Chris Pronger is as big as they come. He is 6 feet, 5 inches tall, with a beefy frame, pounds of muscle and an impish face that says if you want the rough stuff, that’s fine by him. With his front teeth out — and they are out when he plays — he is the picture of the schoolyard bully, a Goliath on skates.
But a little piece of rubber felled Goliath on Sunday. It began as a shot and ended like a bullet, flying from the stick of Dmitri Mironov and landing square in Pronger’s chest, near his sixth rib, just below his heart. The puck was traveling at around 85 m.p.h. and Pronger, maybe the toughest guy on the ice, doubled over in apparent pain and shock. He tried to skate away, took a few steps, then fell flat, a redwood dropping in a forest. Players waved frantically for the trainers. Pronger was on his back, his eyes open in ghostly fashion, vacant from the inside.
Everybody’s touchable. Big guys, small guys, everybody. The trainers raced out and immediately checked Pronger’s pulse. It was falling.
“DO SOMETHING!” players yelled.
The trainers secured Pronger’s head and cut open his jersey, slicing from the bottom up, worried that his heart was in spasm and they would need to revive him with CPR. When the jersey peeled away, several players recoiled in shock.
“He had a red mark the size of a puck on his skin,” recalled Detroit trainer John Wharton.
Wharton, with the St. Louis medical staff, was crouching around the 23-year-old defenseman, ready for the worst. Then, suddenly, he snapped back. His heart resumed its rhythm, his eyes returned from the outer limits. He mumbled something about “my parents are in the stands …tell them I’m OK.”
They put him on a stretcher. They wheeled him to an ambulance. The lights went on and the ambulance sped to the hospital.
‘Everyone was rattled’
This would prove to be a theme on a brutal Sunday afternoon at Joe Louis Arena, from the life and death lessons that Pronger offered, to the less significant overtones of the actual game. Everybody’s touchable. Even fans who jeered Pronger were moved enough to cheer when he was wheeled off.
“I think everyone was rattled after the things with Chris,” said Red Wings forward Brendan Shanahan. “I mean, when the PA announcer calls for his mother to come down from the stands, and here it is, Mother’s Day, well, it sheds a lot of perspective on the sport.”
The sport — and the puck. People associate toughness in hockey with fists in the face, sticks in the knees and bodies against the boards. But the little black object of desire can be the most lethal weapon in the game.
“I was thinking about that kid in western Canada who got hit in the chest and died,” said Wings captain Steve Yzerman. “I’ve seen guys hit in the head, hit in the throat. When you think about it, it’s a surprise we don’t get hit more often.”
Hockey players wear more padding than most athletes. It still doesn’t cover everything. The area where the puck hit Pronger had little more than cloth as protection.
You think about a guy like this, so tough, so young, so big, and he’s whittled down with a single blow. Later on Sunday, St. Louis forward Terry Yake took a slap shot in the head, went down hard and grabbed at his helmet as if it were crushing his skull.
“I could feel it swelling underneath,” Yake said in the locker room afterward. There was a bump the size of a golf ball protruding from his forehead, topped by blood-soaked stitches.
Yake, of course, will want to play Tuesday night in Game 3. And so, too, I imagine, will Pronger, the Blues’ captain. Doctors and trainers I spoke with agreed that, if his heart checks out OK — and he was being kept over in the Detroit hospital Sunday night — there is no medical reason he couldn’t play.
Still, you’d hate to be the doctor who makes that call. When Pronger went down Sunday, many of us thought of Reggie Lewis, the Celtics star who collapsed from heart problems a few years ago. He died, and doctors are still arguing over that one.
Blues will be back for more
Pronger’s momentary horror — early in the third period — sucked the life out of the remainder of this contest. But the outcome had already been determined, thanks to a second-period explosion of Detroit goals. This St. Louis team, which had not lost a game all postseason, had now lost one. Its invulnerability was gone.
Proving that was the Wings’ first objective. Remember that playoff series are about mental warfare as much as physical. Until Sunday, the Blues had been scar-free in the playoffs. Five victories, no losses. A team gets used to that. A team rolls on that. A team swells with confidence on that.
So before the Wings could even think of toppling the Blues, they had to dent them. That’s what Sunday was all about. Until Game 2 of this second-round series, the Blues had not scored fewer than two goals or surrendered more than three in any of this year’s playoff games.
That all changed Sunday.
Meanwhile, goalie Chris Osgood delivered the kind of day he must have in his arsenal, an unbeatable day, a day where he not only makes the stops he’s supposed to make, but the ones he’s not supposed to make. Osgood stonewalled a number of point-blank St. Louis attacks, reminding the Blues that somebody besides Grant Fuhr is wearing a mask out there.
And the series is tied. Remember, folks, these things are novels. Lots of twists and turns. The theme Sunday was how even the seemingly untouchable can be wounded. Pronger and the Blues will both be back for more. How fierce is the question.
We’ll know soon enough.
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581. He will sign copies of his best-selling book, “Tuesdays With Morrie,” 7:30-8:30 tonight at Borders in Ann Arbor and 1-2 p.m. Saturday at Little Professor in Plymouth.