“He was the toughest guy I've ever seen,” Tim Sassone wrote, “not to mention the best and scariest fighter of his generation, maybe ever.”
At six-foot-three and 225 pounds, Probert was an enforcer but not a goon; he was a skilled skater and scorer who accumulated 163 goals and 221 assists in his career—along with 3,300 penalty minutes. He was an All-Star for Detroit in 1987-88 when he logged 29 goals and 33 assists, then added 21 more points in 16 playoff games.
Probert played for Detroit from 1985 through 1994. Finally, the Red Wings tired of his recurring problems with alcohol and cocaine and cut him loose. After serving a year-long suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, Probert joined the Blackhawks in 1995 and played for them until his retirement in 2002. Although his best days were behind him, Probert gave the Hawks all he had in every game. He also stayed sober the entire time.
As had been the case in Detroit, Chicago players and fans discovered that there was more to Probert than met the eye. “Just a big teddy bear,” said teammate Doug Gilmour. “Off the ice, he was soft-spoken, laughed, smiled. But when he put a helmet on and would go on the ice, he was a fierce competitor. When you were playing against him, you’re intimidated. Then you get to meet him in person (our families hung around each other in Chicago as neighbors), and you get to see another side. I think everybody would say the same thing—he was a gentle giant. He cared about people. He cared about his team and, obviously, his family. We all loved him.”
Probert spent more time in the penalty box than all but four other players in NHL history. The most memorable of his hundreds of fights was a 1994 bout against Marty McSorley, who is one of the four. Probert, still with Detroit at the time, and McSorley of the Pittsburgh Penguins swapped punches for one minute and 44 seconds. After the linesmen finally stepped in, McSorley leaned forward and tapped his forehead against Probert’s. Probert reached up and affectionately tousled McSorley’s hair.
As the most renowned fighter in the NHL, Probert was expected to take on the other contenders and pretenders around the league on a nightly basis. “Probert hated preseason games,” Sassone wrote, “because that's when the young up-and-coming fighters always would want to test themselves against the best. Probert would oblige the kids and drop the gloves, giving them a story to tell.”
There must have been countless nights when Probert wasn’t in the mood to square off against every would-be tough guy who came along. But he did that dirty job uncomplainingly, and he never trash-talked or otherwise sought to embarrass the opponents whom he fought and usually vanquished. He was, as McSorley said admiringly, “an honest man.”