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A roundup of news on sporting events, people and places in Southeast Michigan by columnist Jim Evans.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Bob Probert: Read it and weep

I like hockey fights.

I mean, I like them more than hockey sticks to the face. I like them more than elbows and shoulders to the head.

There’s no fear of retribution in Gary Bettman’s game today.

There are too many cowards roaming the ice trying to hurt people. 

So I like hockey fights.

That is why I loved what Bob Probert did when he was with the Red Wings.

Few, if any, were tougher. None came galloping over the hill like the charging cavalry when a teammate was in trouble.

I’m reading Bob Probert’s book “Tough Guy. My Life On The Edge.”

I started to get tears in my eyes while reading the prologue called The Last Chapter. It chronicles Probie’s final day, when he succumbed and died while out on the boat with his wife, his in-laws, and his kids.

It had to be awful.

Probert had awfully serious demons, to be sure.

His book takes an unflinching look at all of them.

He drank too much. He took drugs. He was promiscuous. He wasn’t always a nice guy.

But eventually, he was accountable. He owned up and he straightened up. He became a husband and a father and that sort of responsibility will sober a person up quick.

I guess I am writing this as a belated Thank You note.

Thank you for all of those thrills over the years. Sure most of them came on the end of a balled up fist, but so be it.

Probie could also play hockey. Don Cherry points out that in 1988, he scored 29 goals and had 33 assists in 74 games with the Wings. He had 15 power play goals, five game-winners and was plus -16 with 398 penalty minutes. In the playoffs that season, he had eight goals and 13 assists in 16 games.

He helped resurrect hockey in Detroit. When he joined the team, the Red Wings were pretty miserable. Channel 4 sportscaster Al Ackerman used to call them the Dead Things and he was right.

Detroit has been an unapologetically tough town for years, long before Eminem and Chrysler reminded people of that fact. We respect people who work hard, and Probie worked hard when he was on the ice.

Unfortunately, he partied way too hard off of it.

Still, he was a fan favorite.

In the book, Probert recalls his first partial season in the NHL:

“I knew that if I wanted to stay in The Show, I would have to fight all the tough guys, and that is what I did. My third scrap in the NHL came in the first period of a game against the Flyers on December 14. I took on Dave Richter. He was a big southpaw – six foot five, 215. He was just there to fight. I did all right. Obviously you try the best you can to ask the guy to acknowledge that you’re going to fight him so that you don’t jump him. For me, I just want an honest fight. You grab my arm, I grab yours, and we’ll see who wins. That kind of thing. Some guys got dirty. They would pull hair or gouge you eyes. But in general most of the heavyweights in the NHL were pretty good.

“Then I had a scrap with Rick Tocchet … we went at it right in front of the penalty box. I was fighting fair but Tocchet gave me a couple of head butts. I returned the favour, so in the end it turned out to be a pretty fair fight.”

There were lots more fights to follow. His scraps with guys like Toronto’s Tie Domi and New Jersey’s Troy Crowder, are legendary. Pretty soon, Probert became known as the heavyweight champ of the NHL. That’s when all the young guns came gunning for him.

Probert writes about a fight with Dave Semenko, who was playing with Toronto at the time. He accused Semenko of fighting dirty when the Wings and Maple Leafs met earlier in the season.

“The play was in Toronto’s end, and was going to our end. Semenko was the last man to leave his zone, so I hung around. I was ready to return the favour from the last game. He tried to get my shirt off, but I got one arm out and tagged him a couple of times. I knew it was over and stood back, and as the ref came in, Semenko was on one knee. He went to get up, but was hurt, or stunned, and that was pretty much it for him. He didn’t play too many more after that.”

Don’t get the wrong impression. Probert’s book is no fairy tale. It wasn’t co-authored by Mother Goose. The truth is unvarnished. The language can be jagged. There is no happy ending. Imprisonment after being busted at the Tunnel from Windsor to Detroit is never a good line to put on the resume.

It offers unblinking insight. It is a captivating read.

I just wanted to say thanks, Probie. Even if it is belated.


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