He was a legendary on-ice brawler who fought personal battles with booze, drugs and the law — then found redemption in good deeds and the hearts of his children.
Former Detroit Red Wing Bob Probert, 45, who had a home in Lakeshore, died suddenly Monday after collapsing in a boat on Lake St. Clair.
“He was largely misunderstood,” said Patrick Ducharme, who represented Probert for more than two decades as his agent and criminal lawyer. “Beneath that tough exterior that he demonstrated in his NHL career was really a very timid, shy, not very outgoing person. He largely wanted to do good things, and when he was sober and thinking straight, he did some tremendous things.”
Close friend Rick Rogow said Probert was boating with his children, father-in-law and mother-in-law on Lake St. Clair when he developed “severe chest pain” and collapsed around 2 p.m. Father-in-law Dan Parkinson, Cornwall’s police chief, performed CPR in a desperate attempt to save him.
A witness on the scene, who asked not to be identified, said Probert looked like he was fixing something on his Bombardier Speedster 200 boat.
“He was fixing the trim or something, stood up and then collapsed,” the witness said.
Neighbours on shore rushed to Probert’s side after seeing the retired hockey player’s family calling for help. The OPP’s forensic identification unit was on scene briefly examining Probert’s blue and white Seadoo sport boat.
A next door neighbour said EMS “were already working on him in the boat and were working on him for a while” before transporting him to Windsor Regional Hospital.
Rogow and Parkinson held a brief news conference Monday evening at Windsor Regional Hospital. They didn’t take questions from the media.
“This is a tragedy for the family,” said Parkinson.
“This was totally unexpected. Bob lost the fight of his life this afternoon.” Probert’s death is similar to that of his father, a former Windsor police officer, who died of a heart attack at age 41.
He leaves behind his wife Dani and four young children: Brogan, Tierney, and twins Jack and Declyn.
“Bob was a part of our very first NHL draft class that also included Steve Yzerman, Joe Kocur, Petr Klima and Stu Grimson,” Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch said in a statement. “Bob was always there for his teammates and was one of the toughest men to ever play in the NHL. He was also one of the kindest, most colourful and beloved players Detroit has ever known. We are very saddened by his passing and our thoughts and prayers go out to Bob’s family.” Ducharme said there’s been a lot of focus on Probert’s tough-guy image and his personal struggles, but there was a much sweeter side to the big brawler.
He once donated a “significant amount of money” so a sick young boy could fly to Los Angeles for an expensive medical procedure.
“He helped save a little boy’s life,” said Ducharme. “And he wanted to do so anonymously. He didn’t want anybody to know about it. He did that out of the goodness of his heart and because he was a good person.”
Probert had visited Canadian troops in Afghanistan and did charitable work including raising money through playing old-timer hockey.
But, particularly in his younger days, Probert’s darker side often got the upper hand. He was arrested in 1989 for trying to smuggle cocaine into the U.S.
“He had his demons over the years,” said Ducharme. “And when the demons would flare up, all manner of good behaviour and thoughtfulness and sensitivity went out the window as he struggled with those demons.”
Ducharme first met Probert when the hockey player was charged with several offences related to drunk driving, assaulting police and resisting arrest.
Ilitch, Jim Devellano, then the Red Wings general manager, and captain Steve Yzerman walked Probert into Ducharme’s office.
“He had hired another lawyer who said there was no question he was going to go to jail,” said Ducharme. “They asked if they thought I could keep him out of jail. Ever the optimist, I said I had no doubt I could keep him out of jail.”
Ducharme got Probert to plead guilty to a more minor offence, and did keep him out of jail.
“From then on, I became a part of his life,” said Ducharme. “It was at times a lot of fun. I used to say to him he took me to the highs and lows of life, from signing multimillion dollar contracts to trying to explain cocaine in his pocket while he was passed out on a street corner. It had every kind of bend and dip you can imagine.” Ducharme said Probert’s love for his children was the main reason he refused to let his weaknesses overpower him.
“He had four beautiful children and he loved them very much,” said Ducharme. “Part of his struggles to maintain sobriety were really struggles to maintain his relationship with his children.”
Former hockey foe Craig Muni said he also saw Probert’s children bring out his softer side when they became teammates in retirement for a number of NHL alumni games, including a few in Windsor.
“When we came to Windsor he would be in the dressing room with his family, wife and kids and he would take them out for a skate,” Muni said from Buffalo. “He was a good guy and a family man.”
Probert — a former all-star who played 935 NHL games and scored the last goal at Maple Leaf Gardens — may have had a gentle hand with his children, but his on-ice opponents didn’t receive the same courtesy.
Muni, who played against Probert many times with teams including the Chicago Blackhawks, Buffalo Sabres, Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs, said Probert was “tough” to face. But it wasn’t just for his fists.
“He was absolutely one of the toughest players to ever play in the NHL,” said the three-time Stanley Cup winner. “But he could play. He had good hands, a great skater, had speed, could shoot, could score. He was a pure power forward.”
Former Wings teammate and unofficial “Bruise Brother” Joe Kocur, also known to strike fear into the hearts of opponents whenever the referee yelled “let em go,” often helped Probert deliver the pain. But he also said Probert was more than a brawler.
“This is a very sad day for Red Wings fans as we have lost one of the toughest players, best power forwards and all-around great guys who ever wore the winged wheel,” he said.
“My favourite memory of Bob would be sitting down before a game, going over the opposing lineup and picking and choosing who would go first and if the goalie would be safe or not. It was great to be able to go out on the ice knowing that he had my back and I had his. He was like the brother I never had.”