EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — So this is what we learned from the Red Wings’ 1990 opener: Bob Probert can still knock the crap out of New Jersey.
This will make certain fans very happy. I am talking about the goons who think hockey was invented to give men a place to bleed. They were probably rocking by their TV sets Thursday night, yelling, “Get ‘im Probie! Deck him, Probie! Awwwright! Is this guy great or what?”
He was great all right, if you like scar tissue. About eight minutes into the new season, Probert raised a wicked elbow into the face of Claude Lemieux, lifting Lemieux the way a bomb lifts a boat, right out of the ocean and plop, right back down. Lemieux spent a few minutes on his knees, asking the trainers if he had passed the second grade.
Probert was jeered lustily and went to the penalty box.
In the second period, he apparently heard the bell again and this time came out swinging at the Devils’ Al Stewart, who is no relation to the 1970s rock singer, although he might look like him this morning. On Stewart, Probert got in more blows than Hearns and Hagler combined. I must say he was fair; when he got tired of the right hand, he switched his grip on Stewart’s jersey and smashed him from the left. The linesmen might have stepped in, but, hey, they have families. Even the fans were gasping. And they live in New Jersey.
Finally, Probert was jeered lustily and taken to the penalty box. By this point, he was thinking about ordering a VCR and some tapes for the place. Devils sneak in an ex-boxer But wait. He wasn’t finished. Nine minutes later, he squared off against a kid named Troy Crowder, who didn’t bother to tell Probert he was once considered an Olympic boxing hopeful in Canada. Boom! Probert was cut near the right eye, bleeding noticeably. Crowder got in a few more licks, then yanked Probert’s sweater halfway over his head, so he was punching a man in a pillowcase. This, of course, made Crowder the hero of thousands, and he can now get a free beer anywhere in New Jersey. In the end, Probert looked more amazed than anything else, kind of like Mongo in “Blazing Saddles” after Sheriff Bart blows him up.
Probert was jeered lustily and taken to the penalty box. We won’t talk about the stitches.
And so another NHL season is under way, and the great tradition of knocking the spit out of each other continues. I guess there are people who think this is really terrific, and this doesn’t surprise me, because there are people who think the New England Patriots have the right idea about women. These are not people I want to spend an evening with.
Listen. I am no prude. I find the fighting in hockey ridiculous, but if they don’t mind it, who am I to interfere? Let them smack each other silly. As long as they don’t treat normal people that way.
The sad thing is, for all the years I’ve been watching the NHL, I still don’t get it. When did skating and stickwork become so boring that you need a good demolition to spruce things up? Probert spent 16 minutes in the penalty box Thursday. I’m glad he’s back on the team. It would have been nice to see him play.
There are people who ask what all this fighting is doing in hockey. And the goons, who always have an explanation, say, “Fighting is a part of hockey.” People ask what Probert contributes besides slamming someone’s head. And the goons say, “He doesn’t have to contribute anything else. Heh-heh.”
I asked Bryan Murray, the Wings’ new coach, who seems like a fine, thoughtful man, what he thought about all the fist-n- cuffs in his league.
“You have to have tough guys like Bobby,” he said. “You have to intimidate, or you’ll get pushed around in this league. We tried for years to win in Washington without an intimidator. It couldn’t be done.’ That says a lot, doesn’t it? The pregame beats the game Before Thursday’s game, before Probert vs. New Jersey, I ran into Glen Hanlon in the lobby of the Meadowlands Hilton. He was wearing a suit and tie. He was headed for the door. It was two hours before the bus left. I asked where he was going.
“I always go to the rink early,” he said. “Ever since I’ve been in the NHL.” Turns out Hanlon, the nicest goalie in North America, has been the first player in the locker room for almost every game of his career. And he has been playing 14 years. He likes the quiet. He likes wandering around like some explorer in a cave. He likes to feel the room come to life, to see the others trickle in, lift their sticks from the racks, hear their laughter. For Hanlon, it’s like going through the birth canal all over again.
Hanlon is 33, he is just about finished now. He wasn’t sure he’d even make the squad this season. So he plans to savor every second. “I love hockey. When I can’t come to the rink early anymore, it’ll be the hardest thing I ever have to give up,” he said.
He laughed. “You think maybe they’ll give me a key and let me come by and hang around?”
I watched Hanlon get a car and head for the rink. And I suppose this is really the mystery of hockey’s appeal. Some guys arrive early for all that cold, wonderful atmosphere and some guys arrive early to soak their knuckles.
When the final horn sounded Thursday night, you know where the Wings and Devils were? Locked in a messy pile, swinging at each other, sticks and helmets flying, even as the fans headed for the exits.
Hockey season. We’re under way.