As you have read in my opening story, my childhood wasn’t perfect. I had to witness my dad fight for his life, but that instilled in me at a young age gifts that still drive me today. I’m certain my dad would want me to share with others all of these imperfections and challenges that I have faced in life in order to help them navigate through similar obstacles in their life. We live in this hyper-focused social media world where everyone wants to show the best photo and version of themselves. Let me ask you- do you feel better or worse about yourself when someone posts beautiful photos of themselves with their perfect world content attached or do you feel better when someone opens up about their hardships or vulnerabilities that maybe you can learn from or identify with?
Within Well Inspired Travels you will find several pretty photos of the gorgeous wellness travel destinations and all that they offer, as well as photos of us enjoying them. However, behind all of this, I will share the imperfect moments that we feel the utmost responsibility to share with the world about serious issues such as mental health pertaining to concussions, recovery, and the impact this journey of healing has on families. I think some people look at the professional athlete’s life as nothing more than glamorous. As the wife of Chris Pronger, I am at the point in my life where I feel the need to share the journey of our 18 years of marriage and the ups and downs of our personal gifts of imperfection.
Diamonds and Pot Roast Milkshakes
The imperfect journey that has been the greatest gift begins with a little funny story. The night after Chris proposed to me he was playing for the St. Louis Blues in Game 1 Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the San Jose Sharks. They had just won the “President’s Trophy” and were the odds-on favorite to win the cup! Perfection – newly engaged to the love of my life and on the path to winning the Stanley Cup- WOOOHOOO life is grand! So, back to Game 1, true to my love of cooking, as the doting new fiancée, earlier that day I had put a delicious pot roast in the oven prior to leaving for the game to have ready for Chris when he returned home to refuel his body for Game 2. These perfect plans didn’t go as expected when Chris took an errant high stick by Tony Granato in the mouth and had several teeth knocked out. That pot roast didn’t exactly taste as intended when it was dumped into the Vitamix and puréed. (Pot roast milkshake, anyone?)
Taking Care Of Each Other
Fast forward to the summer of 2002. I was very pregnant with our first son Jack. Chris was fresh off of the 2002 season where he had torn his ACL in the playoffs that ended his season. He was also playing with a wrist issue from a previous injury and was going to have surgery on both prior to Jack coming into the world. I was nine months pregnant when Chris had both surgeries, waking up every two hours to replenish the ice for that damn “Game Ready” therapy ice machine. (All you professional athlete wives know all about this machine!!!) I can still hear the annoying beeps in my head when the sensor indicated it was finished or needed new ice.
I’ll never forget the dedication and love Chris had for me at that moment- he had a massive brace on his leg after the ACL surgery and he wouldn’t leave my side. Jack wasn’t exactly the easiest baby to deliver- almost 48 hours! Chris slept on this little pull-out recliner chair for two nights. I remember the length of the chair only reaching Chris’ knees! After two long days at St. John’s Mercy Hospital our little pistol of a son, Jack Hunter Pronger, was born. He now stands taller than his father at 6’7″.
The Call That Changed Everything
Life was really good and almost perfect from the outside looking in. Chris was at the peak of his career. We were blessed with two strong and healthy boys, Jack and George. St. Louis was unwilling to discuss an extension for Chris’ next contract until after the impending lockout in 2004. The NHL lockout happened and this offered Chris even more time to heal his body for many more years of success, domination, and accomplishments on the ice. The Blues were being put up for sale and the current owner wanted to lower their payroll and Chris’ contract put a large dent in that. At this time Chris was an RFA (restricted free agent). The evening of August 2nd, 2005, we were at a dear friend’s 30th birthday celebration when we received a call from Chris’ agent, Pat Morris. He proceeded to tell us that we had been traded to the Edmonton Oilers. With this news, we left the party to attend to bigger issues at hand. This was before Google or smartphones so we drove to Barnes and Noble to check out their travel books. Having never stepped foot in Alberta, we grabbed a few books to learn about this next adventure in life.
