Bob Probert made sure no one messed with the Wings' more skilled players, in the process becoming one of the most feared in hockey. (The Detroit News)
Bob Probert was one of Detroit's most beloved athletes, a man who could turn Joe Louis Arena into a madhouse with gladiator-like battles with anyone who messed with more skilled teammates such as Steve Yzerman.
Few Red Wings had a fan following this devout -- or this disappointed.
For a few short years, Probert was the league's most feared fighter who could also score. In the 1987-88 season, he combined fighting -- 398 penalty minutes, sixth most ever in a season -- with a deft touch around the net, bagging 29 goals. He soared in the playoffs, scoring eight times among 21 points while still getting 51 minutes in penalties.
But that playoff series would come to epitomize Probert's career: The night before Game 5 of the conference finals, Probert and Petr Klima, who was injured and not scheduled to play, were found in an Edmonton strip club, drinking. The Wings lost, 8-4, the next night and were eliminated from the playoffs.
Probert's troubles started early in his career -- drinking, drugs, a stay in prison -- and continued in retirement; in 2004, he had to be subdued by Florida police with a Taser.
Despite his off-ice behavior, though, fans loved Probert, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound hulk from Windsor who never balked at why he was paid millions to put on ice skates. His bouts with the biggest bashers in the game -- Marty McSorley, Tie Domi and Troy Crowder -- are still the stuff of legend.
"That was my job and I would fight for my teammates," Probert said recently, during the taping of the Canadian reality series "Battle of the Blades," in which former NHL players were paired with figure skaters in a competition. "But I think I am a big teddy bear."
It was that aw-shucks attitude -- combined with the skill to win any hockey fight -- that allowed fans to forgive Probert, even after he was convicted in 1989 of attempting to smuggle a small amount of cocaine across the border between Canada and Detroit. He served six months in a federal prison in Minnesota.
The NHL banned him for life but rescinded that decision late in the 1989-90 season after Probert underwent rehabilitation. Still, he played in only 29 games between the 1988-89 and 1989-90 seasons.
But once he got back to the NHL, he was nearly the same as he was before. In the three seasons from 1990-92, he averaged 17 goals, 42 points and nearly 300 penalty minutes. But that didn't keep him from getting into trouble, and, after yet another misstep in 1994, the team had had enough.
"This is the end," said senior vice-president Jim Devellano at the time. "(In) my 12 years with the organization ... we've never spent more time on one player and his problems than we have on Probert."
But Devellano, talking later that summer, summarized what made Probert so special. He was asked if Chicago should take a chance on Probert.
"...(It) says teams are looking for a charismatic guy to sell tickets. Bob Probert is charismatic, for all the wrong reasons."
Probert had many supporters, and few as big as Don Cherry, the colorful former NHL coach who now does commentary for Hockey Night In Canada. Cherry has bemoaned the dearth of players such as Probert, who would make sure no one took cheap shots at star players.
Cherry, who once helped produced an NHL fight video, also knew that so many fans clamored for the rough stuff that Probert and Domi willingly doled out. When Domi was a young player on the New York Rangers, he begged Probert for a fight. The resulting series of fights are still debated. Who won? Cherry would say the fans.
"They told me that Probert and Domi was the best thing that ever happened to New York in years," Cherry said.