July 06, 2010
Ken Daneyko played hockey vs. Bob Probert. He traded blows with Bob Probert. He shared personal pain with Bob Probert. But, most recently, he experienced the lovely nuances of professional figure skating with one of the most feared men in hockey history.
Daneyko and Probert both appeared on CBC's "Battle of the Blades," a hockey-pros-meet-figure-skaters competitive reality show that became a ratings sensation in Canada last season. Probert -- who amassed 3,300 penalty minutes with the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks during 16 NHL seasons -- helped launch the brand with former sparring partner Tie Domi, as the two notorious pugilists were poster boys for the show's juxtaposition between the beasts and the beauties.
"He was a good guy. A big teddy bear," recalled Daneyko of Probert. "It was real ironic. My girlfriend spent some time with us at 'Battle of the Blades' and she said, ‘Is he really one of he toughest guys ever?' and I said, 'Yeah, he really is.'"
Probert's competitive spirit was alive on "Blades," working hard in 5-day-a-week practices before the show began. So it crushed him when he was the first player eliminated in the Battle.
"We felt bad for him, because we all bonded," said Daneyko, recalling a dinner some of the players attended with Probert after his elimination from the show. "We didn't really want to see anyone lose out first. We tried to ease the pain for him."
If there was something Probert knew in his short but noteworthy life, it was pain.
Probert died at 45 years old on Monday, collapsing on a boat and unable to be resuscitated by EMS workers at Windsor Regional Hospital in Ontario. Upon hearing the news, Daneyko and Domi spent a good portion of the afternoon talking with each other about what Daneyko called a "devastating" loss.
The loss of a friend. The loss of a competitor. The loss of a parallel life to his. And, in some ways, the loss of a player that helped define an era of NHL hockey that's completely foreign to today's product.
Probert was drafted No. 46 overall in the 1983 NHL Entry Draft by the Detroit Red Wings; Daneyko was taken No. 18 overall in the 1982 Entry Draft by the New Jersey Devils. They would compete in the minor leagues and then in the NHL during their lengthy careers.
On March 6, 1986, the two fought in a game between the Devils and the Wings. "It was an envious thing. When all was said and done, he may have been the toughest ever," said Daneyko.
At that time, Probert was on his way to earning his status as the League's top fighter. He had 16 tilts that season, followed by 17 the following season and then 23 in 1987-88.
"Everybody called him the king. He was the heavyweight champ," said Daneyko. "Every young, tough kid in the League wanted to test him because he was Bob Probert. Even when he was older and wasn't the best."
One of those kids was Devils strongman Troy Crowder, a 6-4 forward from Sudbury who fought his way into the NHL. In Oct. 1990, he took on the king and ... well, he crowned him:
Bloodying Bob Probert in a fight was akin to striking out Tony Gwynn with a 70-mile-an-hour fastball down the middle of the plate: It felt like an athletic impossibility at the time.
Here's why Probert was an iconic player: This loss to Crowder became national hockey news in an era when fights were traded on VHS tapes through the mail rather than streamed on YouTube. A time when fighting wasn't something League marketers attempted shove down the basement stairs into a darkened corner of the house.
He was as compelling a gate attraction as any scorer not named Gretzky or Mario; a player that could sell thousands of tickets or bring eyes to television sets on the promise of a fight against the other team's big goon.
It's hard to imagine, watching today's product, that fights or fighters mattered that much, but they did. And just like in boxing or wrestling, it was because of a strong champion. Probert was Hulk Hogan, taking on every new heel. Probert was Mike Tyson slicing through opponents like they were unworthy -- until someone finally Buster Douglas'd him.
"I remember this like it was yesterday. Troy caught him [in] the jersey and cut him a little bit," said Daneyko. "The rematch was three months later. As big as Muhammad Ali/Joe Frazier was, that was how big this rematch was." he said.
How big? Don Cherry and Ron MacLean showed up in Detroit despite not being on the broadcast, according to Daneyko, to watch the fight. The sold-out arena had nearly every seat filled during warm-ups. And the local Detroit papers even printed a tale of the tape between Probert and Crowder the day of the game. "They had reach, they had weights. It was almost comical," recalled Daneyko.
What the fans, the media and the players saw on Jan. 28, 1991 was the champ earn the belt back:
(Crowder attempted to save face by jumping Probert for a second fight later in the night.)
Thinking about those fights, Daneyko is thankful for one thing about Probert: "I was glad he was in the Western Conference and I was in the Eastern Conference," he said with a laugh.
"That was the level of respect you had for him. Nevermind his toughness: He was one of the better tough players in the league. He had skill. He wasn't just a thug.
"You see a lot of these tough guys play for eight teams. But he was that good of a player."
Probert had to conquer the goon label, despite 384 career points, but that was the least of what he had to overcome in his career; it didn't compare to the damage his reputation suffered from his own demons.
Probert's career soon was compromised by recurring alcohol and drug problems. In 1989 he was arrested for cocaine possession while crossing the Detroit-Windsor border and sent to federal prison, limiting his 1988-89 season to four games. He played for the Red Wings for the next four seasons but had multiple arrests for driving under the influence. After he was involved in a July 1994 motorcycle crash in West Bloomfield, Mich., and police determined that he had alcohol and trace amounts of cocaine in his system, the team gave him his outright release.
Bob Pulford, the Hawks' senior vice president at the time, decided to give Probert another chance and signed him on July 23, 1994. But that September the NHL suspended him for the entire season for violating the league's substance abuse policy and it wasn't until the following season that he made his Chicago debut.
Probert's death appears to have been via a heart attack, but Daneyko said his past may hinder some fans from accepting the facts: "It sounds like it was just a heart attack. Not that it matters whatever it was, because everyone's gonna ... he had been clean for a long time, you know?"
Daneyko understood Probert's failings, having suffered through a prolonged battle with alcoholism during this career. "We had a lot of parallels in our career, and that's how we got to know each other. We'd see each other in the hallway after the game and talk. You have that kinship.
"He had his problems. Like we all do."
Like Daneyko, we remember Probert's flaws as much as we remember his fights, because they're what defined Bob Probert.
And in some ways, Bob Probert is what defined a specific era of NHL hockey -- when the rogues' gallery was as popular as the marketable stars. He helped create a legacy whose DNA can be found in fans that understand fighting's place in the Game even as it's marginalized; and in sites like HockeyFights.com, which chronicle the pugilistic adventures of Probert, Domi and that generation of brawlers.
It's a legacy whose brute force was so memorable that it could be used for comedic effect to launch a figure skating program, without tarnishing its legacy:
In the clip, Probert calls his fighting career "a job" and sees himself as a "big teddy bear." It's a phrase Daneyko used more than once in describing his late friend.
"He was a wonderful guy. It's very sad," he said.