TORONTO - Everyone once in a while, when they worked side by side with the Detroit Red Wings, Jimmy Devellano would ask Steve Yzerman the question: “How’s Probie doing?”
It was always that way with Bob Probert.
People always wanted to know how Probie was doing.
He was a curiosity, a specimen, a spectacle in good times and bad.
People wanted to know he was doing all right.
On Monday the worst possible news arrived: Probert was dead at the tragically young age of 45.
“We were drafted together at 18, I think I’m a month older than him” said Yzerman.
He was Devellano’s first draft pick in Detroit.
Probert was third.
“We played against each other in junior. We played together, on the same line sometimes, for years in Detroit. Once a year, twice a year, (after his career ended) you’d run into Probie and see him. It didn’t matter how long it had been between visits, it was always nice to see him.
“He was such a good-hearted person. A happy-go-lucky guy. He was nice to people, funny, nice to my kids, my wife. When he had his life in order, and he had to deal with a lot of things, he played some great hockey. I’ll always remember that.”
Probert did play some great hockey, fought more ferociously than anyone who has ever played, and had soft enough hands to score, punch, snort, or try and keep himself out of trouble.
That he attempted for most of his National Hockey League career.
“I think we failed him,” said Devellano. “And at times, he failed us.
“He was a person with demons, but I liked him, I liked him very much. We tried to work with him and try to straighten out his life. I never really succeeded in the degree I wanted to.
“I felt he could have been great instead of a good hockey player, I felt he could have been more productive. His time in Detroit wasn’t an easy time for anybody.”
The Red Wings watched as Probert went to prison for possession of cocaine in 1989. That was just one of the numerous incidents he was involved with in his time with the Wings.
Detroit management worked hard with Probert and his addictions, sending him to rehab on at least three occasions, bringing in counsellors, hiring detectives to follow him, and psychologists to help him figure himself out.
At one time it was Colin Campbell’s job as an assistant coach with the Wings to essentially baby-sit Probert.
Campbell, now the NHL vice-president, was assigned to doll out an anti-alcohol pill called Antabuse every day.
“Probie would do anything to avoid taking the pill,” said Campbell.
“He’d put it in his mouth and not swallow it, and when I saw he was doing that, I would throw it directly in his mouth.
“Then I found out, he’d gotten into the pills and changed them all. He’d do that, just to get one more drink, one more party, one more night out. He had that addictive personality.”
Campbell worked in concert with Probert’s mom, who baby-sat Campbell’s young kids, to try and straighten him out.
One day, he got furious with his surrogate winger and agreed to have a boxing match with him, just like in the movies.
“I stupidly agreed to box him because I got mad at him,” said Campbell.
“I think I had a headache for three days after that.”
Probert could drink and smoke and fight and score goals. But yet he was always popular.
With the fans.
With his teammates.
One time, the Red Wings were having internal problems and a players’ vote was initiated on whether to keep Probert and Petr Klima on the team. Probert won the election; Klima lost.
How talented was Probert?
Talented enough to break Gordie Howe’s record for most playoff points scored by a Red Wing winger.
He was good enough to be chosen to play in the NHL all-star game.
“I told him, he didn’t have to fight,” said Campbell. “His presence was enough to intimidate other teams.”
“Bob Probert made other guys in the league money,” said Marty McSorley, who fought him more times than he cares to count.
“Guys were brought into teams because he was on the Red Wings or the Blackhawks and they needed someone to compete with him.”
The last time McSorley saw Probert was at the Baycrest Charity fund-raiser in Toronto in April.
Everything seemed fine.
“We talked, shared a laugh, like we always did. There was always this aura about Probie,” he said.
“People were amazed by him.”
Amazed in life, and now far too soon, amazed in death.
“It’s so sad,” said Campbell.
“I think his father died of a heart attack at 41. And now this, at what 45? Four kids without a father. It’s just so sad.”