Pronger, Stanley Cup create exposure for area

    You either hate him, or love him. There is no in between when talking about a gritty NHL defenceman such as Chris Pronger.
    Residents across Northwestern Ontario either tilt one way or the other on the Dryden native. But regardless, he’s still one of the best blueliners in the NHL.
    With their feelings aside, residents were pleased to be able to celebrate his accomplishments and see him bring the Stanley Cup home to Dryden last Wednesday afternoon.
    “It’s always nice to be able to let the people you have grown up with, those who have supported you, and pushed you be a part of it,” Pronger said. “It’s nice to see the smiles on their faces when you finally do bring it back.”
    To the sounds of bagpipes and the shouts of more than 2,000 onlookers, Pronger strutted into the packed Dryden Memorial Arena pumping the Stanley Cup for the anxious crowd to see.
    Hordes of people lined up outside the arena nearly two hours before his arrival.
    Declared “Chris Pronger Day,” Pronger was honoured at a ceremony, during which he was handed the “Hoc-Key” to the city, his Dryden Eagles’ jersey retired, and the second ice surface named after him.
    Now 32, Pronger has etched quite the lengthy hockey résumé—winner of almost every trophy except perhaps the Lady Byng.
    All of Pronger’s hockey jerseys lined the wall behind the stage, starting with the blue and gold #14 he wore for two seasons as a member of the Dryden Eagles.
    Next in-line was his burgundy-and-white Peterborough Petes’ keepsake (OHL), followed by his entire NHL collection—Hartford Whalers, St. Louis Blues, Edmonton Oilers, and Anaheim Ducks.
    Last but not least, his Team Canada jersey hung behind as a colourful backdrop.
    Pronger began his career playing minor hockey in Dryden and on the outdoor rink near his childhood home. He eventually played high school hockey there, and that’s where his hockey ties in Northwestern Ontario conclude.
    “I do remember playing here, it was about 20 years ago. I must be getting old,” he laughed.
    But for others, his time in Dryden remains rather vivid even to this day.
    His mom, Eila, who was visibly teary-eyed throughout the presentations, said she still can remember her son’s journey as if it happened yesterday.
    “He started playing as a six-year-old and we went from there,” she recalled.
“Morning practices, tournaments, it goes on and on.
    “And looking at all those jerseys up there, I can related to each and every one of them.”
    Emcee and former Eagles’ coach Jack McMaster, now the director of education for the Rainy River District School Board, reminisced about his coaching experiences with Pronger and their long-time friendship.
    McMaster also hinted at the exposure and hope a player such as Pronger brings to hockey players around the region.
    “This is a real encouragement for kids—all the kids who are sitting here today recognize that he [Pronger] went through Dryden minor hockey, played for the Eagles, and went on to become a star in the NHL,” McMaster noted.
    “I think this is a great day and the kids get to live vicariously through him [Pronger] today,” he added.
    McMaster believes every time a player comes out of the area, more exposure is being created for future players and our programs.
    As Pronger would attest, “it’s very tough to get the kind of exposure you need around here,” he said.
    “I think Thunder Bay is starting to get a lot more but probably not as much as they deserve,” he added. “The more players that come out of here, the more exposure we will get.”
    Pronger’s dream season couldn’t have came at a better time after last season losing in Game 7 of the Cup final to the Carolina Hurricanes and then all the controversy in Edmonton after he requested a trade citing personal matters.
    “It was one of those years where you could just tell everybody had the same goal and the same mindset,” said Pronger.
    Pronger’s dad, Jim, said his son handled himself rather well considering everything he went through.
    “He took a lot of heat [in regards to the trade request] after leaving Edmonton and everyone tried to make it hard for him this season because of that,” he remarked.
    And despite the off-ice difficulties, Pronger has been lifting the spirits of some Drydenites and giving back to the community over the years. People may not be aware of his work because he likes to keep his donations low key.
    For example, he helped to refurbish the Milestone outdoor rink where he used to strap on his blades as a child.
    “He’s not a real flashy guy, said Chuck Schmitt, a member of the event organizing committee. “He quietly supports the town and it’s awesome.”
    For instance, he took the Cup to visit the patients in the oncology department at the Dryden Regional Health Centre prior to the ceremony at the arena.
    Pronger and “Lord Stanley” greeted 11-year-old leukemia survivor, Taylor Wiedenhoff.
    “It was really neat,” she said. “He’s my favourite.”
    However, she wasn’t referring to Pronger as most would expect. Rather, it was the shiny silver hardware that Wiedenhoff had her eyes on.
    “I’d never seen the Cup before, it was really shiny,” she said.
    And as Pronger himself said later to the crowd at the ceremony, “I know who everyone really came to see, so let’s go admire it.”
    Organizers of the events made quick work of the four-hour timeframe they had to work with the Cup by making sure everyone could see it and touch it.
Their was a two-hour photo session with Pronger and the Cup before they both headed south again.
    By night’s end, Pronger was on a flight back to Anaheim while the Stanley Cup was en route to its next destination in Bemidji, Mn.