Chris Pronger is hockey royalty, escorted into the NHL while still a teenager as a prelude to a career filled with at least one achievement that eluded even the great Wayne Gretzky.
Shawn Thornton, meanwhile, had no such red-carpet ride. Drafted as a seventh-round afterthought, he brawled his way into the NHL one punch at a time.
This past June, Pronger and Thornton joined the Panthers organization. Pronger, 43, is the senior adviser to the president of hockey operations. Thornton, 40, was hired as vice president of business operations.
Pronger and Thornton — together with 42-year-old Bryan McCabe, who in June was promoted to director of player personnel — form what could be the future of Panthers management.
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All three are natives of Ontario and are in the early stages of their second careers after their playing days as rugged and defensive-minded NHL players.
“There is certainly a bond among us,” Pronger said of Thornton and McCabe. “It’s nice to have that up-and-coming group in the executive suite.”
LEARNING ON THE GO
McCabe, a 6-2, 220-pound defenseman in his playing days, was a second-round Islanders pick in 1993 — the same year Pronger was selected second overall.
Pronger and McCabe were teammates while playing for Team Canada in the 1997 World Championships, winning gold. They were also teammates in the 2006 Olympics when Canada was upset in the quarterfinals.
After retiring from the NHL in 2011, McCabe went to work for the Panthers, spending five years in player development.
“I love it,” McCabe said. “There’s nothing better than seeing a kid you’ve worked with get called up and score his first NHL goal.”
McCabe, who would love to run his own team someday, continues to soak up knowledge from Panthers GM Dale Tallon, whom he considers a mentor.
“Dale wants good people around him who played the game,” McCabe said. “When he hired me, I didn’t realize what it took to put a team on the ice in terms of the salary cap and projecting your team two, three, four years in advance.
“As a player, it was more, ‘grab your skates and go.’ I had no idea, for example, that a franchise can only have 50 players under contract. I’ve been learning on the go.”
Predicting when a young player will truly be ready for the NHL is an art McCabe is trying to master.
He has put a lot of sweat equity into the project, flying around the world to see Panthers prospects.
McCabe has made a handful of trips to Canada to work with 2017 first-round pick Owen Tippett, who is playing for the Mississauga Steelheads.
The two recently went over a multitude of skill sets — on the ice and in the video room — with the blessing of the Steelheads’ coaching staff.
“We worked on chipping and chasing, getting in on the d-man’s hands, shooting the puck. … Every shot doesn’t have to be top cheese,” said McCabe, stressing to Tippett that hitting the net was more important than trying to be too fine.
“I think I got more of a workout than he did. I was dying.”
Like McCabe, Pronger aspires to be a GM someday.
Unlike McCabe and Thornton, Pronger didn’t play for the Panthers. But he knew Panthers alternate governor Peter Luukko from the time both were in the Philadelphia Flyers organization.
Pronger, a 6-6, 220-pound defenseman during his playing days, is one of just 27 players to win at least one Stanley Cup, one Olympic gold medal and one World Championship. Not even Gretzky can make that claim.
But Pronger had to retire after his last game in November 2011. He had suffered three concussions in his career as well as a serious injury to his right eye when he was hit by an opponent’s stick.
Pronger said he still deals with the repercussions of those injuries.
“I’m as healthy as I’m going to be,” he said. “I deal with bright-light flashes. Loud noises behind me agitate me. My eye is a bigger issue than my head. I just have to manage what I do.”
Despite those issues, Pronger has a lot to offer the game. In 2000, he was the first NHL defenseman since Bobby Orr in 1972 to win league MVP honors.
As a player, Pronger made it his business to find out why certain personnel moves were made. Now he is doing the same thing but under the expert mentorship of Tallon.
“As a player, you take [a trade] personally,” Pronger said. “But you learn early on that this is business. You gain an appreciation of why trades are made.”
Pronger said his role is to be Tallon’s “right-hand man,” a duty list that touches on everything that happens on the personnel side.
Tallon has encouraged Pronger to speak out and give dissenting viewpoints if that’s how he feels.
Pronger’s next project is to learn more about amateur scouting and the draft.
“It’s not about who is the best player on draft day,” Pronger said, “but who projects the best for the future.
“As a player, you always want to win now, ‘trade whatever.’ But on this side of things, we’re building for the long haul. You have to let your prospects mature.”
HE’S ALL BUSINESS
Thornton, a 6-2, 217-pounder during his playing days known mostly as a fourth-line winger, enforcer and fighter, was Pronger’s teammate when they won a Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007.
In 2011, Thornton won his second Stanley Cup, this time with the Boston Bruins.
And even though he scored just 42 career goals, Thornton was a popular teammate and spent his final three seasons with the Panthers, retiring last year at 40.
Thornton said he doesn’t want to be a GM.
“Who knows where this will take me, but, for now, I want to learn everything about the business side,” said Thornton, who had 265 career fights in the NHL and AHL. “After playing all those years, I have a pretty good idea about the player-development side.
“A lot of players go into that side because it’s easier. But I wanted to challenge myself. I want to learn every little thing from spread sheets to corporate sponsorships and marketing. That stuff really interests me.”
As part of the Panthers’ efforts to grow the game, Thornton has helped stage hockey clinics in non-traditional markets, including a trip to Barbados this past August.
Thornton, who was there with Panthers defensemen Ian McCoshen and Alex Petrovic, was asked if the kids viewed him in awe.
“Alex and Ian are two big guys. You put them on skates, and you could see the looks on the kids’ faces,” Thornton said. “With me, the kids probably thought I was just some fat guy working with the team.”
His self-deprecating sense of humor aside, those hockey clinics are as close to the ice as Thornton prefers these days.
During Florida’s first exhibition game this season, Thornton expected to get that itch to play again.
“I was watching warm-ups, and that’s when my juices usually started flowing,” he said. “But I was in Club Lexus (at the BB&T Center), eating a cannoli and drinking a coffee.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m in the right place. I don’t miss it at all.’ ”