Slowly the book closes on Bob Probert. He matters less and less around here, and that can only be good, because for so many years he mattered too much. Wednesday night at Joe Louis Arena, his return was as hyped as the opening of “Showgirls” — and, in the end, it had even less impact.

Nobody cared. No one made a lot of noise. Probert skated out in a Chicago uniform and got a round of boos along with some scratchy applause. And that was that.

No standing ovations. No banners welcoming him home. His boozy faithful must be sobering up, or maybe they just got tired of yelling, “Probie! Probie!” and watching him do nothing more than lumber around like a sequoia on skates.

Or maybe, just maybe, we’re all a little older and smart enough to see the obvious: The Wings have played their best hockey since Bob Probert left. What else matters?

Every day we close the book.

“I’m much more settled now. My life is definitely going better,” Probert told ESPN2 in a pre-game interview.

Wonderful. We’re all happy. For a long, long time, Probert’s life of booze, drugs, rehab and broken promises was daily conversation in this town. His waves made Detroit seasick. Every time he took on water, Detroit choked.

But that kind of empathy can only go on so long. His hockey deteriorated. His fighting was less and less frequent. He couldn’t even play when the team left the country — because of immigration limitations. What the Wings did was in spite of him, not because of him. By the time he crashed his motorcycle in the summer of 1994, it was just another blot on one of the city’s worst driving records. People were sick of his story.

Maybe he sensed this. Certainly his agent did. He got a $6- million offer from the Blackhawks — a miracle in itself — and Bob Probert, fist-swinging hero of the working class, left town.

Every day we close the book. A non-factor in game

For the record, Probert’s first shift Wednesday lasted about a second, and his next shift was just as short. He had a couple of shots on goal, one very close chance that Chris Osgood blocked. The applause rose to the rafters after that shot — for Osgood, not Probert.

And after that, the guy was a non-factor. Most of the time you had to check to see if he was on the ice. The only player I saw him hit was Marc Bergevin, and they both ended up on their rear ends. Of course, the wisest move of the night may have come from coach Scotty Bowman, who scratched Stu Grimson (flu) before the game. With the bruising Grimson out, the obvious opponent for Probert was gone. The Wings’ next-best fighter, Darren McCarty, was also out, with a bad shoulder. That left only Keith Primeau, who does more than just look for a punch in the face.

Primeau scored a goal.

Probert never went near him.

And the Wings won, 3-1.

“I’m not surprised,” said Dino Ciccarelli after the game. “Your first game back you’re nervous. I bet Probert had a few moments where he wondered which bench he was supposed to skate back to.”

Up in the press box, scouting the Hawks, was Probert’s old Detroit coach, Jacques Demers. He, too, was once unimaginable in another team’s clothing. But

Demers’ devotion to Probert helped bring down his career here and eventually Demers was fired. He wound up in Montreal, won a Stanley Cup, then lost the team’s ear, and was let go this season. Now here he was, scouting for the Canadiens.

“What did you write about Probert?” I asked him late in the game.

“In the first period, he was OK. Good, not great. After that he disappeared. And he was not aggressive at all. Average. Just average.” More legend than fact

This, of course, is no surprise. Probert — who ducked in the showers and chose not to speak after the game — was always more legend than fact. He had one great season here, and one great playoff. He lived off that smoke for a long time.

So I loved it when Probert said this week about the Detroit media: “Screw them. All they did was find the negative.”

One day I’ll haul out the old issues of this newspaper, and we’ll stack the articles that celebrated Probert, that welcomed him after his comebacks, that printed what later proved to be his lies about himself — and we’ll stack them next to the “negative” articles, most of which were accounts of his own self-destructive behavior, and I’ll show you one giant pile and one small pile.

Remember that song by Paul Simon, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”?

It’s the perfect account of Probert and his fans.

Ironically, the song is called “The Boxer.”

You know the best moment of Wednesday night? Late in the first period, when Paul Coffey earned his 1,000th career assist, the first defenseman to ever achieve that mark. The game stopped and the crowd came to its feet, chanting
“COFF- EY! COFF-EY!” — which sounded eerily like another name they used to chant.

Perfect! Here we were, hyping a guy who made trouble, and the fans were standing for a guy who made points. Wednesday turned out to be an OK night after all.

Mitch Albom will sign copies of his new book, “Live Albom IV,” 7-8 p.m. today at Borders, Novi Town Center, and 1-2 p.m. Saturday, Doubleday Books, Somerset Mall, Troy.

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