For nine years from 1985-94, Bob Probert was the NHL’s undisputed heavyweight champion and underrated power forward who helped lead the resurgent Red Wings to back-to-back final four appearances against the Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers in the late ’80s. In 1988, he broke Gordie Howe’s 33-year-old record from the 1955 title team for most points in the playoffs (21 points in 16 playoff games).
The former NHL All-Star, who often played on a line with Steve Yzerman and Gerard Gallant, is still the team’s all-time leader in penalty minutes with 2,090, an average of 232 minutes per season. After being suspended by the NHL for the strike-shortened 1994-95 season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, he finished his 16-year career by playing seven seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Below are comments from former teammates, opponents, coaches and front-office personnel about one of the most popular and toughest players in the 94-year history of the Red Wings. The four topics of discussion are: his wife Dani, his death on July 5, 2010, and his life on and off the ice.
►Mark “Trees” Laforest, former teammate and roommate with the Calder Cup champion Adirondack Red Wings and the Detroit Red Wings, pallbearer.
►Ryan VandenBussche, former teammate and roommate with the Chicago Blackhawks, traveled with Probert to Afghanistan to visit Canadian and American troops, pallbearer.
►Dave Hutchison, ex-NHL defenseman, teammate on alumni team, traveled with Probert to Kandahar to visit Canadian and American troops, pallbearer.
►Don Cherry, former NHL coach, ex-color commentator on Hockey Night In Canada, hosted Bob and Dani Probert on his Grapevine TV show in 1993.
►Don MacAdam, former Red Wings assistant coach from 1986-89.
►Jimmy Devellano, former Red Wings general manager who drafted Probert in 1983.
►Stu Grimson, ex-NHLer who fought Probert (13) more than any other player.
►Gerard Gallant, ex-Vegas Knights coach and former linemate with the Red Wings, pallbearer.
On the ice
►Devellano: “When I drafted Bob Probert in 1983, I predicted and told our ownership that he would be Clark Gillies. Gillies was a big left-winger I drafted for the Islanders. He (Gillies) was a big, strong guy with good hands that you could put with a good hockey player like (Steve) Yzerman and be a first- or second-line forward. He (Probert) actually did it for a period of time, so my assessment was bang on. He was the toughest player in the league. That’s the good news. I don’t want to get into the bad news.”
►MacAdam: “When Probie would grab on at the start of a fight, he would defend himself by getting his opponent at the end of his long reach, turn his head back and to the side to avoid taking any punches. You could count the opponent’s punches; one, two, three … and then he would start to punch back. The fight was over quickly after that. I don’t recall Probie ever punching after he knew he had finished the guy, like some. He would simply let the guy drop, turn, and go to the penalty box.”
►Laforest: “He ran over me once in junior. Just destroyed me. It was his first year in Brantford. I had no idea who he was. He cross-checked me right in the face. I was throwing punches. My defenseman jumped right on top. I got four minutes. My defenseman got four minutes. He got nothing. He didn’t mind running over the goalie. It’s part of the ice, he would say. What a beauty he was.”
►Cherry: “The first time I saw Bob he fought a guy named Todd Ewen. Ewen hit him right on the button and knocked him to his knees. When Bob got out of the penalty box, he said, ‘Let’s go again.’ I said, ‘Holy smokes. This guy is good.’ Everyone was afraid of him. He protected Stevie Yzerman, but he was a good hockey player too. He went to the All-Star Game and he was the last guy to score a goal at Maple Leaf Gardens.”
►VandenBussche: “Everyone in the NHL is competitive, but Bob was extremely competitive and that’s why he was so successful on the ice. He played hard every night and he didn’t like to lose, period … whether it was a battle in the corner for the puck or dropping the gloves with fisticuffs or on the scoreboard.”
►Gallant: “Bob Probert was a better player than a lot of people thought. He wasn’t just a tough guy with his physical play. He scored a number of big goals for us. He was a good hockey player, a good character guy. We loved Probie. He worked hard every day. He was a good guy and he made a lot of room out there for me and Steve.”
►Grimson: “I don’t know if there will ever be a guy quite like Bob Probert. As much as he was feared as the heavyweight champion, he was very skilled as a player. He was defensively responsible because of the space he got from his physical dominance. He was also a handful in the offensive zone. He was dogged and determined the way he would forecheck and recover pucks. He was a top-six guy, a passer and scorer.”
Off the ice
►VandenBussche: “We were flying into Detroit to play against the Red Wings. I was anxious because I knew I was probably going to have fight the next night. He was cool as a cucumber even though all the young guys wanted to fight a guy like Probie. I asked him, ‘How do you do it?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Do your best. If you win, you win. If you lose, you lose.’ It was very calming. I knew he had my back.”
