They threw a party at Joe Louis Arena on January 2, 2007. The guest list was A+.
Alex Delvecchio. Gordie Howe. Ted Lindsay. They brought Sid Abel’s ghost in, too.
It didn’t stop there.
Dino Ciccarelli. Brett Hull. Luc Robitaille. Scotty Bowman. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.
And on and on. Dozens of Red Wings players, coaches, and management types—past and present.
All the former players wore Red Wings jerseys with their name and number sewn on the back.
The occasion was the retirement of Steve Yzerman’s No. 19, which was raised to the rafters that evening, prior to a game against the Anaheim Ducks.
As each of the stars was introduced, and as they made their way from the Zamboni entrance to the dais, the ovation was of the deafening variety. These were the Who’s Who of Red Wings history. They should have served a feast.
One player was late. The festivities were beginning, the introduced principals seated as the first speaker opened his mouth.
Bob Probert rushed by me, past my position near the Zamboni, where I was stationed helping out the Fox Sports Detroit crew that night. My job was to snag players for between-play interviews.
“You’re late Probie!” someone yelled.
Probert’s face was sheepish. He didn’t want to go out there, initially. Someone nudged him, literally.
So Probert hastily pulls on his No. 24 sweater, jogs onto the ice, and you’d have thought Terry Sawchuk had been reincarnated and would be playing goal for the Red Wings that evening.
The ovation was as long and as loud—at least—as those for the Hall of Famers whose numbers Yzerman’s would soon be joining near the catwalks.
Even Probert didn’t know what to make of his reception. He blushed, acknowledged the crowd, and took his seat.
NOW the program could begin!
Bob Probert, the former Red Wings and Blackhawks player who died Monday at age 45, wasn’t a great player. Hundreds of men suited up for the Red Wings who had more talent in their left pinky than Probert possessed in his mammoth body.
But none of them owned Detroit like Probie owned it.
Probert wasn’t a hockey player, he was a spectacle.
Time was, you had a few pops in Greektown or the watering hole of your choosing, hopped on the People Mover to the Joe, and took in Probert first, the Red Wings game second.
“Who’s in town?” was the question, but it wasn’t what team was in Detroit—it was which goon from the other side was here.
The NHL of Probert’s heyday—the late-1980s, early 1990s—was also an unashamed circuit of fisticuffs. They barnstormed through the league: Tie Domi. Craig Coxe. Troy Crowder. Mick Vukota. The championship belt was mythical, but no less tangible.
Probert took them all on—and won most of the time. He was an ambidextrous pugilist, which made him so dangerous. You wrapped up Probie’s right, but then got pummeled with his left for your trouble.
Probert skated with a wide berth. Some nights, he looked like he was playing by himself. The nearest opponent was skating in Flin Flon.
Which is what made him such a great teammate.
Anyone who chose to take liberties with the Yzermans or Fedorovs of the Red Wings should have had his head examined. Or maybe the guy was just a hopeless masochist.
Bob Probert had one good offensive season. One.
It was in 1987-88, when as a 22-year-old on a line with Yzerman and Gerard Gallant, Probert scored 29 goals and made the All-Star team. He was so much a presence at the front of the net, I’ll bet his 29 goals traveled a grand total of 90 feet.
He continued his scoring prowess in the ‘88 playoffs, tallying 21 points as the Red Wings made the final four.
That was pretty much it for the offense. Probert became the NHL’s Heavyweight Champion, so goal scoring got knocked down the totem pole of importance.
He popped an occasional puck into the net, but he popped out eyeballs more often.
Bob Probert owned Detroit. Pure and simple. He was every bit as popular as Yzerman for a time.
When he got caught with cocaine and when his drinking came to light, it didn’t hurt his popularity one bit. Typical of Detroit sports fans, for good or for bad.
But there was an empathy for Probert, underlying, among the fans in Detroit. They genuinely wanted to see Probie kick the bottle, dump the drugs.
He could never quite do it.
The Red Wings cut him, and the Blackhawks signed him. He thrilled the Second City folks for a few years.
Then Probert retired and he was married and was having kids and was trying to stay clean. He was growing up, finally.
He traveled overseas a few years ago, as a hockey ambassador of sorts, interacting with our military troops in Afghanistan. He began to write for a local sports magazine.
Probert was a Windsor kid, admiring the Red Wings from across the Detroit River. It was a dream come true for him to play for them.
He could have been much more, said Red Wings Executive VP Jimmy Devellano in the wake of the news of Probie’s sad passing from an apparent heart attack.
Jimmy’s probably right. But Probert was still a pretty damn big deal in Detroit, as it was.
God better look out for that left.