There was a familiar face at the Air Canada Centre on Thursday with the Philadelphia Flyers in town, albeit one wearing glasses and a suit and sporting a thick playoff-like beard.
Future Hall of Famer Chris Pronger had made a rare trip with the team to watch them take on the Toronto Maple Leafs and conduct some off-ice business in the city, giving the hockey world a rare glimpse at his progress and recovery.
Pronger remains out indefinitely with concussion symptoms, and at age 38 and with four years remaining on his contract, it’s widely expected he’ll never play in the league again.
But he has found a role with the Flyers as a mentor, taking Luke Schenn in particular under his wing and showing him some of the things he learned over an impressive 1,167-game career.
It appears to be paying off.
Schenn had perhaps his best game yet as a Flyer this week against his former team, logging nearly 26 minutes in a 5-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs as the anchor to a beaten up Philadelphia defence.
After averaging just 16 minutes a game last season in Toronto, he has been leaned on hard by Flyers coach Peter Laviolette, who has used him often on the top pair with Kimmo Timonen in a role that has worked well.
Still just 23 years old, Schenn credits some of his turnaround this season to Pronger, as the former Hart and Norris winner has recovered enough from his concussion symptoms to go over video and offer tips to the youngster.
“He’s been helping me out since the start of training camp,” Schenn said. “He always checks up on me, and it’s a real luxury to get his help. After the last game, he came and sat with me on the plane and we watched some video and he showed me a bunch of things.
“A lot of these things, probably the best coaches couldn’t pick up, just because he’s a future Hall of Fame guy and won at every level. He just has a lot of little tips that a guy like Chris Pronger can only give you.”
Pronger’s advice, Schenn explained, has ranged from defensive positioning to how and where to use his stick as part of battles in front of the net.
“I’ve still got a ton to learn,” Schenn said.
This hasn’t been an easy season for the Flyers overall, who are sitting in 11th in the Eastern Conference even after rattling off four straight wins and will likely need a very strong finish to make the playoffs.
Schenn’s steady play, however, has been one of team’s pleasant surprizes, as he has been able to log big minutes many nights and not look out of place.
Whether he would ever get to that point was always a point of debate in Toronto, as he made the Leafs at just 18 years old and alternated between flashes of being a solid stay-at-homer and signs he may top out as a third pairing defenceman.
By the end, he appeared to have grown frustrated with the environment with the Leafs, one that was often filled with losing and never-ending questions over the team’s poor goals against average.
While things have since turned around in Toronto and the player they acquired from the Flyers (James van Riemsdyk) has played a key role, Schenn has found a home in Philadelphia playing with his brother, Brayden, and further from the spotlight of being a fifth overall pick for a franchise with so few highly selected prospects.
“You know, sometimes a change is good,” Schenn said when asked if he feels better about his game than in his years in Toronto. “Last year was a little bit tough. I came in as a young guy and obviously there were a lot of expectations and pressure and I think when the team doesn’t always win individuals are going to get blamed.
“I think that’s part of it. And also you’re never going to be fully developed, especially as a defenceman at a young age. I’m happy here in Philly. I’ve got nothing but great memories of Toronto and I’m very grateful of the opportunity I had.”