The hockey world has lost its top heavyweight.
Bob Probert, who fought nearly as many personal demons as he did NHL tough guys during a 16-year career, died Monday. He was 45.
Probert was the most feared fighter of his generation, dropping the gloves more than 200 times while playing for the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks.
“I’ve seen them all and I haven’t seen anybody tougher than him,” TV commentator Don Cherry told The Canadian Press. “He was the best.”
Probert died after collapsing while enjoying an afternoon of boating with his family on Lake St. Clair near Windsor, Ont. His father-in-law Dan Parkinson, a police officer who was on the boat, attempted to revive Probert using CPR.
“This is a tragedy for the family,” said Parkinson. “We ask that you respect their privacy at this time. This was totally unexpected. Bob lost the fight of his life this afternoon.”
During his days on the ice, Probert never shied away from a fight.
He was part of many memorable battles, often exchanging punches with an opponent until his elbow and shoulder pads had fallen to the ice. The list of his fighting partners reads like a who’s who of NHL tough guys—Marty McSorley, Stu Grimson, Tie Domi, Basil McRae and Donald Brashear.
Cherry remembers attending a game where Probert was set to have a rematch with Troy Crowder after the two had staged a memborable fight earlier in the season. Everyone in the building was abuzz with anticipation.
“I said to the linesman before, ‘If they get started don’t break them up.’ The linesman said, ‘Are you kidding? I want to see it too,”‘ recalled Cherry. “The puck was up in the other end and everyone was watching Probert and Crowder. I remember he hit Crowder so hard, his helmet went about 10 feet in the air.
“It was a dandy.”
Probert grew up in Windsor and was selected by Detroit in the third round of the 1983 draft—a memorable year where GM Jim Devellano also added Steve Yzerman, Joey Kocur, Petr Klima and Grimson to the organization.
They would all go on to have significant NHL careers, with Probert and Kocur teaming up to form the “Bruise Brothers” during the late 80s.
“My favourite memory of Bob would be sitting down before a game, going over the opposing lineup and picking and choosing who would go first and if the goalie would be safe or not,” Kocur said in a statement. “It was great to be able to go out on the ice knowing that he had my back and I had his.
“He was like the brother I never had.”
Probert sits fifth on the NHL’s all-time list with 3,300 penalty minutes, but he made other contributions as well. He appeared in the league’s all-star game in 1988—a season where he scored 29 goals and 62 points while amassing a career-high 398 penalty minutes—and was used in a variety of different situations.
He even scored the last goal at iconic Maple Leaf Gardens.
“Bob was a guy that started as a strictly tough guy but made himself into a player,” said former Toronto Maple Leafs captain Wendel Clark. “He played more than just a tough guy role. He had some goals and played a regular shift.”
Probert also made headlines for a number of off-ice incidents. He battled alcohol problems throughout his career and had several brushes with the law, once serving a three-month prison term after authorities caught him trying to sneak cocaine across the border at the Windsor-Detroit tunnel in March 1989.
There were also a couple seasons where he was unable to play road games in Canada because he wasn’t allowed to cross the border.
Despite the tough guy image and his personal struggles away from the arena, Probert was extremely well-liked by those who knew him.
“Off the ice, everything was a whole different story,” said Clark. “He was one of the good guys and he’d do anything for anybody.”
Added Cherry: “He was a gentle giant. He was so soft spoken when you’d sit down and chat with him. He would almost whisper.”
Probert played for the Red Wings from 1985 to 1994, and for the Blackhawks from 1995 to 2002.
He was a fan favourite for both organziations, with Chicago even holding a “Bob Probert Heritage Night” at the United Center in February 2009. He also dropped the ceremonial puck in the arena before a playoff game between the two teams later that spring.
After retiring, Probert participated in several local charity hockey tournaments and was a big supporter of Canadian soldiers. He visited Afghanistan along with other former players.
“He’s been over there two or three teams and troops just loved him,” said Cherry.
Probert appeared on the CBC reality series “Battle of the Blades” last year. He and figure skating partner Kristina Lenko were the first pair voted off.
His hockey legacy will always be tied to some of the memorable fights that can still be found online today—whether it be one of his famous battles with Domi or the time he went toe-to-toe with McSorley for well over a minute.
Many of today’s top fighters grew up worshipping Probert because he was considered the most feared player in the league for more than a decade.
“He had the reputation because of his size,” said Clark. “Definitely every new young guy coming along was going to say ‘That’s the guy.’ He definitely stood the test of time because of how much he battled.”
Probert is survived by his wife Dani and four children. Funeral arrangements have not been made.
Essex County provincial police say an autopsy is scheduled for Tuesday.