TORONTO – One way or another, the late Bob Probert figured his four children were going to come across the details of his often troubled, sometimes sordid, life.
His preference was to have them discover the countless tales from his indulgent days of drinking, drug use and womanizing straight from the source, and “Tough Guy” will certainly accomplish that.
The brutally frank memoir vividly catalogues his highs and lows, from snorting cocaine he initially dumped into a toilet amid his 1989 arrest for smuggling drugs across the Detroit-Windsor border, to ordering pizzas and cavorting with nurses and other patients during his many trips to rehabilitation centres.
Perhaps the most intimidating enforcer in NHL history, Probert also offers plenty of stories about his on-ice pugilism, using an expletive to describe high-profile rival Tie Domi, while praising Marty McSorley, Stu Grimson and Troy Crowder among others, as honourable fighters.
He also describes NHL commissioner Gary Bettman as “an asshole, a frikkin’ asshole” who has “ruined the game of hockey,” and is “supposed to speak for the good of the league, but in my opinion, he’s strictly behind the owners.” Probert adds how he fooled league-mandated drug testing by providing inspectors with clean urine samples he’d warmed in the microwave.
And how’s this for a kicker? During one stint in prison, he trashed talked disgraced evangelist Jim Bakker.
“He didn’t hold back, he put it all out there,” wife Dani Probert said with a knowing chuckle in an interview Friday from Windsor, Ont.
“With kids nowadays, everybody is so computer savvy, other kids could go on the computer, Google his name and come up with something and say something to the kids at school,” she continued. “He wanted the kids to know, we were always honest with the kids.
“Things happened. He just wanted to be able to tell his side of what happened.”
Written with Kirstie McLellan Day and due in Canadian stores Oct. 26, “Tough Guy” had been in the works for about a year and was about 85 per cent finished when Probert collapsed on his boat and died July 5 at age 45.
The prologue to the book outlines Probert’s final day, and how he ignored chest pains and nausea hours earlier. It turned out his heart was enlarged and under strain for a long time, with an 80-per-cent blockage of his left coronary artery.
After some soul-searching, Dani chose to go ahead with the project and leave the contents untouched, even the sections about deeply intimate parts of their marriage like her husband’s infidelities.
“I cringed at a few things and I would ask Kirstie, ‘Well how did he say that?’ Sure enough it was on the tape,” Dani recalled. “The bottom line was I didn’t want to change anything he said. I think I just basically helped out with timeline a little bit … but Bob was completely honest.”
There were no surprises in the book—”No, I lived it,” she said—but there were some for eldest daughter Brogan, 16. She is the only other member of the family to read it so far.
“I let her ask for the book, I didn’t want to push it on her,” said Dani. “She was interested in it and she knew dad was working on that. I think a few things in there she was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know it happened this way.’ Mainly from his younger years.”
In the book, Probert reveals that he started drinking at 14, knocking back beers alone in his backyard, and believes by 17 he had a drinking problem.
He fell into the tough guy role by accident during his first year of junior with the OHL’s Brantford Alexanders, getting into fight with Kingston’s tough guy and knocking him out with a lucky punch. Figuring he had earned a reputation, he quickly learned to fight afterwards.
In 1983, the Detroit Red Wings made him a third-round pick and in 1986, after he helped their American Hockey League farm team Adirondack win the Calder Cup, he tried cocaine for the first time during the post-game celebrations.
Before long, he was buying an ounce a week for $800, and figured that one year he spent $42,000 feeding his habit.
“When he got caught up in it, it would just be like a downward spiral,” said Dani. “It was always an extreme with him.”
Probert first met Dani in October 1988, when he was staying at the Relax Plaza in Windsor while suspended by the Red Wings after his work permit was revoked by the U.S. government. Dani ignored her mother’s warnings to stay away from him, and fell for him once she got over his “highlighted mullet and the acid wash jeans.”
“He was a really good looking guy, real charismatic, great sense of humour,” she said.
Their relationship was one of peaks and valleys, and in the book Probert repeatedly praises her for sticking by him.
Even after she was in the car when Probert got caught at the border with cocaine, which he nearly managed to keep hidden in his boxer shorts during a strip search, they continued to see each other.
They moved in together in 1990, were married in 1993, and celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary four days before Probert’s death.
“The bad times were really bad and the good times were great,” she said of their relationship. “I think that’s what got me through it, knowing he had almost eight years of sobriety and those were good years for us. And there were a lot in between, as well, so I think that kept us going through it, and we had a lot of support.”
Probert had been in rehab five times by age 22, and was in and out of clinics throughout his career and early in his retirement.
Probert had long wanted to do a book and contacted McLellan Day after she was recommended to him by Theo Fleury, whose memoir “Playing With Fire” she also helped write.
She said Probert was very matter-of-fact as he told her his story, sort of living in the moment as he brought up a certain time, feeling happy about a good memory, sad about a bad one.
She tried to probe some of the motivations behind his addictions, and found no underlying cause there.
“He was pretty adamant there wasn’t an issue haunting him,” McLellan Day said from Calgary. “He just took things a little too far.”
Probert went through a big relapse once his playing career ended in November 2002, a tailspin that took him a few years to emerge from.
After that Dani said “he was definitely on the right track” but the wear and tear from his 238 career fights and 3,300 penalty minutes accumulated over 935 NHL games caught up with him.
Probert describes his need for OxyContin, a pain killer Dani would have to parcel up and hide around the house to keep him from gobbling them up.
“Most mornings I’d have to help him get out of bed with his hip flexors and lower back and his knees,” she said. “He was in a lot of pain.”
But Probert also seemed to have found some contentment in his final years, speaking of the joy he had serving as a devoted, if lax and permissive, father and zipping around on his boat.
His life, as he tells it, was probably like most people imagined it to be. Thanks to Dani, he leaves behind the evidence he wants his children, and others to judge it by.
“What I’m hoping people take from it is just seeing that he was human, he made a lot of mistakes and that he just kept trying to get it right, getting on the right track, getting back up and doing well,” said Dani. “He had his struggles but he just kept working at it.”