PROBIE’S TOUGH STORY ENDED FAR TOO SOON

What is a man? Is he the worst he has ever done? If so, Bob Probert will be remembered for a night he dropped his pants at the Canadian border and a packet of cocaine fell out. He’ll be remembered for handcuffs, for jail, for alcoholism, for wrapping a Monte Carlo around a utility pole, for crashing a motorcycle with his bloodstream laced with substances, and for year after year single-handedly exhausting the patience of the Red Wings’ front office.

What is a man? Is he the best he has ever done? If so, Bob Probert will be remembered for a good heart, a gentle soul, a giant’s body that on skates could do that rarest of combinations, speed, score and wallop. He’ll be remembered for the countless attempts he made at cleaning up instead of giving up, his loyalty to his teammates, his love for his kids, and his sincere desire, each time he said it, to get his life together and live out his days in peace.

What is a man? Bob Probert, the son of a Windsor cop, was the most maddening athlete I have ever covered. Charming. Irresponsible. Repentant. Hard-headed.

And now he’s gone.

Lay down your arms, No. 24. A character from a video game

“I’ve always thought, ‘I’m Bob. I’m big guy Bob. I don’t need anyone’s help,’ ” he once told me. It was the kind of bitter honesty that made you want to give him another chance.

He got a lot of them.

Young kids won’t understand our fascination with Probert. They don’t make his kind anymore. But there is a reason you still see people wearing his jersey at Joe Louis Arena, more than 15 years since he last played for Detroit.

Coming up in the 1980s, Bob Probert was the sort of warrior they now model video game characters after. Relentless. Brutal. Single-minded. Unafraid of blood. He was an enforcer, a goon, a guy whose main purpose was to make sure nobody messed with his team’s stars. Someone touched Steve Yzerman? Bob Probert touched back hard. Someone ran the goalie? Probert ran him harder.

His fights are legendary and are no doubt being downloaded at a record clip this morning, after news of his sudden death Monday while boating with his family on Lake St. Clair.

But Probert’s battles on the ice were small compared to the ones he fought within. I remember choking up when he told me about his childhood, the early death of his father, the way his teenaged hockey pals encouraged him to drink, drink, drink until he was wrapped around a streetlight or vomiting in the street. As the big guy, the tough guy, in some ways, he never stood a chance. He was soaked with alcohol before he ever became an NHL player.

Once he had money, the parties were endless. Cocaine entered the picture, and with an addict’s personality, that was disaster for Probert. His border arrest was just the start of his high-profile troubles. This was a guy who, at times, couldn’t play away games because he wasn’t allowed out of the country, a guy who had to live within walking distance of the Joe because he wasn’t allowed to drive. I once did an interview at his place, and at the end he asked for a lift to the rink. His time in Detroit ended badly

“Even when he’s just gotten in trouble,” Jacques Demers once lamented, “he has that look that says, ‘I’m sorry. Help me.’ “

And you wanted to help. You wanted Probert to shake his demons. He had that ruddy face, that goofy grin, that tousled hair, the look of a man who could be so happy when he was happy. And he had such skill. So Demers, the coach, stuck out his neck, and Jimmy Devellano, the general manager, stuck out his neck, and Mike Ilitch, the owner, stuck out his neck, and in the end, they all got burned. Probert walked away after a motorcycle crash, signed a free-agent deal with Chicago and made millions more before retiring, finally, in 2002.

By that point, he was a memory here, part of the Bruise Brothers days, a guy who averaged more than 3.5 penalty minutes a game. Ironically, he checked out before the Wings began winning Stanley Cups and he never did get a ring. He had several incidents with the law and alcohol in 2004 and 2005. Most of us don’t know what the last few years have held.

He was 45 when he collapsed Monday afternoon. News spread quickly around here -“Bob Probert died?”- and we were stunned because he seemed so indestructible.

But no one is indestructible. Who knows what finally took him? But it took him too soon. Even to the end, you wanted Probert to make it. He should not be remembered by the worst he did, and he cannot be whitewashed by the best. But whether an opponent, an image, an addiction or a past, Bob Probert was always fighting something. He can lay down his arms now. And finally be at peace.

Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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