Honouring the NHL’s most feared enforcer
By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist
When Bob Probert stepped on the ice, many of the opposition wanted to step off the ice.
July 5 marks 10 years since his tragic death from a heart attack at the age of 45 while boating on Lake St. Clair. In his day, he was the most feared and intimating enforcer ever to play in the NHL. Probert was drafted 46th overall by the Detroit Red Wings in the 1983 NHL Entry Draft. His career spanned 17 years in the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks; amassing 3300 penalty minutes—fifth all-time.
Probert had legendary bouts with adversaries that included Donald Brashear, Craig Coxe, Troy Crowder, Tie Domi, Stu Grimson, George Laraque, Scott Parker, and Tony Twist. But his off-ice issues often overshadowed his on-ice feats. Probert also battled substance abuse during his pro career. In February 1989, Probert was arrested at the Windsor-Detroit border for having 14 grams of cocaine in his pants. He would later serve 90 days in prison.
Nonetheless, Probert was more than just a pugilist—he could actually play hockey. During the 1987 to 88 season as a Red Wing, he had a career best 29 goals and 33 assists for 62 points. As well, he set a franchise record in penalty minutes with 398—and was voted to the 1988 NHL All-Star Game. Probert enjoyed his role as a tough guy, as he admitted in an interview for the 2011 documentary The Last Gladiators. He loved fighting because it was a way for him to vent; “Fighting on the ice, it was like an outlet. You just get rid of everything.”
But Probert admitted that despite being one of the toughest enforcers in the NHL, his role as a fighter became more challenging as he got older. There were younger and bigger players entering the NHL and wanting to prove themselves by fighting Probert. “It takes its toll on you [emotionally], you don’t want to be embarrassed” Probert said in the previously mentioned documentary. “You didn’t want to lose, especially in front of your hometown crowd.”
After his death, Probert’s brain was donated to Boston University for medical research since Probert requested his brain be donated to science before he died. Researchers discovered after examining brain tissue samples that Probert had CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a degenerative brain disease. This was the result of repeated concussions and blows to the head during his NHL career. Probert’s widow, Dani, stated in a March 2011 interview with the Windsor Star that she noticed changes in her husband’s behaviour: “Nothing major, but there were certain signs, the short-term memory loss, the short fuse, definitely.”
But Probert has never been forgotten. In his hometown of Windsor, Ontario, an annual charity event called The Bob Probert Ride has been held in his memory since 2011, with proceeds supporting Cardiac Wellness programs at Hotel-Dieu Grace Healthcare. This year’s event was postponed due to COVID-19 and has been rescheduled for June 27, 2021.
Terry Crisp, who coached Probert in junior during his one season with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the OHL (1984 to 85), remembers Probert as a gentleman. “He had a big grin and he was a very nice man, very happy go lucky and he was always in a good mood—a gentle giant,” Crisp said in a telephone interview with the Other Press. Crisp also remembers just having Probert’s presence on the ice was enough to keep opponents from taking liberties. Crisp is saddened that Probert is gone, “He deserved better. He deserved a better ending.”
Don Cherry, former host of Coach’s Corner on Hockey Night in Canada, remembers Bob Probert as tough on the ice, but very shy off the ice. “Like all tough guys, Bob was quiet and [kind of] shy,” Cherry said in an email interview with the Other Press. “There is no doubt that in his prime Bob was the heavyweight champ of the NHL. Like the top gunslinger in the old west, every up and coming tough guy wanted a piece of Bob,” he said.
Bob Probert is survived by his widow, Dani, and four children (daughters Brogan, Tierney, Declyn and twin brother Jack). Dani Probert, in an email interview with the Other Press, wants her late husband to be remembered as a big teddy bear, who was intelligent with an incredible sense of adventure—along with a contagious belly laugh: “Bob always lived life in the moment and to the fullest. He loved to eat, laugh, and spend time with friends and family. He loved to give and never expected anything in return. He was a wonderful husband, father, friend, and teammate,” she said.