BLESSED, CURSED PROBERT STILL FIGHTS THE BATTLE OF HIS LIFE

He answers the door, invites you in, offers a cup of coffee. The small apartment is decorated in earth tones, almost cozy in the early morning light. A bookcase holds the jet-black stereo equipment, lights flickering silently behind smoked glass. Neat. Clean. Maybe you figured the place would be a mess, dirty clothes stuffed under a mattress, the remains of last night’s party all over the floor. Wouldn’t that be a hockey player’s lifestyle?

“See this?” he says softly, fingering a large canvas wall painting. “I really like this. . . . I don’t know. . . . It was the last one, and I liked the way it looked, the colors and all . . . “

Bob Probert shrugs. He lives here, in this Riverfront apartment overlooking Joe Louis Arena, because he needs to walk to work. He has no driver’s license. Probert is an alcoholic, a fact that dogs him like a shadow. He is uncomfortable talking about it, as you would be, uncomfortable with the drunken- driving incidents, the night he spent in jail, the medication he must take. But he agrees to talk about it, because his problems, like this apartment, are something he must live with — and one day move away from.

This is a story about a bruising young man who tries to nurse a Coke while his teammates drink beer, who sits in the passenger seat all the time now, who is staring down the barrel of an indescribable urge for something he knows will only cause him trouble.

It takes courage.

He is trying.

“I want to put it all behind me,” says Probert, looking straight ahead as he speaks, “I want to concentrate on hockey. I’m tired of having my name just associated with bad things . . . “

Have you ever known a child who caused you headache after headache, yet somehow got under your skin — so you grew mad, maybe furious, but you always gave him another chance? Bob Probert, 22, is a boyish soul inside a big man’s body, 6-foot-3 the way some people are 6-foot-10, imposing, intimidating, yet blessed and cursed with the look of an orphan. “You see him, even when he’s just gotten into trouble,” says his coach, Jacques Demers,
“and he has that look that says, ‘I’m sorry. Help me.’ “

The Detroit Red Wings have been trying to help Probert almost since he joined them in 1985. His bouts with alcohol have crashed them through barriers, brushes with the law, disruptive behavior. Yet in between he’s played some beautiful hockey. ”God touched him with talent,” admits a coach. Right now, Probert, a powerful wing, is second in the NHL in game-winning goals. He is playing on the first line with Steve Yzerman and Gerard Gallant. He’s doing great. And therein lies the dilemma:

The Wings need him.

And they need to help him.

“I’ve struggled with the moral and professional aspects of what we’re doing,” says Colin Campbell, the assistant coach who has become Probert’s unofficial guardian, driving him to probation meetings, getting him home, making sure he stays ready to play. “It’s hard. My job is to get Bobby on the ice at all costs. But sometimes you think he should have a bigger price to pay for doing the wrong things . . . that it’s the only way he’ll overcome his sickness. He doesn’t really need people slapping his back and telling him what a great hockey player he is. He needs to be told the truth.”

He pauses.

“Then again, I think hockey has saved Bobby. So what’s the right thing to do?”

Who’s to say? You will hear a lot of things about Bob Probert, but no one will tell you he is evil, or a bad guy. What he is, perhaps, is too easily influenced. You get serious, he gets serious. Laugh like a party animal, he’s right there with you. Give him a chance to be irresponsible . . .

Who is the real No. 24? Is it the laughing young man so good-natured that telling people “no” takes him half an hour, the player who, despite his
“tough guy” reputation, has never fought with a teammate or started unprovoked trouble?

Or is it the troubled person who once drunkenly assaulted a police officer, has gone through several rehabilitation centers, and is one offense from being locked up for a long time?

Who’s to say? Probert claims he has not had a drink since last summer. And when he says it, you believe him. But a few weeks ago, after Probert skipped on several Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, a judge slapped him in jail for a night. And the questions arose again: Why wasn’t he going? What’s the problem? Quiet and good-natured? Irresponsible and troubled? How can this be the same guy?

“I don’t know why it all happened,” says Probert, sighing, as he runs a fist through his wavy brown hair. “A lot of it started during my first year in the pros. . . . I got a little carried away with things. I was playing in Detroit, just across from my hometown (Windsor). It was a big thrill. A lot of people were coming up to me, wanting to buy a drink. . . . But I can’t blame them for my problems. I could have said no . . . “

He says he has been drinking since he was a teenager. He says he never intended to make trouble. He says he knows he shouldn’t ever drink again. He is trying.

“It’s just that things have been going really well lately. My hockey’s been good. I’m really getting a chance to play. And then this little incident happens and everything comes up again. I know I missed some meetings, but I don’t think I deserved to go to jail because of it.”

“What should they have done?” he is asked.

He swallows. His expression is blank.

“I don’t know,” he says softly. “I guess . . . there was nothing else that could have been done.”

