When Dennis Bonvie was a young Edmonton Oilers prospect back in 1995, he remembers looking at a pre-season schedule, finding the date the Oilers were playing the Chicago Blackhawks and telling his dad, “I’m going to fight Bob Probert.”
Going mano-a-mano against Probert, arguably the greatest NHL enforcer of all-time, was how the then-21-year-old Bonvie knew he had to test his mettle and make his own name as a hockey heavyweight.
“It was an opportunity for me,” said Bonvie of fighting Probert. “I went out for the draw against him and said, ‘You’re either going to make me or break me.’
“It was true, I was either going to do well or go back to the minors and that would be it for me.”
Bonvie did well enough in the fight that he and Probert dropped the gloves for a return engagement a week later in Edmonton. The pair of tough guys eventually became teammates in Chicago during the 1998-99 season and Probert was always happy to share his secrets of the enforcing trade.
“He taught me a few tricks,” said Bonvie, now a pro scout with the Blackhawks. “He had so much longevity doing what he did, he taught me about controlling the shoulders and when and how to do it. He helped me understand my role a bit more, the right reasons when and why to (fight) for your team.”
Get an enforcer – from any level of hockey – to discuss Probert’s exploits and they’ll use the kind of reverential tone usually reserved for a religious figure because he influenced a whole generation of hockey tough guys.
“He was just such a smart fighter always thinking three or four punches in advance, so I would always try to emulate myself as a fighter after him,” said Brandon Sugden, who spent 12 years as an enforcer in North American pro leagues before moving to Russia’s KHL. “Everything about him was perfect.”
It’s understandable, then, that Sugden, like many hockey fans, is still reeling from Probert’s unexpected death on July 5 at age 45. The former Detroit Red Wings and Blackhawks winger collapsed during a boating trip with his family on Lake St. Clair in southwestern Ontario.
Probert was laid to rest on Friday in his native Windsor, Ont., and Bonvie said he’ll remember his NHL mentor as a loving family man and great hockey player.
“He was such a great family man,” said Bonvie, 36. “He’d come out afterward and give all his kids a big kiss and a hug. He was a big gentle giant, he really was.
“He was that type of guy, when he spoke up in the room, everybody listened. He was a great leader.”
Playing three seasons of junior with the OHL's Windsor Spitfires, current AHL tough guy Richard Greenop, 21, remembers seeing Probert around town often.
"I never heard anyone say a bad thing about him," said Greenop, a winger with the Toronto Marlies. "Everybody loved him, you'd see Probert jerseys all over the place at a Windsor (OHL) game. He had a huge impact."
Bonvie said Probert was always appreciative of the reputable heavyweights who were willing to fight him when he was a young up-and-comer in the NHL. So, once Probert had established himself as the NHL’s premier enforcer, he did the same, never turning down an opponent.
“He said, ‘Those guys gave me a shot to gain my credibility, so I’ll always give guys a shot,’ and he did that his whole career,” said Bonvie from his home in Nova Scotia. “You get sick of doing it, but these young guys want a chance, too, and he did it throughout his career – even though he didn’t have to – and he did it to the best of his ability making sure his teammates always felt comfortable (on the ice).”
Bonvie picked up on the many tips that Probert offered and went on to become professional hockey’s all-time penalty minutes leader with 4,493 PIMs (and 420 fighting majors) in 871 AHL games and 92 NHL contests. As far as Bonvie’s concerned, the era of players like Probert – talented enough to make an all-star team while instilling the utmost fear into the opposition – is waning.
“It’s hard to find those guys anymore and if you look through the junior ranks, you don’t get them a lot because that job has dwindled off,” said Bonvie. “The game has evolved and I’m not saying it’s for the worse because the game is a lot faster now and the skill is a lot higher.”
But Moose Jaw Warriors defenceman Dylan McIlrath, drafted 10th overall by the New York Rangers last month, said he’s more than capable of mixing skill with a good punch-up, just like Probert.
“Whether it’s fighting or just the intimidation factor, I think I can bring both of those things, it’s part of my role and it’s not going to change,” said the 18-year-old. “That’s something (Probert) brought to the table every night and it’s really valuable to a team. He did it well and hopefully I can, too.”
