Bob Probert is dead. He was only 45 years old. But his life, inside and outside the hockey rink, was that of a person who faced daily challenges on many, many levels. It seemed he was always in some trouble or other with the law. Crossing the U.S./Canada border was not his favourite pastime. But, during his NHL hockey heyday in the late 1980s, Bob Probert was a key component in a Detroit Red Wings’ line-up that finally made some noise after twenty years in the NHL’s basement. And he played with a passion rarely seen today.
Bob Probert had fists of steel. I can’t think of any other way to describe him. After a major junior career in Brantford (Wayne Gretzky’s hometown), Probert was chosen by the Red Wings 46th overall in the 1983 NHL Entry Draft. Probert bounced between the Wings and Adirondack for a season, before he finally made it to the NHL for good in early 1986-87. And, immediately, the entire personality of the Detroit Red Wings changed.
In 1985-86, under Harry Neale and Brad Park, the Red Wings were the absolute worst team in the NHL. 40 points. Just 17 wins. They drafted first overall and chose Joe Murphy. But they also added about seven tons of toughness to their line-up with 21-year old Bob Probert and his 21-year old sidekick Joe Kocur. Now, all the skill and finesse of Steve Yzerman had a little protection. Hmmmm. Make that a lot of protection. Probert (221 PIM), Kocur (276) and Gerard Gallant (216) racked up over 700 penalty minutes! And Gallant scored 38 times! New Wings head coach Jacques Demers had hit the jackpot.
In just one season, the Red Wings went from the outhouse to the Campbell Conference Final against Edmonton. In fact, they went to two consecutive Campbell Conference Finals against the Oilers. In 1987, it was a five-game loss to the Oilers. At least one of the Probert-Kocur-Gallant trio took a penalty in every period of that series except three. But that wouldn’t get them past the Oilers. And neither would staying out too late. The Wings were one series away from the Stanley Cup Final – but Probert just didn’t seem to get it. Coach Demers was furious with Probert. He sat him out a game. And that was Probert’s problem.
He never knew when to throw the switch and shut it down. He revved it up on the ice. He revved it up off it. Heavy drinking and other more serious vices were no stranger to Probie. After nine seasons in Detroit, Probert blew over to Chicago for another seven rough and tumble NHL seasons. 935 career games…163 goals (including 29 in 1987-88)…3,300 penalty minutes (fifth all time behind Tiger Williams, Dale Hunter, Marty McSorley and Tie Domi). Wonder how Probert’s life would have turned out if, instead of Detroit and Chicago, it had been Hartford and Calgary. A little more sedate.
The Twitter world is abuzz with the words “so sad” and “stunned.” I’m neither. Bob Probert struggled with many demons on this earth. The way he had to live his non-hockey life was sad. But he did something in the NHL that few can claim – he pulled a team up by its bootstraps and made them into a contender.
It is a shame he was never able to do it for himself.