Chris Pronger’s eyes rolled into the back of his head. His teammate, Brett Hull, waved frantically for help. The zamboni door opened and here came the paramedics, rushing a stretcher for the St. Louis Blues defenseman.
Was this really happening again? Five months earlier, Detroit sports fans saw a frantic scene as Reggie Brown, a Detroit Lions rookie linebacker, suffered a neck injury at the Pontiac Silverdome in a game against the New York Jets. He nearly died on the field. Here, at Joe Louis Arena on May 10, 1998, the horror was unfolding again as Pronger lay unconscious.
It didn’t matter that Pronger was a despised villain from a rival team. Sure, the 6-foot-5 nasty defenseman took liberty with any Red Wings player he chose. But in this eery moment in Game Two of the second round playoffs, he received the concern of even the most diehard Detroit fans.
The incident happened in the third period, with the Wings ahead 4-1. Pronger was busy cross-checking Martin Lapointe in front of the St. Louis net, then glided forward to challenge a slap shot from Dmitri Mironov.
Thud! The puck struck him directly in the center of the chest, right upon the Blues emblem. Pronger, who was a healthy 23 years old and easily logged 30-plus minutes a night, dropped to his knees upon impact. He rose from the ice, took a few strides, then slumped to the surface.
His heart stopped.
The medics ripped open his jersey, concerned he would need to be revived with CPR. The Joe Louis Arena crowd – which was rocking in the second period on three Red Wings goals – was suddenly pin-drop silent.
“I hate to say it, but the last thing on your mind is a hockey game,” Wings defenseman Marc Bergevin said to the L.A. Times. “He’s a human being laying there. It was scary.”
Some fans thought back to Lions receiver Chuck Hughes, who died on the Tiger Stadium field in 1971. Or Hank Gathers, a college basketball player who died on the court for Loyola Marymount in 1990.
Pronger, thankfully, had fate on his side and regained consciousness. “My parents are in the stands … tell them I’m OK,” said Pronger, according to mitchalbom.com. He was loaded into an ambulance wearing a neck brace, similar to how we saw Brown five months prior. It was a moment that proved the irrelevance of winning and losing in the grand scheme of a game called life.
“I was thinking about that kid in western Canada who got hit in the chest and died,” Steve Yzerman told Mitch Albom in reference to Graham Christie, a Saskatchewan junior hockey player who perished in November of 1997. “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.”
You wonder if sports – with 95-mph slap shots, 100-mph fastballs and car-crash tackles – are really worth their dangers. Pronger spent the night at Henry Ford Hospital. Amazingly, he was on the ice two days later for Game Three in St. Louis. He’s fortunate his life didn’t end, and it’s a reminder that the dislike for a villian is never genuine.