McIlrath is widely considered one of the toughest players in the Western Hockey League and finished with 19 fighting majors last season. And despite the fact McIlrath was only nine years old when Probert retired, he’s still familiar with the former enforcer’s handiwork thanks to YouTube.
“He was a pretty tough customer and really respected in the league for being a good fighter,” said McIlrath from his home in Winnipeg. “It’s really sad he’s gone.”
Growing up as a hockey fan in Alberta, it wasn’t uncommon to see Rocky Thompson and his brothers watching whatever NHL game happened to be on TV. It was there he and the rest of the Thompson clan found an appreciation for the “Bruise Brothers,” the late ’80s Detroit Red Wings duo of Probert and Joey Kocur.
It was Probert especially that resonated with Thompson, not because he was one of the NHL’s most feared pugilists, but because of his ability to also make a difference on the scoreboard.
“He was such a good hockey player as well,” said Thompson, 32, from his home in Sherwood Park, Alta. “He was able to play regularly and that’s something we all strived to do as well because we all wanted to be a complete player – and that’s what Bob was – there’s no doubt he was a huge influence on us.”
Thompson played parts of four NHL seasons and spent the majority of his time in the AHL where he was, like Probert, known as an enforcer putting up a career 2,036 PIMs. He fought many of the same characters as Probert – Bonvie, Georges Laraque, Donald Brashear, Stu Grimson – but never had the opportunity to drop the gloves with the man he so respected.
“I always ended up missing him, thank goodness. I’d like to think I would have put up a good fight, but would have lost, hopefully, a decision.
“Bob just proved on a night-to-night basis that if you were to fight him 10 times he’d always win the majority of them,” said Thompson, a former gold gloves champion boxer. “Not that he was unbeatable, because anyone in a hockey fight can be beat, but I just believe he’d be able to get the better of you in those 10 fights.”
As far as Thompson, Sugden, Greenop and Bonvie are concerned, Probert is the undisputed champion amongst his busted knuckles brethren not only for quality, but quantity of battles as well. When Probert was on the ice for his 16 NHL seasons, there were rarely any liberties taken with stars like Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov or Tony Amonte, just out of fear of having to answer to the big left winger.
“I think the best all-around enforcer ever,” said Thompson. “I think there were guys that hit harder than Bob did. But Bob, for how long he did it for, and the fact that he had to fight every single other tough guy, just his volume of fights was always really, really high.”
“He was never fighting any slouches,” said Bonvie. “He was fighting the best guys or the best up-and-comers, there were never any lightweights. He fought all the big guys on every team and he always said, ‘Yes’ but then the next shift he’d be out there up and down the ice throwing big hits or scoring goals.”
But how would Probert compare to the likes of old-school brawlers Stan Jonathan, Orland Kurtenbach, Tiger Williams or Dave ‘The Hammer” Schultz in the realm of all-time enforcer?
No one knows the old school better than Kingston Frontenacs (OHL) general manager Larry Mavety, who played in the old pro Western Hockey League, World Hockey Association and had an uncredited role in Slap Shot. The 68-year-old said it’s impossible to compare players across history because the game has changed so much, but Probert was definitely the best of his era.
“I didn’t really see a lot of guys that beat him, so I’d have to say he was one of the best I’ve ever seen,” said Mavety, who remembers coaching against Probert’s Brantford and Soo Greyhound squads in the early 1980s.
In the OHL, Mavety coached noted Probert opponents Craig Coxe, Marty McSorley and Troy Crowder back when “fights were a part of the game” and far more commonplace than they are today. He remembers Coxe and Probert squaring off on more than one occasion long before the pair became familiar opponents in the NHL.
“It all basically carried over from junior,” said Mavety. “But it wasn’t like one beat the (expletive) out of the other one, they were pretty even fights in junior. But they were pretty close in the NHL, too, and that was a classic one they had in Detroit.”
Still, Mavety said it’s all too painless for fans and pundits to debate the merits of Probert’s standing amongst the toughest enforcers ever from the comfort of a couch or arena seat.
“It’s easy to sit in the stands or be behind the bench and say, ‘Oh that guy’s pretty tough’…It’s the guys that are throwin’ em out there that really know.”
And as far as those guys are concerned, Probert was the undisputed champ.
Sunaya Sapurji is the Jr. Hockey Editor at Yahoo! Sports. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org