Chris Pronger owed his employer, the Edmonton Oilers, his undivided attention every minute he was on the ice. He gave it to them for an average of 27 minutes 59 seconds during the regular season and a staggering 30:57 during an unexpected playoff run that ended with a loss in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals, a grueling two-month stretch during which he was consistently their best player.
He did this while knowing his family was unhappy in Edmonton and that he probably would not stay for the duration of the five-year contract extension he had happily signed after the Oilers acquired him from the St. Louis Blues last summer.
Never did he flinch. When the opposition's top line went over the boards, so did he. He finished every check, finished third in playoff scoring with 21 points in 24 games and brought optimism to a city that hadn't felt so giddy since the end of the Wayne Gretzky era.
Did he also owe Oilers fans an explanation when he asked to be traded, a request that was granted Monday when he was sent to the Ducks for dynamic winger Joffrey Lupul, promising defenseman Ladislav Smid and three prime draft picks?
Does he owe fans in Anaheim an explanation of his motives, or a guarantee that he won't want out of here after one season?
Like all professional athletes, Pronger is a public figure. As such, they are targets of gossip and rumors dug up by someone's cousin's uncle's brother-in-law who absolutely \o7knows\f7 that said athlete did something unseemly or unlawful.
In Pronger's case, blogs and websites in recent weeks have buzzed with allegations that he had an affair with an Edmonton TV reporter and reportedly fathered her unborn baby. Pronger's wife, Lauren, was reported to be furious and, unwilling to face the evidence of his infidelity, demanded that he play elsewhere.
In two conference calls with reporters Monday, Pronger said only that his move was "a personal, private matter."
The questions from Canadian reporters had a wounded, almost accusatory tone. They couldn't fathom why he'd leave a city in which he was adored and where hockey is the only sport that matters. There had to be something more than he was saying.
Pronger wouldn't bite.
The reports, he said, are "factless and baseless ... a crazy rumor, and that's all it is, a rumor."
As for fans' need to know his reasons: "I certainly respect and applaud them for everything they've meant to this season. We had an amazing ride. I want to thank them. This is a family matter and a private matter that certainly doesn't reflect on them or the hockey team or the organization.
"With the Internet and all that it's encompassing, it's pretty easy to throw around a lot of lies and banter, and that's hurtful. I'm a big boy. I've been in the league 13 years. When you start bringing the wives and kids and families into the mix, it's hurtful. That's the unfortunate side.... It's never easy, but I hope over time people can understand this."
Oilers General Manager Kevin Lowe said Pronger's agent, Pat Morris, told him around midseason that the league's former most valuable player had "personal matters" looming. Lowe thought they related to the team's slow start.
"It was always my hope things would change in the second half and the team would have the kind of season we had," said Lowe, a fine defenseman in his day but not of Pronger's caliber. "Usually, when the hockey's good, everything's good, but it turns out that wasn't the case."
Trading Pronger was "the last thing I wanted to do," Lowe said, "not only based on our season, but Chris is a good guy and because he was a good Oiler and because he was a big part of our hockey team."
Sure that Pronger would not retreat, Lowe moved swiftly. He got a future 40-goal scorer in Lupul, a defenseman who's penciled into next season's lineup in Smid, and three chances to replenish the cupboard.
Facing the Ducks with Pronger and Scott Niedermayer "is going to be pretty daunting," Lowe acknowledged, "but St. Louis had [Al] MacInnis and Pronger for a lot of years and they weren't winning championships."
That's the real question. Not why Pronger left Edmonton, but whether he will lift the Ducks to the title they nearly won in 2003 and thought might be theirs this spring until the Oilers stopped them in the West finals.
Elite defensemen have long been considered essential to a Cup winner, but 2004 champion Tampa Bay had no "stud" defenseman and Carolina won this spring with a very ordinary defense corps but great scoring balance.
Maybe the formula for success has changed, but maybe Pronger is so exceptional that he will create a unique brew.
Ducks General Manager Brian Burke, who said Pronger had "retreated to the ground to which he's entitled" in not explaining his trade request, noted that the move "wasn't based on thinking Chris Pronger is the difference" between the Ducks losing to the Oilers or beating them this spring.
"This is a deal we had to do despite the high price," he said.