Let’s face it: Many people figure Bob Probert has used up his good graces. They say others have it tougher — others who face alcohol alone. Probert, for all his trouble, still has his job, a sizable income, and an organization that embraces him rather than rejects him.

Then again, the average alcoholic is not greeted at his office by reporters. Nor does he have to stand before a group of strangers who know him
— although he doesn’t know them — and say “My name is Bob Probert. I am an alcoholic.”

But everything is magnified when you are a pro athlete. Good and bad. It was just about a year ago that Probert left a Windsor tavern after drinking with friends, and crashed his 1986 Monte Carlo into a concrete utility pole. One year earlier, a Philadelphia goalie named Pelle Lindbergh had done the same thing.

Lindbergh died.

Probert was pulled from the car with minor injuries.

“I guess I was lucky and unlucky,” he says. “Lucky that I wasn’t killed. Unlucky that I was caught.” As they took him to the hospital that night, he remembers thinking he had just ended his hockey career; the Wings would surely disown him now. Instead, he met the next day with Demers, who did something some fans hailed and others decried: he swore he would stick by his player and make him better.

“Look, my father was an alcoholic,” Demers explains, “I know that it’s a sickness. I know what my dad went through. He didn’t want to be it. He couldn’t help it. When he died, I was a teenager. I cried, wondering why he did it . . .

“When people say, ‘Jacques, you just kept Proby because he’s good and you need him on your team,’ it knocks the bleep out of me. If he just did things to mock the team or the coach, then I wouldn’t stick by him. But I remember saying: ‘Why did my father die? Why didn’t he help himself?’. . . . Maybe I could be like a father to Bob. He wants to fight it, like my father didn’t . .
.

“Proby has given me more problems than any player I’ve ever coached. But I think he’s saying he needs help. He has a sickness. He’s going to have to fight this the rest of his life. And as long as I am coaching the Detroit Red Wings, I’m going to try and take care of him. I don’t care what anybody says about it.”

Back in the apartment, Probert sips from the coffee cup. The television is flashing silent images. He is talking now about hockey, a preferred subject.
“My father (a police officer who died five years ago) got me into the game as a little kid. He would have loved to see me play in the NHL. He never did. Not even junior hockey. But he would have really enjoyed it.”

Why not? There are nights when Probert muscles around the ice, checking opponents, scoring goals — like the critical go- ahead punch he provided in last week’s 8-3 win over Minnesota. On those nights, everything seems right.

The coaches are happy. He is happy. He is in prime time, first line, skating with Yzerman. Who knows how good he can get?

“Let’s face it, he’s a great talent,” says Campbell. “That’s what makes it so rough. Here’s one of Detroit’s premiere athletes, making good money, recognized on the street, and he’s got to hitch rides with everybody. That’s humbling. It’s belittling. But he knows it’s the price he has to pay.”

“I honestly believe he’s remorseful,” adds Demers. “He’ll look you in the eye and you can tell. He says ‘I’m real sorry, Jacques. You treat me well, and I did this.’ ”

It is easy to get frustrated with Bob Probert. We see athletes as having it all — money, fame, fun — so succumbing to habits such as alcohol and drugs is, in our minds, stupid. But it is not that simple. What Probert endures every day is a plague of sorts, an itch that can’t be scratched. “A chemical dependency,” says Demers, “that goes back years.” To fight that doesn’t take a hockey uniform, or money, nor an organization.

It takes courage.

He is trying.

The coffee is about gone. The conversation is winding down. You look around the apartment.”It’s a nice place,” you say.

“Thanks,” he says.

“If you didn’t have to live so close, would–‘

“No,” he answers, “I’d live in the suburbs like the other guys.”

He pauses.

“Although, you know, this is nice and all . . . “

The Detroit probation period ends in February (the one in Windsor continues for several more months). If Probert stays clean, he will be permitted to return to an unencumbered lifestyle. You ask if, come February, he would even consider taking a drink again. You expect to hear: “Absolutely not.” Instead he says:

“I don’t know. We’ll have to see.”

And you wonder. Is he being irresponsible? Is he being realistic? What is behind the sympathetic look on the face? You think about the lonely cell he had to sleep in a few weeks ago. You think about the victory party the Wings threw last season, avoiding champagne so as not to tempt their teammate. You think about a 22-year-old being “baby-sat” by a coach and having to walk to work and drink pop. And you think about that night in Windsor, had there been someone else on the road when he swerved out of control . . .

It is 10 a.m. Not wanting to be late for practice, he asks for a lift, and you say sure. As he throws on his coat, like a kid heading out to play, you realize that Bob Probert can make you both angry and sympathetic — at the very same moment — and in that way, he is really like most young people trying to grow up. He is trying. You keep coming back to that.

“Ready to go?”

“Yeah,” he says.

And you head down in the elevator to the real world, where things are never as easy as they should be. CUTLINE Solitary Bob Probert takes the ice at Joe Louis Arena — “I want to put it all behind me,” he says.

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