SUN Hockey Pool

Homeward-bound

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 7:50 AM ET

DETROIT -- He wasn't born in the Show Me State, but Chris Pronger grew up there. Not only as a hockey player, but as a young man.

It's no surprise, then, tonight marks a significant homecoming for Pronger, who will file out of the visitor's dressing room with the Edmonton Oilers and face the St. Louis Blues for the first time since Aug. 2, when he was traded for Eric Brewer, Jeff Woywitka and Doug Lynch.

Memories? Just a few.

"It's where I grew up from a boy to a man, really," says Pronger, who spent 10 seasons with the Blues.

It's not the 598 games Pronger played wearing the Bluenote that stand out for the lanky native of Dryden, Ont. It's the span of time from the first game to the last - that thing called life - that sticks with him.

Pronger, 31, was just 20 when he showed up at Mike Keenan's doorstep after being acquired from the Hartford Whalers in July 1995 in a trade that sent Brendan Shanahan the other way.

Wife Lauren, a St. Louis girl, and sons Jack and George hadn't come along yet. Neither had the Hart Trophy as MVP, the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenceman, the all-star nods or the 2002 Olympic gold medal.

FIVE-YEAR CONTRACT

Of course, neither had the new CBA or Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe, toting the five-year contract worth $31.25 million Pronger inked to come to The City of Champions.

"I met my wife there," Pronger said. "We had our children there. We had a number of great years. I enjoyed my time there.

"Obviously, there's some mixed emotions coming back and there's some butterflies, but at the same time, I have to treat it as another game and go out and play the way I know how."

Pronger, who had 124 games with Hartford under his belt when the trade to St. Louis was made, remembers his first season in Missouri rather vividly, to understate. He wasn't exactly greeted with open arms.

While Pronger made the NHL's all-rookie team with Hartford in 1993-94 after being drafted second overall from the Peterborough Petes of the OHL in 1993, Blues fans weren't particularly impressed with him, especially with the popular and prolific Shanahan going the other way.

"My first year was kind of a push, shall we say," Pronger said. "It was brought up an awful lot who I was traded for. Being booed and all that stuff, I was kind of on my own there for awhile. It was hard at times."

Then, there was Keenan.

"It seemed like I was in his office almost between every period and after every game," laughs Pronger. "There wasn't a week or two that went by when I wasn't told I could be traded at any time.

"He can be hard on you, but he's trying to get you to realize your talent. He'll break you down and try to build you back up. He pushes you to be the best that you can be."

Pronger, of course, outlasted Iron Mike and had long been considered one of the NHL's elite defenceman when the engraver put his name on the Hart and Norris in 2000.

Now, just months removed from the trade to Edmonton, it goes without saying Pronger will have friends in the home dressing room tonight at the Savvis Centre.

"There's lots of people I'll see in the morning," he said.

"I know where all of the hiding spots in that rink are. I'll spend some time saying hello to some people, but we've got a hockey game to play."

SAPPY STUFF

Forget cliches like, "I almost went into the wrong dressing room" and stuff like that. Pronger knows who pays his salary and what room he belongs in now. That sappy stuff just isn't his style.

"Like with everything else, there comes a time to move on," Pronger said. "I'm with Edmonton now. I'm enjoying it and happy to be an Oiler, so it would be extra-special to win this one."


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