We got home around nine and I went to bed while Chris was in the office on a conference call with Pat and Edmonton Oilers General Manager, Kevin Lowe. I went to sleep excited to visit Edmonton and fully embrace the next year’s adventure. I woke up the next morning to Chris telling me, “Lauren, I think I should have included you in a very big decision: I agreed to a 5-year deal in Edmonton.” Obviously, this completely caught me off guard. I wasn’t even given a chance to step foot in the city of Edmonton, nor even be a part of a very large decision about a big chunk of our life and our boys’ childhood. I felt a great deal of disrespect and lack of trust. We have always made life-changing decisions like this together as a unit. After the excitement of the moment, Chris and Pat recognized the contract should never have been signed without involving me. This was a very rocky time in our marriage. Going into that season I felt tremendous resentment and a lack of respect. The Oilers long road trips and many lonely cold winter nights in Edmonton caused a great deal of distance between Chris and myself. I will say this year was probably the closest we came to breaking. I felt so alone and the media in Edmonton ran me through the mud without even knowing my side of the story. Chris, Pat, and Kevin knew the real story and, I believe, felt terrible that my side was never brought to light. I will give Pat Morris the credit – he knew he did me wrong and Chris (who was not only his client but a dear friend) was in a bad place with life off the ice. Pat felt he had to make it right.
A New Chapter
We needed a change and Brian Burke needed a defenseman of Chris’ ilk to put his team, the Anaheim Ducks, over the top. I will be forever grateful to all involved in the changes that took place; 1) Kevin Lowe and the Oilers’ ownership group for understanding how things transpired from day one to all throughout the year. It was an amazing run to the finals on the ice but off the ice, we were struggling as a family unit. 2) Brian Burke (Burkie, one of my all-time favorites, a man that can mesmerize the crowd with his knowledge and storytelling always with the tie untied wrapped around his neck.) 3) Henry and Susan Samueli and the Anaheim Ducks who brought us to the city for a new start for our family to heal (this time the healing was not just Chris’ body) and rebuild. We rebuilt our trust, respect for each other, and found love and laughter again. And with that came Lilah Marie Pronger, an ABSOLUTE GIFT of our imperfect marriage. …Oh, and the Stanley Cup!!!!
Our days in beautiful Southern California came to an end when Chris was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers on June 26th, 2009. Our family embraced this move to the East Coast where the Flyer’s fans in Philly were as passionate and diehard as they come. Chris thrived playing in this environment. We lived in a darling town called Haddonfield, New Jersey where we met so many incredible families and new friends. It was almost picture-perfect! I remember the kids rode their bikes to school. Downtown Haddonfield had a darling main drag with little shops and restaurants. Picture a Norman Rockwell painting of the perfect town and that was our life. Chris was once again on the top of his game, leading in ice time and points, our kids were loving their new school, and I was happy to have everyone including myself settling into a life we loved in Philly.
My Biggest Fears Realized
We had found such a good life and rhythm, then on October 24th, 2011, it all came to an end! The Flyers were playing at home in the Wells Fargo Center against the Toronto Maple Leafs. A deflected puck went off near the corner and Chris went after it the way only he can. Mikhail Grabovski got there first and went to throw it at the net. Chris reacted and put his stick out to deflect the puck over the net but Grabovski’s stick released up towards Chris’ face and he was struck in the eye. As the stick began to move towards his face Chris realized this was going to happen so he moved quickly and with that the stick hit him directly in the eye, missing all his facial bones and the brunt of the stick directly hitting Chris’ eyeball. He had a small cut on his eyebrow that took three stitches to close but that was it as far outward damage. He had extensive trauma to his eye and a concussion that would go undiagnosed as we were all terribly worried about his eye. A lot of the issues early on were thought to be because of the eye and thus most of the tests were eye-related. As time went on this would change.
From my eyes, it was a typical Monday night at our home in South Jersey. We weren’t at the game because George wasn’t feeling well. I will never forget these moments. I had just finished getting Jack out of the shower. He scurried off to watch the hockey game in the other room while I had George and Lilah in the bathtub. I could hear Jack screaming and running down the hallway, “MOMMY, MOMMY come to the TV it’s daddy and daddy’s eye!” I quickly plopped George and Lilah out of the tub and raced off with Lilah in my arms shaking for what I was about to see I nearly dropped her.
