Sunday, 10 August 2014

Review: "Journeyman", by Sean Pronger

As he often derides himself, Sean Pronger is famous for having a little brother, namely Chris.  Even though Sean as an NHL player measured in at 6'3" and 220 lbs, he had to look up at his 6'6" brother, literally and in terms of their respective hockey achievements.  His good grace in dealing with his lot and the constant comparisons are evident throughout his memoir "Journeyman: The Many Triumphs (And Even More Numerous Defeats) of a Guy Who's Seen Just About Everything In the Game of Hockey", which he co-wrote with his friend Dan Murphy of Sportsnet fame.

The book is a thoroughly enjoyable read, and delivers on the promise of an insider's look at the world of the fringe NHL player, with the trades and demotions to the minors and recalls, the anxious summers waiting for a contract and the toll it takes on a player's psyche and on his family life.  While the subject is dealt with frankly, it's also a humourous account, with many self-deprecating potshots.  Mr. Pronger doesn't deal in 'Woe is me.'  He is very aware that even the life of a minor-league hockey player is pretty good, considering he's getting paid very well to play a game he loves.

There is a foreword by Brian Burke, in which he recounts that he had a hand in drafting both Sean (with Vancouver) and Chris (with Hartford), and that this makes him "one for two".  Having gotten that witticism out of the way, Burkie is highly complimentary of the character, the person that is Sean Pronger, and also the type of fully-committed player he was.

The authors launch right into the tale, starting with a vignette from Mr. Pronger's time in the ECHL playing for Knoxville.  We then flash back to his draft day, his time at Bowling Green in the NCAA, his graduation and subsequent halting start to his pro hockey career.

While reading, I was forced to compare this book to a similar work I read recently, "Tales of a First-Round Nothing" by Terry Ryan, and can say that without question "Journeyman" is a much stronger effort.  It's a much more readable, coherent account, and delivers on what the reader wants, which is what happened, when and how did it happen, and why did it happen.  We get a much fuller picture and more satisfying read from Mr. Pronger than we do from Mr. Ryan.

I suspect much credit should go to co-author Dan Murphy, who among other duties acts as between-periods host of Canucks telecasts.  While he is not the wordsmith and jokester that co-host Don Taylor is, he is an able and knowledgeable reporter and media person, and very well-spoken.  Putting two heads together on this project must certainly have helped the final results.

Another reason this is a better read is that Sean Pronger confronts his lack of success in the NHL head-on, realistically describing his 'low ceiling' and how his game was centred on effort rather than talent.  Further, he is a more sympathetic figure than Terry Ryan, possibly because we get a sense that he expended every effort, on the ice and off, and during the off-season, to make a career for himself.  "Journeyman" is replete with stories of working out before and after practices, during games when he was a healthy scratch, and over the summer.  All of this is notably absent from Mr. Ryan's book.

Further, Sean Pronger probably has better tactics than Mr. Ryan, in how he listens to his agent, and how he approaches the game, and his coaches when he wants more ice-time and opportunities.  In comparison, Mr. Ryan tells how he clashed with his coach, and his efforts to impress are limited to pugilism with the other teams' heavyweights.  It does seem that Sean Pronger had a clearer plan of what he needed to do, and while he doesn't entirely succeed, he does eke out a decade-long pro hockey career.

There are many insights in the book on how a borderline NHL'er deals with teammates, veterans, newcomers.  He explains the weird situation in the AHL whereby he goes to war every game with his teammates, yet is in constant competition with them, jockeying for position while they await the next recall or at training camp.  He has a few brushes with greatness, notably playing with Wayne Gretzky on the Rangers, and with Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya with the Ducks.

On a topical note, he was in the Canucks' lineup the night Todd Bertuzzi assaulted Steve Moore.  I imagine he might be called as a witness by the Canucks/Marc Crawford/Todd Bertuzzi in these proceedings, as his comments on the matter play well in their favour.  Anyone wanting to know more about what happened that night will certainly get one clear perspective by reading his book.

Another interesting chapter deals with his experience in Europe, playing with Frankfurt in the German First Division.  We tend to think of players going to Europe getting paid generously, with other compensation like housing and a car being supplied by the team, and playing in a less-intense league, a semi-retirement, semi-vacation.  His memories are not that rosy, and we come to understand that some situations are not ideal, which is informative when we think back to Max Pacioretty's experience in Switzerland during Gary Bettman's Third Lockout.  Some of what Max was up against sounds very similar to what Mr. Pronger recounts.

There are many, many other reasons to read this book, such as his time playing for Pat Burns with the Bruins, or his time in the Canucks' system playing for the Manitoba Moose in Winnipeg.  His anecdote in the bar with Kevin Bieksa and Sergei Fedorov's 'little' brother Fedor is hilarious.  Even though the reader knows there is no ultimate payoff, no Cinderella ending, the pages fly by.

I have no hesitation in recommending "Journeyman", it's an engrossing, rewarding read, and helps the average fan fill in the picture regarding what the fourth-liner with the one-year, two-way contract goes through.

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