Bob Probert’s final years

The former NHLer put his off-ice struggles behind him and died a family man


In September 1999, about three years before his playing days in Chicago were over, Bob Probert and his wife, Dani, set their homecoming in motion. They purchased a waterfront property in Lakeshore, Ont., a sleepy town near Windsor, where they planned to build their dream home. After years on the road, they wanted to be close to family (Probert’s mother Theresa, his brother Norm, and father-in-law James all live in Windsor). Today, their large grey-stoned home, with its slate roof, sits on a quiet street along Lake St. Clair. There’s a swimming pool on the lake side, a big rec room in the basement with a pool table and hockey jerseys from Probert’s playing days framed and hanging on the walls, and a limited-edition Harley Davidson Fat Boy parked in the dining room. It’s a stunning place, but like the former NHL heavyweight, not overly showy. From the curb, at least, it’s not even the most palatial residence on the street. A few doors down, another home, protected by a large gate at the front, features a water fountain and a full-sized basketball court.

Less concerned about his jumpshot, Probert treated himself instead to a massive garage. It’s the ultimate man cave, with 1,725 sq. feet of space to work on his old Chevrolet Chevelles, Monte Carlos and a ’68 Dodge Charger. (The garage also houses Probert’s Porsche, and a couple of Harley Davidsons.) He collected all kinds of tools and old car parts. But it wasn’t a secret, say friends, that Probert was better at taking cars apart than putting them back together.

Still, after facing off against some serious demons in his life, Probert was in full control. Much of his focus, say friends, was on his family (his wife, four children, and two Yorkies named Carly and Simon) and his charity work. Then, on the afternoon of July 5, the former left-winger died suddenly of an apparent heart attack while boating on Lake St. Clair with his family. Probert was only 45, leaving some to wonder if all those years of hard living in his playing days—his struggles with alcohol and substance abuse during that time were well-known—had caught up with him. Or, perhaps, it was hereditary. In 1982, his father Al, a Windsor police officer, died of a heart attack at 52.

Whatever the case, the death of Windsor’s favourite son struck a nerve in this blue-collar town. Everyone, it seems, was quick to share a story about “Probie.” His popularity benefited from being one of a rare breed of enforcers. In his 16-year NHL career, split between the Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks, his fists made him the most feared man in hockey, and yet he could also be dangerous with the puck, scoring 163 goals and assisting on 221 others. For many who knew him, his well-documented struggles off the ice—including the three months he spent in jail after trying in March 1989 to cross the Canada-U.S. border with cocaine in his underwear—are secondary to the family man that he had become. He was a guy who was most comfortable in a T-shirt, jeans and a pair of Crocs—the ones with fur lining were favourites since he could wear them year-round.

That’s not to say retirement for Probert was totally smooth, especially in the early going. Though not necessarily front-page news, Probert had a few run-ins with the authorities in the last decade. In June 2004, he was Tasered by police in Delray Beach, Fla., and charged with battery, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct (a jury acquitted him several months later). Probert would later say he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. “Some guys were getting mouthy and I was getting mouthy and then the police arrived.” In July 2005, police were called to the Probert’s Lakeshore residence. Nine officers arrived, eight were wearing black gloves, “as though ready to do battle,” says Patrick Ducharme, Probert’s long-time agent and lawyer. Probert was charged with assaulting police and intent to resist arrest. But video footage, captured by surveillance cameras that he had on the property, showed that Probert had not been aggressive with the police at all, says Ducharme.

After the Crown saw the tape, the charges were withdrawn. Ducharme thought his client might have a good civil case, but Probert didn’t want to proceed. “He said, ‘That’s my community and I don’t want them angry with me,’ ” recalls Ducharme. Then, in June 2006, Probert was asleep on the sidewalk when he was picked up by the police and brought in to the station on suspicion of public intoxication. During a routine search, the authorities found half a gram of cocaine in his pocket. He was charged with possession. But according to Ducharme, there was no fingerprint evidence to indicate Probert ever touched the packet in question, and two individuals, who had been drinking with Probert that night, came forward to say they had stuffed the cocaine in his pocket after he’d passed out, and planned to come back for it later. That charge was withdrawn as well.

Through it all, Dani stuck with him. The couple first met about two decades ago when Probert was serving out a suspension from the Red Wings in Windsor. On Canada Day, four days before he died, they celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary. “I’ve learned a lot from that guy,” says Donald Cadarian, one of Probert’s friends. “I’ve learned how to say ‘sorry.’ I’ve learned how to say ‘I love you.’ He used to tell Dani every time they were on the phone, ‘I love you, baby,’ ‘I love you so much.’ Every time. Every day. Nobody does that after 17 years of marriage. If you’d seen them together, there was no question why they stayed together.”

The last four years of Probert’s life have been “clean living,” says Cadarian. “The drugs were out of his life.” So was drinking. According to a close family friend, there are still beers in the Proberts’ fridge from their 2010 New Year’s Eve party. Most of the time, Probert reached for a Coca-Cola. Grant Higginbottom, who fondly remembers how his friend always honked twice when driving by his home, says that last year, when he went to Probert’s cottage—a rustic, two-bedroom cedar home on a lake in Tobermory, Ont.—his host went to sleep early. “I was like, ‘Dude, we come all the way here, I have a case of beer, and you’re going to bed?’ He’s like, ‘Hig-man, the body can’t take it no more.’ ”

Though famous for going late into the night, even New Year’s at the Proberts’ was a family-friendly bash, one in which friends and all their kids were invited. Probert wanted to share as many experiences as he could with his children. While at the arena for Canada’s Olympic gold medal curling triumph in Vancouver, Probert called his family back home so they could be part of the excitement. He did the same thing at a U2 concert in Toronto last year. He often took his four children out tubing on the lake or to the local rink for public skating. And though friends say he was late to everything, he’d drop whatever he was doing in order to get home for 3:15 p.m., when the bus arrived from school. When he was out of town, Probert always called home to say good night.