There it was: everything I had always feared, my warrior down on the ice with his face to the ice kicking and flailing his legs in excruciating pain. These seconds go so slow… I remember crying out loud “Dear God please don’t say he has lost his eye! Come on baby pick up your head so I can make sure you’re ok!” I was crying and couldn’t hold it together, the kids were crying! The trainers whisked Chris off the ice and it was apparent from the TV it was his right eye with a towel covering half his face. The phone was ringing off the hook. The Flyers’ trainer called me and told me to sit tight while they assess the situation. They had a hard time even getting a peek at the eye because Chris was in so much pain and of course the last thing Chris wanted was a bright light in his injured eye. Once they calmed Chris down and got him to the hospital the doctors simply placed drops in his eye and bandaged it with a shield. It was a situation of watchful waiting to see if there is serious vision damage. They couldn’t tell much until the massive blood hematoma in the corner of the right eye dissipated and healed.
With that, we were told that he should get plenty of rest over the next week and then be re-evaluated. There were a lot of pills. Chris lived in our dark bedroom for a solid week. This is the part that I would like to forget forever. When Chris would get up to use the bathroom he couldn’t keep his balance to walk just ten feet. I would literally have to guide him and carrying a lot of his weight to the bathroom and stand by his side the whole time until I got him back to the bed. It was either he was going to collapse or vomit. Many times he began to buckle at the knees until we just barely made it back to the bed.
More Than An Eye Injury – More Than A Concussion
I knew Chris had several concussions in his past, but being the warrior he was he never complained or discussed it much and it certainly wasn’t discussed with his teammates, coaches, or training staff. This was the era where Chris and his teammates would almost fail their baseline concussion tests so that when they seemed a bit dazed and confused they would pass the quick check and get back out on the ice. In the past, Chris would tell me how he would play many games just seeing bright lights the whole game. One time in a playoff game against the LA Kings, while he was in St. Louis, he took a nondescript hit and was out for a second. They both fell to the ice during the hit and thankfully it was right by the bench. He collected himself quickly without anyone noticing what had transpired. Once he got off the ice he told me had two bright white lights affecting his vision and played the rest of the game that way. He relied on his peripheral vision to see for the remainder of the game. After these games he usually would rebound with no complaints- he just wanted to be back on the ice! It drove him nuts to miss any games! The recovery and rebound were different this time, he was nowhere close to getting back on the ice. We had several doctor appointments, therapists, and meetings with the Flyers training staff. I knew Chris wasn’t right and I know he knew it! Then there were more pills.
Eventually, Chris wanted to try and play again because he always lived and played by the motto “mind over matter.” Fifteen days later, on Wednesday, November 9th, 2011, he geared up and laced the skates back up to return to the ice. He had spent nine days in bed then two days where he was allowed to walk around the block, then skated once on his own. After which the following day he practiced with the team then played the next day. It all seemed so rushed and a lot of his issues were being chalked up to his eye injury such as dizziness and nauseous feelings after skating and exerting himself. These were hands down the worst moments of my life watching Chris so dazed and confused on the ice.
Chris’ Last Game On Ice
In all the years I watched my husband play he dominated the game! He controlled every play on the ice, calming things down when necessary and escalating things when it was warranted. He always knew where everybody was on the ice and who was on the ice and who was coming out next onto the ice. He was totally immersed in the games when he was playing. Chris was born with this gift and now it was gone. We all knew it! Saturday, November 19th vs the Winnipeg Jets was his last NHL game. His symptoms were getting worse and now even he felt he was in danger of getting hurt. That was officially Chris’ last NHL game. It broke his heart, my heart, our kid’s hearts, his parent’s hearts, and the Flyer fans’ hearts. Chris wasn’t able to walk away from the game on his own terms, but it was the right choice. I will forever be grateful for Ed Snider, who sadly passed away on April 11th, 2016, for the respect he showed my family. He admired the way Chris played like the good old boys back in the “Broad Street Bully” days. Ed was a passionate owner that was driven to win! As much as he knew Chris was the key to success and a winning season he also knew it was the right thing to do. After many meetings and reviewing all Chris’ doctor’s notes Ed brought us in and through protective and loving eyes told Chris his hockey career was over. At this time my mother was also diagnosed with breast cancer and my father was slowly dying from a severe stroke. Ed released us to go back to St. Louis so that I could care for Chris and both my ailing parents. To Ed up in Heaven and his family, please know my sincerest and humbling gratitude for you not only protecting my husband in knowing it was the right time for Chris to walk away from the game and for you giving me the opportunity to be in St. Louis by my dying father’s side during the last three months of his life. You were such a great man, friend, and trusted confidant!
