STAYING CLEAN LEAVES PROBERT LOOKING GOOD

Bob Probert was in a hot dog joint the other day when a stranger spotted him and the stranger was drunk and all of a sudden, he’s Probert’s best friend. He throws his arm around him, he’s slobbering, “Hey, Probie!” like they’re old pals.

“He wanted me to go muskie fishing with him,” Probert says. “He kept bothering me, saying let’s go, let’s go, we’ll have a great time. And at the end he says, ‘Hey, Probie, we’ll get a cooler and I’ll buy the beer.’

“Can you believe that? I mean, this guy must have read about me, right? He must know all the problems I’ve had. And he says, ‘I’ll buy the beer.’ “

I ask Probert what he would have done had he run into the guy two years ago.

Probert laughs. “Probably gone muskie fishing.”

Two years ago, Bob Probert wouldn’t be here, in this restaurant, on a Sunday morning, doing an interview. He would have stood me up, I’d call his place, get his machine, a few days later, he’d duck his head and grin and make up some excuse why he didn’t show. It would have been a lie. There were a million lies. Let’s face it, Bob Probert was so good at lying, he lied until he couldn’t lie anymore.

Now he is here, clear-eyed, drinking coffee. Everything with the waiter is
“please” and “thank you.” He’s had a good night’s sleep. You get those when you live at a halfway house with an 11 p.m. curfew. A woman comes over and asks for an autograph on the back of a bill and he says, “Sure.”

I told Probert a long time ago, when he was drinking, coming back, doing cocaine, getting suspended, going to prison, wondering why everyone was picking on him. I told him one day, when he thought he had it together, I’d talk to him and if I believed him, I’d write it. The same way I’ve written about his laundry list of mistakes. Last week he said he was ready.

I’m listening.

“I’ve come to the simple conclusion,” he says, “that every time I’ve been in trouble, gone to institutions or jail, it’s been because of substances, alcohol or whatever. If I stay away from this” — he puts one hand down on the side of his plate, then follows with the other — “I’ll stay away from this.”

“It’s been hard for me to ask for help. I never asked for it before. I always thought, I’m Bob, big guy Bob, I don’t need anyone’s help. I’m strong enough. But I was wrong.”

He is looking me in the eye. That is the first good sign. I ask him, really, when this whole thing began.

“In junior hockey, probably,” he says. “I was drinking heavy when I was 15. By 16, I was an alcoholic. Every night it was pretty much, let’s go out and get hammered. I thought it was normal. I was the biggest guy, and I could put them away, you know? It was like, ‘Let’s see how many Bob can drink tonight!’ And after awhile, that was how I wanted people to perceive me.”

When the others threw up, he laughed and kept drinking. When the others passed out, he opened another bottle. He joined the Red Wings and drank for most of the time he was there, and yet, he played pretty well, so they looked the other way. You try telling a guy who can deck a horse that maybe he’s had enough for the night. Besides, plenty of his teammates were doing it. The difference was this: They’d go home. Probert would find another bar.

He got in trouble. He wrapped his car around a telephone pole. The Wings came down on him. They gave him pills but he only took them when he felt like it. Then, when the money got big, somebody took out a line of cocaine and Probert fell in. Coke will help your alcohol habit, it lets you drink more, you feel like it’s always high noon. Besides, if you understand anything about addictive personalities, you know it doesn’t matter if it’s cocaine or Hershey bars. Once you want it, you’ve got to have it.

“My hockey went downhill. Some nights it was like, ‘Let’s get the game over so we can party.’ I didn’t care about anything. All I wanted to know was when the next good time was. . . . That night at the border, I wasn’t even thinking about getting caught.”

They booked him in his underwear, 13 grams in a plastic bag. Pretty soon he was in prison. During rehab, he sat for hours with other recovering addicts and everybody told a story.

I ask Probert, “Did any of them remind you of yourself?”

“Yeah,” he says, “we had all hit bottom.”

Last month Probert played four NHL games. Sober. They were probably the four most important games of his life. He felt good. He felt “alert.” He shocked people with how ready he was. When the season ended, the Wings had a wrap-up party at the Rattlesnake Club. They invited him. Without any advice from his lawyer, Harold Fried — who is with him most of the time now, and is sitting next to him in the restaurant — he didn’t go.

Probert says, “I don’t have any business being in a bar right now.”

Now a woman comes to the table. She drops off a business card. A tanning salon in Birmingham. She says, “Stop by.” Probert smiles, leaves the card on the table. Summer is coming. In a month or two, he will be done with the halfway house. He will still be on probation, and deportation (which has been appealed) still hangs over his head. But he will be, in most ways, free. He has a license. He can get an apartment. And that is when the counselors start to worry because the problem for a guy like Probert isn’t the bad times, it’s the good ones.

I ask what happens when one of his former party pals comes around? He says they’re not his pals anymore. I ask what happens when he starts to miss the fun? He says hangovers weren’t fun. I ask how he intends to fill the long summer days? He’s got a list: lift weights, skate, softball, golf, a college course at Wayne State. College? Yeah. In the last two weeks of his rehab program, he became a high school graduate. He crammed the material — math, social studies, science, history — took the GED exam, and passed.

Bob Probert was never dumb, just gullible.

You take a poll of this city and half say this guy got off without a scrape, and the other half — the half that calls him “Bobby” — say he did his time, leave him alone. It’s a big debate. You know what? Right now, it’s the second-most important issue.

This is the first: Is he straight?

He says yes, for today he is straight. That’s all a recovering addict can say. “I used to go to those rehab places and tell them, ‘I don’t have a problem, you have the problem.’ I don’t think that way anymore.

“I know I can’t afford any slips. One slip and I could be finished. I’ve taxed everybody’s patience. I pushed everything to the edge until I was hanging on the edge myself.”

Bob Probert looks at me. This is what he says: “I’m out of chances.”

You listen to this kid and maybe you figure he should have done more time, his lawyer is too good, let him flail like the rest of us. And maybe you’re right. But then you wonder, who would that help? If the point is to save his life, cynicism won’t do it. Neither will those clowns who invite him out for a booze cruise.

You ask me how he looks, I say I never saw him look this good. You ask me is he better, I answer with my fingers crossed. He has a whole city worth of freeloaders to avoid, and that is not easy. I watch him finish the coffee and sign another autograph. I told him I would write what he said one day if I believed him, but he leaves without asking if I do or I don’t. Good for him. It’s more important, right now, that he believes in himself.

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