In the end, they had to lock him out. The Red Wings told Bob Probert not to come back to the rink, stay home, we’ll all be better off. And maybe now his sad shadow will stop haunting this team.

End of the line. There is no way Probert will play for Detroit again, not after this — a virtual banning from the team, even if the Wings have to keep paying him — and yes, that will cut into their talent as a hockey club.

So what? Could that be any worse than what he has cut into already? Once upon a time, this was a team to build a dream on: young, hard-working, hungry. But between Probert’s drinking and his attitude — look you in the eye, tell you he’s OK, show up late, make an excuse, smirk, lie, and do it again — a cancer developed.

And lately he had pushed it to the limit. Slacked off. Played like a slug. “Do something. I dare you,” he seemed to say. And so, finally, they did.

End of the line. It is Probert’s fault and it is management’s fault. Jimmy Devellano and Jacques Demers fell in love with winning these past two seasons. “We got a taste,” Demers admitted Thursday. “And we said, ‘Geez, with these guys” — Probert and Petr Klima — “we might actually win a Stanley

Cup.’ “

So when problems arose — the drinking, the lies, the half- hearted efforts — they did everything to avoid giving up on them. Minor leagues. Suspensions. Heart-to-heart talks.

Nothing worked. The obvious would have been a trade. But we might win a Stanley Cup. In their hunger, they forgot what built this team, and what, if anything, will take it to an NHL championship.

Character.

It is time to get back to that. This morning, people may feel for management; they may feel for Probert, who is only 23. Here is who you should feel for: the other Red Wings players who never know which line they’ll play on — because they don’t know whether Probert will show. The other Red Wings players who pick up the newspapers and see their efforts buried under stories of Probert’s latest adventure.

Take a look at Steve Yzerman, Gerard Gallant, Steve Chiasson, Paul MacLean, Greg Stefan, Glen Hanlon and the rest.

Hey, Detroit.

This is your team now.

For better or worse. Stock took a plunge

This is your team. And if they have to win fewer games for a while, so be it. It is time to forget the vision of his swinging fists and sticks in magnificent glory; Bob Probert hasn’t been that Bob Probert for a long time. He never will be in Detroit. If the weight of his drinking problem doesn’t sink him here, the weight of expectations will.

Better he goes somewhere else. Better the Wings trade him and pray that the fresh environment will make him wake up. And that is what they will try to do now, desperately if they have to, because he has to get out.

Yes, they should have done it earlier. The Wings treated Probert the way a rookie investor treats a stock that has cost him a lot, made him a lot, and suddenly plummeted in value. “Gee,” he says, “if I sell it now, I only get half of what I paid. Maybe it’ll improve, so I won’t lose anything.’

But this is not paper were dealing with. These are people. Players. Probert’s distraction has cost the Red Wings, has ripped at their fiber, has divided their fans. When is the last time we talked about pure hockey in this town, instead of the latest misadventures of one or two screw-ups?

Time has come.

Perhaps you are a Bob Probert fan. You see the scenes of him banging in a last-second goal in the playoffs last year, or smashing some opponent who dared get in his way.

Fine. Here is what I see. I see a team ashamed to walk through the airport the morning after their final defeat to Edmonton.

I see Demers, his eyes puffy, his jowls sunk, trying to come up with some sort of answer.

I see players who are normally the friendliest of athletes, turning away and saying “no comment” when asked about the situation.

The Wings gave Probert chances. More than you know. He abused them. Expected more. Remember that he was only back on the team this time because his lawyer forced the issue. He has come full circle, from suspension to expulsion.

Sad. But this is the guy we are dealing with. I still remember a moment before a playoff game late last season. Probert was lighting a cigarette with a butane torch used for equipment.

“Probie! Don’t do that!” Demers screamed.

Probert just smiled and did it anyhow.

“Geez, Probie. That’s dangerous.”

Another smile.

“Next year I’m not going to let you smoke.”

“I’ll quit next year.”

“You hear me, Probie? I mean it. Next year.”

“Yeah.”

“Really. No more.”

“I know. I’ll quit.”

He took another puff and walked away.

End of the line. You can only get away with so much. Hockey is still a team game, team effort, and unless you plan on skating out there by yourself and playing all six positions, this team and you are history. The fans, team must carry on

And so now it is up to us. The fans. The ticket holders. Here is the truth: Detroit probably won’t have the success this year that it enjoyed last season. Probert’s skill will be missed, and Klima hasn’t played the way he did

in the playoffs.

But perhaps we should remember where we were three years ago. With the worst team in the NHL. We were happy for a 5-3 loss. Then Demers came along, wove gold from straw, a flame was lit.

Have we traveled so far that we can’t remember what sparks lit that fire?

Teamwork. Dedication. Hard checking. Attitude. This wasn’t a team that inherited a Wayne Gretzky. Everyone had to pull his weight, and so it must be again. And if they lose more at first, so what? I think people here are so in tune with their hockey team, they will realize the reasons and, hopefully, accept them. And if the Wings are eliminated in the second round of the playoffs this year — but they play hard, clean hockey and hold their heads high — would that really be worse than last season, third round, when our city was outraged by the drinking exploits of six misguided players, Probert included?

So he is shut out. Until something can be done. It is sad, unfortunate, but those words describe the last 10 around this team. Enough. Too much. We can only hope that whatever happens to Bob Probert will help him find his way back to being a great hockey player. He’s at the end of the line here. His uniform has been packed away. And the door is locked. CUTLINE

Bob Probert

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