At this point, I’m going to turn my computer over to Chris to share his recovery with you. Even though as his wife and our children have walked this journey with him it has also been very personal and I think it’s only best to hear these steps straight from Chris…
Chris’ Story In His Own Words
I have sustained a number of concussions and when I first started playing at a higher level there wasn’t such a term as a concussion. We commonly called them a stinger, seeing stars or getting your bell rung. This one was different as it had another element to it. The eye trauma I sustained made this one a totally different animal. Bright lights bothered me tremendously. I would get nauseous when driving my car. I wore sunglasses at night while driving so the oncoming car lights wouldn’t aggravate my eyes. I always had a second sense on the ice that someone was near me or inbound- I no longer had that feeling. I used to be able to sense someone coming around the corner as I walked throughout my house. Now, I would routinely get startled by my wife and kids. One time my son, Jack, came running around the corner in our house and jokingly jumped out to scare me and I was on the verge of throwing punches at him as it completely unglued my senses. There were so many more moments like this.
In terms of recovery and healing treatments, I saw a few doctors, but I am a firm believer in the one doctor or therapist approach. I want to know what is working and I’ve found if I have too many at play I cannot determine which approach is making the most impact. As I started to see some traction in my mental wellness I began to attack my eye issues. My eye was blurry and it took us a while to figure out why I was getting headaches after reading. Well, the blurred vision was forcing my eye to continually try and focus which when reading is pretty important hence the reason I wear glasses now.
People often ask me how I am doing? I am doing much better today and so grateful to report this. My eyes do get tired much faster and when they are tired and have had enough I know I am done and need to take a break. I try to eat properly and take care of my body. After 14 surgeries I need to make sure I continue to lift and stay as strong as possible. Lauren and I are firm believers in nourishing the mind, body, and soul with more holistic healing therapies. I have learned so much from her and how to continue on the path of recovery through implementing very simple therapies and clean eating. I am still a little light-sensitive, loud noises bother me, but overall these issues are all manageable and I am grateful to be able to live a full life.
There will always be effects of the concussion, but I now know ways to avoid triggers. My eyes get tired much faster and my eyes are very light sensitive so I always have my sunglasses with me. I manage my head issues by making sure I don’t overexert myself, yet continue to push myself in that regard so that I continually push my limits. I will forever be grateful to the ones that got me to the place I am today; my wife, children, trainers, doctors, and many more.
Hidden Gifts in the Imperfections
Chris and I feel it is our responsibility at this point in our imperfect journey in life to share these gifts of vulnerability. Our whole family walked the dark days of recovery with Chris during and after his professional hockey career. We were never going to give up on him. I read numerous books, met with doctors and specialists in the field, and even went back to school to learn the best ways to help Chris heal. I understand what it’s like in the thick of it all – and it’s a feeling families of pro athletes know too well. For those wives, girlfriends, and children: we are here for you! Please reach out and share with us. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I do know when someone listens to what you are battling and has walked that road too we all learn from each other and in that there is a great comfort. I remember crying as I laid my head on Chris’ chest hugging him silently praying to God please make him whole, healthy and strong again. I need the leader of our home team to help raise these children in the world with me. I want to share the blessings and gifts with others that are in the eye of the storm with their loved one knowing we made it! It has been imperfect and flawed at many times, but we have found something pretty darn close to our own version of perfection today. I know there will be many more hurdles in life, but what we went through as a family has given us the gift of overcoming adversity. One of our favorite family quotes is “The comeback is always stronger than the setback!” So, I encourage you to find those hidden gifts in the imperfections you face in life. If you don’t embrace them in this manner you will miss a great opportunity to grow.
Wishing you good health and happiness always! – Lauren