When Jim Devellano drafted Bob Probert in the third round of the 1983 draft, he told everyone that Probert would be to the Detroit Red Wings what Clark Gillies was to the New York Islanders.
“Clark Gillies is in the Hockey Hall of Fame,” Devellano said, “and Bob Probert could have been in the Hockey Hall of Fame.”
Probert died Monday afternoon at the age of 45 after collapsing on a boat on Lake St. Clair near Windsor. Probert’s father-in-law, who was with him and Probert’s children on the boat, said Probert lost “the fight of his life (Monday) afternoon.” Probert had complained of severe chest pains, so the man who could not or would not be slayed by his fight opponents in the NHL or his own personal demons, it appears, died of natural causes.
Probert’s battles with alcohol and drugs and his many encounters with legal authorities on both sides of the border were well documented. Probert seemed to be doing well with his life. Former teammate and Detroit Red Wings assistant GM Jim Nill said he often saw Probert at Windsor Spitfires games and said Probert had become a loving father and solid citizen. He visited the Canadian troops in Afghanistan several times and last fall appeared on the hit reality show Battle of the Blades on CBC.
“I hadn’t seen him for a while because I only saw him when he had legal problems,” said Windsor attorney Pat Ducharme, who was Probert’s agent and lawyer during the turbulent times of his NHL career in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “He hadn’t had any legal troubles in more than two-and-a-half years.”
Probert never seemed far from trouble either on or off the ice during his NHL tenure. But when Probert was at the apex of his career, there is little doubt there were few who could combine skill level and the ability to intimidate the way Probert could. In 1987-88, Probert scored 29 goals among 62 points with 398 penalty minutes and added eight goals and 21 points in 16 playoff games. At the time, there might not have been a more feared player in the NHL.
“I got to know (former NHL enforcer) John Ferguson before he died and we were members of the same golf club,” Ducharme said. “And he once told me that as good as he was at playing his role, he was no Bob Probert. Coming from him, I think that was the ultimate compliment.”
Probert had a very, very dark side that limited his career as an NHL player and certainly took its toll on his life, however. Probert’s own father died in his early 40s and while Probert was well liked by everyone he knew, his destructive tendencies were a constant source of concern.
“Some guys do things to themselves and they don’t learn,” Nill said. “But the guys loved Probie. You just wanted so badly for him to do well and get through his difficulties.”
NHL director of operations Colin Campbell was an assistant coach with the Red Wings when Probert broke into the NHL in 1985-86 and readily admits he was Probert’s caretaker through most of his difficult time in Detroit. At one point, he made a 45-minute video for Probert that ended with a passioned plea from Campbell at Probert’s father’s gravesite begging Probert to get his life on track. Just a couple of months ago, Campbell and Probert discussed the possibility of Probert doing some work with the league, talking to players about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.
“He told me once there were three days of the year where he absolutely had to drink – Superbowl Sunday, Christmas and his birthday,” Campbell recalled. “He had been doing it from a young age and it was a sickness that was in his family. You wanted to just tell him to stop, that he could be a multimillionaire if he didn’t do this, but he wouldn’t listen.”
Probert had been in and out of the NHL’s substance abuse program a number of times and because of that, was subject to regular drug tests while he was with the Blackhawks.
“I was in my first year with the NHL and I was talking to him after a game,” Campbell said. “He said to me, ‘What can you do to stop having me pee in the bottle all the time?’ I said to him, ‘How much money are you making?’ And he said $1.8 million and I said, ‘Bob, keep peeing in the bottle.’ ”
Ducharme also experienced his share of frustration trying to get through to Probert. Ducharme said every time he would try to speak with Probert about his problems, Probert would laugh by saying everyone in his life wanted to be the one with the solution.
“He used to always say talking heads are dead heads,” Ducharme said. “Whatever it was that he did to dull the pain with drugs or alcohol was never to be talked about. He left endless numbers of counselors frustrated because he simply wouldn’t talk about it. He loved his family and he couldn’t fully understand how he could risk losing his wife and beautiful children because of his behavior.”
