Throughout my journey in the NHL hockey world I occasionally met a person who left a lasting positive impression. Bob Probert was such a person.
I first saw Bob play in 1985, his rookie year, when he was with the Adirondack Red Wings. I was a few minutes late for the game. I was standing, waiting for a whistle, before I sat down. A New Haven defenseman, being pressured by a Red Wing player, made the mistake of doing a spin-o-rama to get away. The defenseman’s body ended up in the glass. The Red Wing player, named Bob Probert, simply turned up the ice and skated away. I said to myself, “My God, this guy’s a player! He won’t be here long.” Turned out he was more than just a player.
It was hard not to follow his career. Every team coveted someone like Bob Probert. He could play. He had hockey sense. He had puck skills. And, of course, he was tough – legendary tough. Capable of scoring 20 goals, playing on your top two lines, being on the ice for 16-20 minutes per game and being the toughest player in the league. This was a player we all dreamed of.
The Tie Domi-Bob Probert dustups were memorable. When I was GM of the Winnipeg Jets, I made a point of being at Madison Square Garden when they had their “rematch.” I had worked for the Rangers in the ‘70s and had been in the building for many big heavyweight fights when the atmosphere was electric. This night the same electricity was in the air. It was a doubleheader – a hockey game and a heavyweight championship fight. It exceeded all expectations.
Several years later I told Bob about being there and asked him what he thought about that night. He shrugged and said, “It was good for Tie.” That night, I told him, I knew I could never trade for him and Detroit would never trade him away. But, I decided if I ever got a chance to get Tie Domi, I would. A year later I did. Bob smiled and said, “Glad I could help.”
I went to work for Chicago in December of 1999. Bob was playing there. Approaching the end of his career, he still struck fear in the hearts of the opposition. He still created acres of space for his linemates. He still was able to play on the top lines. He was not real productive, but his linemates were.
But, it was Bob Probert the person who I remember most. His personal qualities made him the real giant he was.
There were instances when he could have been less than honest about his off-ice troubles, but he never hid from the truth. Several times he told me, “Yes, I did it. Shouldn’t have. Not smart. But I did it.”
He cared about people. Bob treated the game night dressing room helper with the same level of respect he did his teammates. To Bob, the locker room helper was his teammate.
Life can be tough for young players on an NHL team and even more difficult for a young player, up from the minors, living in a hotel, in a strange city. Bob consistently brought these young players to his home for dinner with his family. He would bring them back to his house after practices. As he often said “living in a hotel is not much fun.” And what a thrill for a young player to be treated as an equal by Bob Probert, the same Bob Probert they’d watched on TV as a 12-year-old.
A family man to the core, he would glow when asked, “How are the kids?” Blessed with a remarkable wife in Dani, it was his family he was most proud of.
Bob Probert cared. My late wife, Judy, passed away in October of 2000 and I rejoined the club a week later for a game in Nashville. After the game, as I was walking to the bus, suddenly there was Bob walking next to me with his arm around my shoulder. There were no words spoken. There was no need.
Bob had integrity. I believe in his life when he had choices to do the right thing or not, he did the right things. These incidences are called “integrity checkpoints.” Many people fail when faced with them. Bob did not.
I am sure his former teammates and the many hockey people who knew Bob felt shock and disbelief with word of his death. This was probably followed quickly by a thought similar to the one I had: “I’m glad I knew Bob Probert. I’m a better person because I knew Bob Probert.”
Mike Smith is a former GM with the Blackhawks and Jets and associate GM with the Maple Leafs. He also served as GM for Team USA at the ’81, ’94 and ’95 IIHF World Championship. His Insider Blog appears only on THN.com.