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    Sunday, February 1, 1998

    Captain Crunch's time has come

    By LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun
      (This is Part 15 in a series of Team Canada hockey profiles which will appear daily in the Sun leading up to the Winter Olympics next month in Nagano)
     
     TORONTO -- Chris Pronger's journey to Nagano started last spring in Helsinki.
     That's where the behemoth Blues defenceman headed to join Team Canada at the world championships after St. Louis was up-ended by Detroit in the playoffs.
     "They wanted to see how I did on the big ice," said the 6-foot-5 Pronger, who'll be the youngest participant on the team in February as well as one of the biggest. "The rink is wider. There's more room in the corners. You have to play under control. You can't go running around, wasting energy. It's more containment than anything else."
     Pronger, a native of Dryden and graduate of the NHL factory that is the Peterborough Petes, obviously passed the test with flying colors. Canada won gold and Pronger came home to be named the 16th captain in Blues history at age 23.
     His inclusion on Team Canada's defence in Nagano, the position that's caused all the hand wringing since the World Cup defeat, should mute much of the criticism that this country isn't producing enough top-calibre two-way blueliners
     Al MacInnis, Pronger's present and future teammate in Japan, says his young contemporary should excel when the shooting starts in Japan.
     "The way he's played the last couple of years, his development has been second to none as far as young defencemen go," MacInnis said. "With his skating, stride and reach, he'll be very effective in the European game. It's certainly not a surprise to me that he made it."
     Pronger came into this season already the Blues leader at plus-15 with NHL highs in goals (11), points (35) and penalty minutes 143.
     As of this week, he leads the league with a plus-29 ranking, with three defencemen; Larry Murphy, Teppo Numminen and Darryl Sydor, in hot pursuit. He has 29 points, within 10 of league blue-line leaders Nick Lidstrom, Scott Niedermayer and Sergei Zubov.
     Pronger has quickly embraced the captain's C as demonstrated by a few fiery post-game words after the team blew a 3-0 lead and lost 4-3 to Montreal in overtime. Mostly, he lets the older Blues carry the dressing-room speeches and sticks to on-ice business, but his words carried weight that evening.
     "A few points have to be made to to get the guys refocused," he explained.
     He also shone in a 4-3 victory earlier this month over Calgary, which just happens to be coached by the Blues' most inspirational captain, Brian Sutter.
     After taking five penalties in a loss to the Red Wings the game before, Pronger almost single-handedly picked up the Blues with a goal and assist, correcting the scorer who'd mistakenly awarded Pavol Demitra's game winner to him.
     Pronger had noticed his goal deflecting off Demitra's skate en route to the net.
     Pronger wasn't always a rock of Gibraltar, in fact a recent Sports Illustrated feature on his rise to prominence began by listing his off-ice troubles. Pronger was the second overall selection in the '93 draft and found the dizzying world of the NHL quite a leap, especially with a struggling team such as Hartford.
     He was arrested for participating in a team bar room brawl, for drunk driving and came to St. Louis highly resented for supplanting fan favorite Brendan Shanahan in one of Mike Keenan's most unpopular trades.
     He cared little about conditioning in those days, but has since acquired a personal trainer and transformed into one of the most feared players in the game. Now he goes by the name Captain Crunch.
     "Once I came to grips with things," Pronger said, "got my head screwed on and figured out what I wanted to do, I didn't want to be average."
     That will become quickly evident on the world stage in Nagano.
     
     CHRIS PRONGER
     Defenceman
     HEIGHT: 6-feet-5
     WEIGHT: 220 lbs.
     HISTORY: Was chosen second overall by Hartford in 1993 draft. Was traded to the Blues in the summer of 1995 for Olympic teammate Brendan Shanahan.