At her father’s funeral, attended by about 1,000 people, 15-year-old Brogan talked about having the “goofiest, most embarrassing dad ever.” One who would often announce his arrival with a duck call, and enjoyed racing shopping carts up and down the grocery store aisles. Flanked by her sister Tierney, 13, as well as the 10-year-old twins, Jack and Declyn, Brogan spoke of the pain she felt knowing that her dad was going to miss her 16th birthday and not be around to teach her how to drive, or, one day, walk her down the aisle. (Probert’s own father died before seeing him play a single game of junior hockey.)

Others remember Probert’s generosity. Charity work filled a great deal of his time in recent years. He toured with the NHL Legends, and has been a regular—and big draw—at Detroit Red Wing Alumni events. And he often took part in charity golf tournaments, despite not being a natural. “He’d hit the ball a mile but it would go any which way—anyone on either side of him was in danger,” says Ducharme. “Golf was too slow for him.”

A few years ago, Robert “Knobby” Knudsen, who has been involved in Windsor sports for several decades, promised the kids in his skating program that those who secured $100 worth of pledges in a fundraising drive would be rewarded with a skate and autograph session with some pros. The only trouble was that his speed dial only included one former NHLer. Probert answered the call. And on the day of the event, he delivered a roster of former hockey stars, including Adam Graves and Tiger Williams. “All the players skated for their half-hour, no problem, and signed some autographs,” recalls Knudsen. “But 2½ hours later, there’s Probert on the ice, carrying kids, and signing autographs. It was unbelievable.”

Nevin Virtue, a Windsor police officer who also organizes fundraisers involving NHL old-timers, remembers a charity game at Windsor’s Old Barn a few years ago when former Toronto Maple Leaf Doug Gilmour broke Probert’s skate with a shot during the warm-up. “Bob said to us, ‘See if we can delay for a little while, I’m going to drive home and get my other skates,’ ” recalls Virtue. “So he put on his jacket and poof, he went, and got back just in time for the opening ceremonies. He couldn’t miss the game.”

He wasn’t the person you’d expect, adds Virtue. “He would put his head down at times when walking through an arena because he was shy. But he was always looking to have a good time on the ice and made sure everyone had as much fun as he did.”

His generous spirit extended to people toward whom he might well bear a grudge. While at his cottage in June, Probert apparently received a call from a police officer who years ago, Cadarian alleges, roughed up Probert’s brother. The officer asked if Probert could visit a relative at Windsor’s Brentwood Recovery Centre—a place where Probert had spent some time himself. Whatever had happened in the past, Probert did the cop a favour.

For the most part, the local hero kept a low profile in recent years. Twice, however, he travelled to Afghanistan to visit the troops. NHL journeyman Stu Grimson, who squared off against Probert in several heavyweight tilts during their playing careers, was also part of the spring 2008 tour. One of the highlights of the week-long visit were the ball hockey games against the troops. “He got challenged plenty, as did I, but we didn’t [drop the gloves],” laughs Grimson, now a lawyer in Nashville. But there was no question, he adds, that Probert was the fan favourite among the troops. That was most evident during autograph sessions.

Probert’s biggest step back into the spotlight was last fall on CBC’s Battle of the Blades. John Brunton, one of the show’s executive producers, thinks that for a guy like Probert, who joined after only the slightest bit of arm-twisting from his one-time-rival-turned-friend Tie Domi, the show was a way to reinvent his image.

Brunton recalls Probert being very upset after getting eliminated first, and was amazed at how much he improved for the finale—even making the difficult switch from hockey to figure skates. “He must have spent some time working on that,” says Brunton. “At the finale, he was the first one on the ice—was really paying attention to the choreographers—and he really wanted to be good.”

A few months ago, after a long absence, Probert began attending Windsor’s Christian Fellowship Church, where he was married, and this month, memorialized (Probert’s coffin arrived at the church on the sidecar of a Harley Davidson). In fact, all of the music during his funeral was his favourite songs of worship. His former Red Wings teammate, Steve Yzerman, as well as Colin Campbell, the NHL’s senior vice-president and director of hockey operations and a former assistant coach with the Red Wings, spoke at the funeral. Though nothing came of it, Probert called Campbell a couple of months ago to see if there were any hockey-related jobs he might be able to fill. Probert had stayed connected to the game. He ran a spring hockey school in Windsor a few years ago, but stopped during the economic downturn. Knowing how badly the people of Windsor were suffering during the recession, says Cadarian, Probert’s partner on the project, he didn’t like taking money from them.

While perhaps tough for diehard Red Wing and Blackhawks fans to hear, Probert had been pulling on a Maple Leaf jersey for the last four seasons and playing in Windsor’s Original Six Monday night league.

“We tried giving him 28 [Domi’s old number], but he wouldn’t wear it,” laughs Cadarian, one of Probert’s teammates. Probert opted instead for his famous No. 24, and blossomed into something of a goal scorer. In fact, the former brawler, who spent 3,300 minutes in the sin bin during his career, didn’t draw his first penalty in the league until last season: a two-minute minor for hooking. Further proof Bob Probert was a changed man.

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