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It was back in early 1992. The Rangers had a young tough guy named Tie Domi who was well on his way to being the #1 or #2 contender for the heavyweight championship of NHL pugilists. He challenged NHL heavyweight champion Bob Probert at Madison Square Garden. The edge went to Probert but Domi went to the box making the sign that he was wearing the heavyweight belt. The Wings never forgot it.
Fast forward to December 2, 1992 at MSG. The fight everyone knew was coming was being hyped by the NY tabloids with tales of the tape sidebars and all kinds of buildup. Other that games five and seven of the 1994 Finals I have never seen MSG that crowded for warm-ups.
Early in the game, very early, like under 30 seconds in they went at it again and while Domi did well there was no doubt that Probert was the still the king. Steve Yzerman, who never forgot Domi’s antics after their first fight, mimicked Domi with the heavyweight belt gesture as Probert reminded everyone who was the King of the Castle.
An NHL veteran at this point and a former all-star (who once had scored 29 goals) the Windsor, Ontario native was clearly the best fighter the NHL had seen since Dave Schultz retired. No one messed with Probert and those who did usually paid for it for months.
Craig Coxe was a pretty tough customer. Another of that crop of young big tough guys, Coxe was a member of the Vancouver Canucks when he tried Probert for the first time. He was the atom bomb replacing conventional weaponry.
Coxe tried Probert in the mid 1980’s and the fight is a classic, you can find it on You Tube. Coxe was a player in the Central Hockey League when I was an Associate Head Coach in the league (he was in Tulsa, I was in Macon). I caught up to him once after a morning skate and asked him about his tough guy days in the NHL and after a brief chat I asked about Probert and that fight.
“That man was as tough as any man I ever fought, NHL or minor leagues,” he said as we sat in the bowels of the Macon Coliseum, I’m guessing this was around the 1997-1998 season. “He’ll go down in history as the best fighter in the league. The thing is, he can play also. He gave a lot of tough guys an impression that if you were that tough you could become a pretty good player at that level because no one would ever be crazy enough to take you on after a while.”
Probert is being mourned in Detroit this morning after suddenly passing away yesterday on Lake St. Clair at age 45. Probert symbolized Detroit sports, much like the Bad Boys of the Detroit Pistons did in their hey dey or Joe Louis did when he ruled the boxing world. There is a statue of a big black arm in the heart of downtown Detroit near Cobo Hall, a tribute to Joe Louis. That clenched fist could have very easily been painted red and white and symbolized Probert when he played for the Red Wings. It seemed fitting that Probert played most of his career in Joe Louis Arena.
Probert had his troubles off the ice and he’ll be remembered for them as much as his on ice exploits. Alcohol and drug abuse were as much a part of his career as two punch knockouts. Former Rangers coach Colin Campbell was a Wings’ assistant under Jacques Demers and is part of the Probert story in two ways. He was the guy responsible for making sure Probert took his Antabuse pill, a pill that made you sick as a dog if you drank. On the days that Probert resisted, Campbell literally made him swallow it. At one point Probert continued to resist taking it and Campbell challenged him to a boxing match, one in which he remembered having a headache for three days afterward.
“The one thing about Probert was that he captured what Detroit was all about at that time. He was the blue collar guy who did what he had to do to win,” said Shireen Saski, a three time Emmy winning reporter who formerly covered the Red Wings for Fox Sports Net Detroit. “He was a player who was a fan favorite, who was loved by his teammates, and who along with Yzerman gave the Wings an identity when they were trying to resurrect a franchise known as the “Dead Wings”. He had some Gordie Howe toughness but also could score and Detroit Red Wings’ fans always appreciate that type of player.”
Probert’s on and off ice exploits are being well remembered today in both the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press and Mitch Albom did a terrific column on him today (www.freep.com). To put Probert in perspective think back to Clark Gillies and Bob Nystrom. Probert was to the Wings what those two were to the Islanders dynasty. Nystrom and Gillies were as tough as they came and yet both scored 30 goals in a season.
Probert had 29 goals and 398 PIM’s in 1987-88 and then chipped in 21 points in 16 playoff games with 51 PIM’s. Probert was usually up around 250 PIM’s minimum a season. Gillies was a six time 30 plus goal scorer who despite his toughness never had to crack 100 PIM’s in a season which is mind blowing when you think about it. Nystrom never got above 150 PIM’s in a year and scored 30 and 29 goals as his two highest goal scoring outputs. For the two Islanders, they never had to fight much because the Islanders were loaded with stars and there were the Gary Howatt’s of the world to do the dirty work. Probert jumped on board when the Wings toughness was him and Joe Kocur, helped out by Gerard Gallant (who was Yzerman’s linemate so how much did you really want him in the box, similar to Gillies who played with Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier).
There are similarities between these three but where Probert stood out is that when he joined the Wings they were a) terrible and b) soft. Probert came in and helped change both images. Nystrom and Gillies came in during the Isles infancy, there was no tradition to behold. Probert came in and reminded people of Howe, Ted Lindsay, and every other rough and tumble star the Wings ever had and that was no small feat. He kept opponents honest when they faced Yzerman and made sure you knew that if you looked at Stevie Y the wrong way you would probably get your ass kicked.
The NHL has seen very few like Bob Probert. In a way that is a bad thing in terms of the way he played. However his off ice issues, like many of his generation, made what should have been a great career just a good career.
When he was in jail, Red Wings’ fans wore tee shirts that read “Free Probie”. He is free now. Hopefully no one tried to stop him at the “pearly gates”. I’d hate to see what would have happened