ending on his playing career, but that doesn't appear to be the most likely outcome.

His brother, Sean Pronger, recently commented, in a chat on www.Deadspin.com, "I don't think he'll play again but what do I know" and, combined with the fact that Chris Pronger is 38-years-old and hasn't played in more than a year, well, it's entirely reasonable to think that he has played his last game in the NHL.

If that's the case, it's sad news for the Flyers, who miss his presence as a top pair defenceman and it's a day-to-day challenge for the Pronger family, as they deal with post-concussion effects that can be long-lasting and have an immeasurable impact on everyday life.

Most definitely, it would be a sad way to end an illustrious career, one which I was fortunate enough to cross paths with, if only for the briefest of moments.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

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