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Stars of draft quandary share ice

On their only road trip together, Chris Gratton and Chris Pronger stayed up talking until 1 a.m. like two anxious siblings the night before a trip to Disney World.

Both thought they might be going.

Meanwhile in another part of Quebec City, unknown to the teenagers, Tampa Bay Lightning scouts were haggling past midnight, deciding which promising hockey star would play closest to the Magic Kingdom.

Such was the scene the night before the 1993 NHL Entry Draft.

The rest is history. Hartford maneuvered to take Pronger, the big defenseman, giving up other draft picks for San Jose's No.

2 slot. Tampa Bay, saved from certain agony, simply chose the best available Chris _ Gratton, the big forward _ with its No.

3 pick.

As the namesakes face off tonight for the third time in their rookie seasons, the June drama that linked them remains fresh.

"The night before we argued and argued until I finally said _ it must have been 1 a.m. _ "It's late enough, we will make that decision tomorrow. Maybe San Jose will either pick Gratton or Pronger. Why don't we just wait and we'll call a timeout if they don't,' " Lightning general manager Phil Esposito said.

He knows what would have happened if Hartford hadn't traded up from its No. 6 pick and San Jose hadn't chosen a Chris. "A big fight would have broken out at the table _ a huge fight," Esposito said. "We had three or four guys who really wanted Pronger, and some of us other people wanted Gratton. Ultimately I would have decided."

And the choice? "I don't know," Esposito said. "You couldn't go wrong; the only difference was that we had drafted a defenseman the first year (Roman Hamrlik) who we think is going to be a hell of a player, which is maybe why we went with the forward. It was an easy thing in the end."

Actually, it was easy on both ends. Gratton, 18, and Pronger, 19, are virtual mirror images of each other, flourishing in their respective positions. Both have played in every game this season. Both have a relentless, physical style, drawing from their similar body frames (Gratton is 6 feet 4, 200 pounds, Pronger is 6-5, 190).

The two starred for rival teams in the Ontario Hockey League last year _ Gratton for Kingston and Pronger for Peterborough _ and according to Gratton, they have been going after each other since.

As a defenseman, Pronger has four goals _ one last Saturday against the Lightning _ and 19 assists. Gratton, at center, is third on the team in points, with 38. Both have proved indispensable.

"He's worked out really well for us," Esposito said. "He's going to be a great player in this league."

Up north, choosing Pronger has paid off.

"We needed to improve tremendously defensive-wise," Hartford coach Pierre Maguire said. "We needed to be able to compete night in and night out with solid defense, and we are able to do that with Chris.

"He has really matured very well for a 19-year-old kid. He is breaking into what is arguably the toughest position in sports and he has just gained a lot more confidence and has become more physical."

Some evidence of Pronger's impact? At this point last year, Hartford was 36 points out of contention for a playoff spot. Now, the Whalers are 14 points away. Even if they are out, they can prepare for next year.

Every goal now is like a penny into the piggy bank, which is why Pronger's presence on the ice during those times is counted.

"On a team like ours that is very young, it's very exciting to have a plus-record for this year," Maguire said.

Management is happy. But what about Pronger, who had hoped last June to be living in some warm climate? Anaheim, Miami and Tampa Bay expressed the most interest, which pleased Pronger, considering he lists such hobbies in the Whalers' media guide: baseball, fishing and, like Gratton, golf and beach volleyball.

"Yeah, I've been known to like those things," Pronger admitted. "But Hartford's all right. It's been a good experience for me. It's pretty laid-back here, and I live in a place (Avon, Conn.) that's a lot like my home in Canada (Dryden, Ontario)."

Said Gratton: "For sure, it (Tampa Bay) was both of our top choices. But I'm really happy I'm here. Personally, I couldn't have imagined myself playing anywhere else."

Pronger can't complain when his salary is a three-year deal with a one-year option _ like Gratton's _ and is worth $7-million, about two times Gratton's salary.

But Pronger doesn't concern himself with those numbers. He expects more from himself on the ice. "It's been an up-and-down season for me. But it is good to be in the NHL. The first 40 games I needed to establish myself and learn the NHL style."

Pronger has eagerly confronted Gratton, whether checking forcefully when necessary or just chatting before a game. "Chris told me to call him to do something when the (Lightning) got in town. I probably will," Pronger said.

After all, they're in the same city again. The city, coincidentally, that hosts the 1994 NHL entry draft. Perhaps the stage for yet another drama featuring hockey's youngest phenom.