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Life Of A Fighter Not Always Glamourous

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
It wouldn’t be fair to draw a line linking NHL tough guys with alcohol, drugs and early death.

The league’s all-time penalty leader Tiger Williams is somewhere out west enjoying a splendid retirement.

Number two man Dale Hunter has developed a sterling hockey program in London.

Former Leaf Tie Domi remains a man about town and the next guy on the list, Marty McSorley, was at last look enjoying Southern California with his wife the beach
volleyball player.

Next comes Bob Probert.

Full stop.

Probert, as you probably know, collapsed Monday aboard a boat. He was 45 and an autopsy should reveal the cause of death. His father died at 41 with a heart ailment but even so, it’s hard to discount the significance of unfathomable drinking and drugging in Probert’s death.

The funny thing about hockey is the toughest customers are often the best people. I’ve always held to a theory that whether you agree with their line of work or not (and I do not), fighters are honest people. They do what they do, almost always with the assent of their colleagues in the other sweater. They punch each other as often as they can then they go sit down.

A precious few, and Probert was among them, could play the game as well, but even in scoring, Probert relied on his well-earned sense of malice. Checking him would be like sticking your arm down a lion’s throat.

I spent some time with him one day in 1994 and was stunned at how blissfully unaware he was to the idea of consequences. We were heading to Windsor. Paul Coffey was driving Probert and I when he remembered he hadn’t brought his identification. This was the same border where Probert had been busted for cocaine. “Don’t worry, Coff” Probert said. “You’re with me.”

We sailed through and despite his well publicized troubles with the law; he slipped out of more trouble than anyone will ever know. Once, he fell asleep on a street corner with a bag of cocaine in his pocket

It was the fighting the fans at Joe Louis Arena loved, but there’s’ a reason once they reach their 30s, fighters often lose their love for fisticuffs.

They know a helmet can come off and their head can hit the ice. They know  a cheek or orbital bone can snap like a Thanksgiving wishbone. Most fighters come into the league loving to fight and leave loving the life they gained by fighting. It’s known as going from crusher to usher.

The Leafs, of course, have employed players anxious to trade their flesh and teeth for cash. Spinner Spencer was the model of a tough-guy agitator, but drugs and alcohol wrecked his life. He was shot in 1988 in a neighbourhood well known for the drug trade in Riviera Beach,  Florida.

Another fighter, John Kordic, died at 27. Kordic played 101 games with the Leafs and while he had been a solid junior player, he knew his future in the NHL lay in fighting and that fact ate away at him.  Reports have put the number of police officers it took to subdue him on his final binge at eight. He died of cardiac arrest.

Bob Gassoff, a St. Louis tough guy died in 1977 when after a bout of drinking he hopped on a motorcycle and was soon killed when hit by a car.

So you tell me. Do fighters have to be, by nature, high risk-takers? Do they need approval and, once the games end, do they look for the next best thing?

If so, how to explain someone like Todd Ewen  who wrote children’s books and Domi, who for all his bravado spent countless hours anonymously sitting with sick children and their families.

Are the innocents, as insulated from consequences as Bob Probert was when we crossed the Canadian border or is their job so terrifying and perhaps demeaning that they need a crutch.

In most pieces, you save your second strongest line for the close. It’s how you seal the deal and win the reader to your point of view.

I don’t have one. I think of Bob Probert, and I just don’t know.
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