FRONT OFFICE SCREWED UP;RELEASING PROBERT A PLOY TO COVER WINGS’ TRACKS

Nothing for nothing. That’s the bottom line of the Bob Probert equation. You watch him walk out the door now, motorcycle helmet under his arm, off to make big cash and who knows what trouble someplace else, and all you can do is shake your head and say what a mess, what a waste, what an ending. For all the stupid sympathy the Red Wings gave this guy, all the excuses, the lying, the coddling, the protection, the rehab — not to mention the money — in the end, he gives them his worst season and walks freely out the door, thanks mostly to their mistake. Nothing for nothing.

And no surprise. Probert has been a hot potato to management for years; why be shocked that they mishandled him now? And they did. Oh, you can listen to the claims that “Bob’s no longer contributing” or that somehow, right now, in the third week of July, when they’re not even playing hockey, he’s hurting the club and he has to go. But come on. A little common sense here. Drinking, swerving on highways and late-night calls from police never caused the Red Wings to release Bob Probert before.

They do it now because they screwed up the paperwork, and they feared a judge would soon rule Probert an unrestricted free agent anyhow. It was math. Simple math. Probert’s salary was one amount. His deferred salary was another. The Wings — just weeks after firing Bryan Murray, who would have handled this — made a qualifying contract offer before the July 1 deadline based on the first figure; it may be they were supposed to include the second. If the offer isn’t high enough, the player becomes a free agent.

And if you think this sounds like a trite way to lose an employee, remember Mike Keenan just broke his Rangers contract because his bonus check came one day late. What’s trite when it comes to money? A war of words

The Wings don’t want to look foolish — which, when it comes to dealing with Bob Probert, is often unavoidable. How can you help it?

But rather than have a judge free Probert, the Wings make what in war is called a “preemptive strike.” They cluck their tongues and say, “We didn’t want him anyhow, he’s become an embarrassment” and, ta-da, Probert’s a free agent. You never get the ruling — why bother? — it’s a folded poker hand, the cards are reshuffled and everyone can claim he won. Or lost. How can you tell with Probert?

“I drafted him 11 years ago, and we’ve never spent more time on one player and his problems,” said Jimmy Devellano, the Wings’ senior vice president.
“It’s in his and our best interests to part company.”

This, of course, is what you expect Devellano to say. But forget words; follow the action. The whole reason the Wings put up with Probert all these years — the drinking, the drugs, the broken promises, the often uninspired play — is that it was good business. They thought he could win games. They thought he put people in the seats.

Now, all of a sudden, they just let him go for nothing? When all they had to do was keep him until another team made an offer, then give him up and get two or three first-round draft picks in return? Whoa. If that’s how the Ilitches are now doing business, I expect to get four pizzas for the price of one.

No. Much as I like Mike Ilitch and the Wings, it’s pretty obvious someone is playing “cover your rear end” here. But Probert fans should know that — draft picks aside — he probably wasn’t staying anyhow. I’m told the Wings made him an offer in excess of $1 million a year for three years — and there was still another team out there willing to pay more.

This, to me, is more incredible than his sudden departure. I figure the only smart business the Wings did here was to bow out of a bidding war for Probert. He’s not worth it.

Not with Scotty Bowman coaching this team. Don’t cry for Probert

Bowman didn’t care for Probert, and, more important, didn’t use him much. When a guy like Probert doesn’t feel effective, he plays ineffectively. And that’s before his off-ice problems. If there’s another team out there willing to use him more — I’m told the Rangers were ready to pay big for him, but that might have been when Keenan was there — then maybe he can get back to some kind of form.

Then again, he is 29 years old. He has fought a lot of fights. I don’t think he has the same zest for it — he certainly doesn’t have the same offensive skills that once made him an irresistible package — and contrary to popular belief, there are other goons out there with big fists. Quite frankly, the way Probert was coddled, lionized and given special treatment over the years was embarrassing to both the club and the community.

Yes, I know his boozy faithful at Joe Louis Arena will mourn. They’re probably dressed in black this morning. But so what? Are the Wings being run by these people? Like I said, he was probably gone anyhow.

The most ironic thing is that, as a result of this fiasco, Probert, who had a total of seven goals last season, may get mega-rich. Teams now can bid freely for him, giving up only money, not draft picks. Whatever personal problems he’s having — with alcohol, with driving, with conditioning — chances are he’ll soon sign his most lucrative contract yet.

Crazy? That’s sports. So, the last mistake the Wings make with Probert gives him his freedom. Nothing for nothing. Lousy ending. Then again, for those of us who have followed this story for years, it’s typical. Almost fitting.

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