►MacAdam: “My most vivid ‘overall’ memory is how hockey did not help Probie deal with his situation. It was a combination of the times, lack of knowledge of management on how to deal with the situation, and management wanting to cover up versus address the situation. It makes me sad to think about it all.”
►Laforest: “My first year sober, I went to Stevie Chiasson’s funeral. I was a little nervous because nobody knew what I was doing. I went to Bobby and said, ‘I haven’t had a drink in a year.’ He said, ‘Good for you. It’s been four years for me.’ I felt if Bobby could do four years, I could do tomorrow. Bobby inspired me again.”
►Cherry: “I remember we were at a morning skate at Joe Louis Arena and Troy Crowder said, ‘I’m just as tough as Bobby Probert.’ I said, ‘Sure you are, kid.’ Boy, they had two beauties. The first one was even. The second one, I came down with Ron MacLean and you couldn’t get a ticket. It was a dandy. He was the heavyweight champion of the NHL and the most popular player in Detroit. No doubt about it.”
►Hutchison: “We were on the road with our alumni team after Canada had just lost six soldiers on Easter Sunday in 2007. Gen. Rick Hillier was a big hockey fan and he called Mark Napier, who was the head of our alumni. Hillier came to the back of the bus where Bob and I were sitting. He said, ‘Listen, we’ve been asked to come over to Afghanistan to play ball hockey against the troops and bring the Stanley Cup.’ Bob looked at me and said, ‘Let’s go.’ Once we had him on the team, we had our team.”
►Grimson: “I got to know Bob better once we hung up our skates. For me, it was a little bit like looking in a mirror. We were the same age, we had essentially the same body types, we grew up in the same era, drafted by the same team and went on to play very similar roles. There’s nobody that Probie fought more than me throughout the course of his career, and the same was true of me going the other way. It was a little bit like a brotherhood. I have nothing but fond memories of Bob and his legacy to the game.”
July 5, 2010
►Laforest: “I was driving home from work, listening to a station and and all they said was Bob Probert is dead and we’ll be right back. I had to pull over to the side of the road. I couldn’t believe it. I waited until they came back and were talking about Bob. I turned the radio off and just sat there for 20 minutes by myself. I was in shock. I still can’t believe it’s been 10 years. I miss him and all the good times we had.”
►VandenBussche: “I’ll never forget it. I got the call from (Chris) “Knuckles” Nilan driving the back roads. He said, ‘Probie just passed away.’ I couldn’t believe my ears. I thought he was going to be one of those guys that was going to live until he was 85.”
►Cherry: “It was a sad day for me because Bobby Probert was a good friend of mine. He was a great guy. I remember when I first saw him on my TV show and he must’ve done something to his hair. I said, ‘What happened to your hair?’ He said, ‘I’m having a bad hair day, Don.’ Him and Bobby Orr were our most sought-after tickets.”
►Hutchison: “I was playing in a golf tournament in Toronto and my phone went off. My brother Bob called. He’s from Windsor and he said, ‘You’re not going to believe this. Bob Probert died.’ I was with the Maple Leafs alumni and a lot of the players knew Bob personally because he played with us. We were all heartbroken.”
►Grimson: “The one thing that resonated most with me at the funeral was sitting there and listening to each of his four children pay respects to their father. They described the impact he had on their lives and longing they had for him. It really struck home with me because I raised a young family of four children who are very close in age. I couldn’t help but be really impacted when he lost his life at such an early age. I appreciate and enjoy my life each and every today more than I did at any point in my past.”
►VandenBussche: “During our playing careers our better halves, our wives, deal with a lot of the stuff that people don’t see and they transition too when our careers our over, when you’re not in that bubble anymore. Dani has done an amazing job finding purpose, giving back to the community, educating people about why heart attacks happen, about prevention and how can we get people tested. I’m proud of what she’s accomplished.”
►Laforest: “What she’s done with the motorcycle ride since Bob’s passing is absolutely astounding, to put the time and effort in with her children. She’s kept the ball rolling, taking one step at a time and produced something magical.”
►Hutchison: “She was a real trooper when all this went down, especially with those young kids. Give her credit. She started a wonderful cause and we’re all in any time she asks. Bob was always willing to help too. I remember one time up at his cottage in Tobermory (Ontario). I was talking to this guy down by the pier and he said, ‘One day I was here and my septic tank broke. I had to dig a trench 20 feet by four feet. Bob saw me. He went home and changed his clothes and helped me dig the ditch. What a guy.'”
►Cherry: “He (Bob) had a perfect partner in Dani. She’s been unbelievable. It must’ve been tough to raise four young children and do the charity work and raise all that money in his honor. (Daughter) Tierney came up to see me recently and I couldn’t believe how much she’s grown. The last time I saw them they were all so young. Time flies.”