He finally hit bottom in the cold dawn of Thursday morning, when a U.S. customs agent made him drop his pants and watched a packet of cocaine fall out of his underwear. Standing there, in a windowless room at the American border, alone, about to be charged with drug smuggling, Bob Probert was no longer a hockey player. He was no longer a Detroit Red Wing. He was no longer some tragic hero to the boozy faithful at Joe Louis Arena, who all along have continued to chant, “Hey, leave Probert alone!”
He was a criminal suspect.
Arrested. Cuffed. And led away.
What did we expect? A happy ending? Bob Probert has been in trouble since he was a teenager. He would get stupidly drunk, he would wrap a car around a telephone pole, he would party the night before a playoff game. He was addicted to alcohol, and apparently had developed at least a taste for cocaine, maybe more. He would follow the devils at night and lie to the angels in the morning.
“Probie, have you been drinking?” the Red Wings brass would ask him, looking at his eyes. “Probie, have you been using drugs?’
“No way. Nuh-uh. No.”
What is that expression? You can run but you cannot hide. There is no hiding what the Wings knew for some time now — that Probert was more than just a big kid who enjoyed his beer. That there were numerous reports of his drug involvement. That the only reason he was back on the ice was to dust him off so maybe some other team would trade for him, any team, take him, please. No more hiding. When 14 grams of cocaine are found in your shorts, you have a hard time pleading ignorance.
“I knew about the alcohol, and I heard rumors about this other stuff,” admitted an anguished Jacques Demers, the Red Wings coach, Thursday morning.
“But rumors are rumors. We never saw him do anything. We never caught him. Nobody ever brought Bob Probert in to me with his arm twisted behind his back and said, ‘Hey, we just found this guy with a couple grams of cocaine.’ “
Not until Thursday.
And now it’s too late. Probert was marched before a magistrate, dressed in the same gray suit he had peeled off in front of the customs agents at the Canada-U.S. border. He was charged with a crime that is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. He posted bond, and left.
“He has given this team some black eyes in the past,” said Demers, shaking his head, “but this time, he split the eye right open.”
‘We tried . . .’
In recent weeks, the Wings tried desperately to trade Probert. That, Demers said, was the only reason they brought him back. “We weren’t asking for the moon either. We would have taken very little. We tried. We honestly tried.”
Yes. Everybody tried. No one succeeded. And no one is completely innocent in this story. The Wings probably should have traded Probert following the Edmonton drinking incident last April, when his market value was high but his credibility was shot. They kept him because they wanted a Stanley Cup, fast and glorious, they were so close! And a healthy Probert could help them get it. In his one good season, he was a hockey rarity: a scorer and a fighter. Blinded by his good light, the Wings held on, overlooking, excusing, until slowly, in their too-forgiving grasp, Probert turned to dust.
Maybe if they had traded him he would have straightened up. Maybe he would have realized he only gets so many chances. Maybe not. Somewhere in the process, the whole thing soured, Probert lost sight of hockey and career. By the time he came to the Wings last November, demanding that he at least get his paycheck even if they didn’t play him, they should have known. An athlete with rumored drug problems who is satisfied to get paid and not work? What do you think he wants the money for? Canned goods? A shadow’s trail
Probert’s locker was already empty by the time reporters stormed the dressing room Thursday. His teammates seemed both remorseful and, in a weird way, relieved. Probert’s shadow has hung over this team like a bad childhood. Wherever they went, the players were asked about him — his drinking, his arrests, his walking out of rehab centers — him, and not hockey. Now, with the shadow in handcuffs, no one knew what to say. Some made jokes. Some made judgments. Some just shrugged.
“What would you tell Probert right now?” someone asked Steve Yzerman, the captain, who, like his fallen teammate, is 23.
“I wouldn’t know what to say,” he answered. “I haven’t known what to say to him for a long time. . . .”
That, in the end, was pretty much the problem. The Wings could not talk to Probert, they could not reason with him, they could not reach him. Pro sports are usually a tight fraternity, players protect players. But it is not coincidental that Probert was arrested Thursday in the company of two women and one man who had nothing to do with hockey. What Red Wing would run with Probert anymore? Whom could he trust with his secrets?
“We did everything we could for Bob,” said Jimmy Devellano, the general manager, “rehab centers, counseling, doctors, dealing with the family. If we are guilty of anything, it may be too many efforts to prop him up, prop him up. He has a sickness, but he never reached rock bottom where he said, ‘I need help.'”
Is he saying it today?
‘The big lie’
Who is to blame for Bob Probert? First and foremost, Bob Probert. No one pushed that cocaine in his underwear, and no one forced him out until 5 in the morning after a game. Like most too-forgiven athletes, he thought he could beat the system. He had squirmed his way out of discipline, trade talk, media. Why not a border crossing?
Still, the Wings must share some guilt. They treated the situation like a yo-yo, they never played the trump card — a trade — mostly for fear of somehow being less successful, and therefore losing fans. Instead they lost team unity, team direction, and, in the end, lost Probert as well. The Wings now face the same future as they would had Probert been traded for a box of sticks.
And what about the fans? When Probert’s beer drinking problems first surfaced, there was a wave of sympathy that washed over the criticism. Leave Probert alone. Stop picking on him. “I think the fans are behind me,” Probert had said more than once upon his return. Did that somehow encourage him toward more trouble?
“Personally, I feel sadness,” said Mike O’Connell, the defenseman who sat next to Probert in the locker room and found himself suddenly, Thursday, sitting next to nothing. “Think back to when you were 23. Now think of how old you are today. And imagine if all those years were lost, thrown away on cocaine. It’s the big lie, isn’t it? Just like they say. It’s sad.”
It is sad. There were no doubt days when Probert meant to turn his life around. And nights when he forgot all about it. He is sadly guilty, yes, a nice guy, yes, but it is hard to see him as a helpless victim. He has a disease, alcoholism, but he has been handed countless chances to treat it. How many alcoholics out there are offered a steady paycheck, airfare to California, treatment at the Betty Ford Center and a job whenever they return? And since when done does alcoholism excuse cocaine? At some point, you figure,
a man is responsible for himself. That doesn’t mean you can’t feel sorry for Bob Probert. It does mean that sneaking drugs across a border is a crime, any way you slice it.
“I guess this ends our Bob Probert problem,” Yzerman said, shrugging, “in the wrong way.”
Sadly, and neatly, put.
There is no satisfaction in all this. And there is no outrage. How can there be? This week’s stories have included a baseball hero being sued by his mistress, an Olympic gold medalist who built his body from a chemistry set. Outrage? What did we expect? We live in a nation where the rich and foolish seem destined to get caught, sooner or later, with their pants down. And there are few happy endings anymore. CUTLINE This GMC, sitting outside the U.S. Customs station in Detroit, was seized Thursday after Bob Probert was arrested on cocaine smuggling charges. A bottle labeled Peppermint Schnapps in Probert’s GMC.Detroit Red Wings player Bob Probert, left, with his attorney, Harold Fried, after Probert’s arraignment in U.S. District Court in Detroit Thursday on cocaine smuggling charges.