by | Dec 23, 1987 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

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 smoked glass bookcase holds jet-black stereo equipment, its lights flicking silently. 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 has to. He walks to work. He has no driver’s license. He is an alcoholic, a fact that dogs him like a 24-hour shadow. He is uncomfortable talking about it, as you would be, uncomfortable with the memories, with the drunk-driving incidents, with the night he spent in jail, with 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.

It takes courage.

He is trying.

“I want to put it all behind me,” he says, looking straight ahead as he speaks, “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 plucked a heart string, got under your skin — so you grew mad, 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 6-10, imposing, intimidating, yet blessed, and cursed, with the sympathetic face 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 the team in 1985. His bouts with alcohol have crashed them through a lot of barriers, brushes with the law, disruptive behavior. Yet in between there has been some beautiful hockey. “God touched him with talent,” says 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 monitor, driving him to probation meetings, getting him home, making sure he stays ready to play. “My job is to get Bobby on the ice at all costs. But sometimes you think he’s not learning. Maybe he should be penalized more. He doesn’t 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?”

It is a tough question, for Probert, lanky and strong, is nonetheless easily influenced. Get serious, he gets serious. Laugh like a party animal, he’s right there with you. Who is the real No. 24? Here is a young man so good-natured that telling people “no” takes him half an hour, a player who, despite his “tough guy” reputation, has never fought with a teammate or started unprovoked trouble. Yet he’s been convicted of drunken assault on a police officer, has gone through several alcohol rehabilitation centers, and is one offense from being locked up for a long time.

A few weeks ago, after Probert skipped several Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, a judge slapped him in jail for a night. Quiet. Good-natured. Irresponsible. Troubled. Where’s the sense to it? 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. . . . I could have said no. I can’t blame them for my problems.

“It’s just that things have been going really well lately. My hockey’s been good. And then this 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 have been done instead?” 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 — they 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 wanting to know how his rehab is coming. Nor does he stand in front of a group of strangers who know him — although he doesn’t know them — and say “My name is Bob Probert. I am an alcoholic.”

It was just about a year ago that he left a Windsor tavern after drinking with friends, and crashed his 1986 Monte Carlo into a 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 team would surely disown him now. Instead, he met the next day with Demers, who did something some fans decried and other hailed: 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 my dad died, I was a teenager. I was left crying, wondering why he did it . . .

“When people say, ‘Oh 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 figure I could be like a father to Bob Probert. 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.”

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 — when everything seems right. He is on track. 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. “Yet here’s one of Detroit’s premier athletes, making good money, recognized on the street, and he’s got to hitch rides with everybody. That’s humbling. It’s belittling. He can buy a car, but he has to park it for the next year. He knows it’s the price he has to pay.”

It is easy to get frustrated with Bob Probert. We see athletes as having it all, and weakness such as alcohol and drugs as “stupid.” 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, which means right or wrong doesn’t always enter into it. Sometimes it is just a gnawing sensation for a drink, and where it began and when it goes away doesn’t matter at the time. To fight that doesn’t take a hockey uniform, nor money, prestige, 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, I’d go to the suburbs like the other guys,” he answers. He pauses.
“Although you know, this is nice . . . “

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

“You want this door shut behind us?” you ask as you step out from the apartment, this place of convenience, the reminder that, for now, he still cannot live the way he wants, but the way he must.

“Yeah, shut it,” he says, “please.” 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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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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