People tried to help him, including people with the Red Wings and later, the Chicago Blackhawks, where Probert finished his career. Both Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch and Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz took a liking to Probert and were eager to help. Wirtz even gave Probert a job as a radio analyst until Probert showed up for a broadcast under the influence and said some inappropriate things on the air.
“He could charm a snake,” Campbell said. “And that was part of the problem. One time he was in rehab in Minnesota with (TV evangelist) Jim Baker and a Mafioso guy and the Mafioso guy just loved him.”
And that even extended to those who had to deal with him in the legal arena. Campbell said he once accompanied Probert to court for a breach of probation charge. The two sides had agreed Probert would serve one day in jail for the offense, provided he showed some remorse.
“I told him, ‘You listen to me. If the judge says anything to you, you say ‘Yes sir.’ If you do that you’ll get one day, but if not you’ll be screwed and you’ll get 30 days or more,’ ” Campbell recalled. “We get into court and the judge says, ‘Mr. Probert, do you have anything to say for yourself?’ And he says, ‘Yes, your honor, I think this is a joke.’ So I kicked him under the table. And the judge says, ‘Mr. Probert, this goes against my better judgment, but for you and for the fans of the Detroit Red Wings I’m going to do the deal we originally agreed to do.’ ”
Probert made about $14 million during his 16-year career, but those who dealt with him as a player maintain he could have made much, much more if he had been able to keep his life on track and concentrate on hockey. He had tremendous skill and soft hands around the net, talents that earned him the chance to play with the likes of Steve Yzerman and Adam Oates.
“I remember one time he drove his car through the front window of a restaurant and he had six broken ribs,” Ducharme said. “A couple of nights later he was playing in Edmonton and he scored a goal, had another one called back and had a fierce fight. And that afternoon I was helping him put his coat on because he was in so much pain. I asked him how he did it and he said, ‘You know, once you get playing, you forget about the pain.’ ”
Like most tough guys, Probert’s off-ice personality was nothing like the one he exhibited on the ice. Campbell said Probert was a “big teddy bear” and Ducharme said he would often be challenged in bars after games and simply smile at the aggressor. He once paid to fly a young girl from Windsor to the west coast to have surgery to save her eyesight and made Ducharme swear he would never tell the girl’s mother the identity of the anonymous donor.
Ducharme said three years ago when the Ontario Provincial Police were called to Probert’s home by his wife and he was charged with resisting arrest, home surveillance cameras showed the police were actually the aggressors and the crown attorney dropped the charges after watching the video.
“He was quite docile and it was actually the police who overreacted,” Ducharme said. “He had a perfect opportunity to sue the police for that, but he basically said, ‘I don’t want any trouble,’ and he just let it go.”
It’s impossible to say whether Probert’s role as an enforcer had anything to do with his off-ice troubles, but both Campbell and Devellano said wistfully they hoped things would have turned out differently.
“I wish I was able to report to you that we were able to help him,” Devellano said, “but we weren’t very successful.”
Campbell recalls one occasion when the Red Wings were hoping to get Probert into rehab at the Brentwood Recovery Home in Windsor. Campbell told the founder and director of the center, the late Father Paul Charbonneau, that they needed Probert back in two weeks because they had a home-and-home series against the Chicago Blackhawks. Father Charbonneau said it was pointless and that Probert needed to be at the facility for at least a year.
“Maybe that’s what we should have done,” Campbell said. “Put him somewhere for a year.”
Former Red Wing defenseman Willie Huber, who also had off-ice problems of his own, also died last week at the age of 52. Later this week, Campbell will bury another one of his teammates.
“We had a lot of guys with demons in Detroit,” he said. “There was Willie Huber and Bob Probert and guys like Sheldon Kennedy and Petr Klima. It’s sad.”
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