WINDSOR, Ontario – It was a fitting tribute for a hockey warrior, who embodied the same hard-working identity of the cities where he worked and played.
Led by a procession of 60 motorcycles – many of the riders wearing the colors of the Detroit Red Wings or the Chicago Blackhawks – Bob Probert’s wood casket affixed to the side car of fully-dressed Harley-Davidson rode slowly up a long and winding road, over a set of railroad tracks, and stopped in front of the church where he and his wife, Dani, were married 17 years ago this week.
Inside of the Windsor Christian Fellowship church was a who’s who list of hockey dignitaries and Red Wings alumni, who remembered Probert Friday as a loving father, friend and caring humanitarian.
Probert, who played nine of his 16 NHL seasons with the Red Wings, died of an apparent heart attack last Monday. He was 45.
Steve Yzerman has known Probert since the two were part of the Wings’ draft class in 1983. They played nine seasons together in Detroit, and helped return the Wings to the conference finals in back-to-back years in the late 80s. Off the ice, they attended concerts and played cards together. They knew each other very well.
“He was an intelligent, street-wise person who was always putting everyone at ease with a good joke, or a friendly barb,” Yzerman said. “He made the game fun. Whether it was stopping in the middle of a fight to adjust his helmet and give Gerard (Gallant) and I a wink to let us know everything was OK, or to card games in the wee hours of the morning before a playoff game, which Mr. and Mrs. (Ilitch), I’m sure, don’t care to hear about.”
In recent years, Probert had travelled to Afghanistan, where he would visit with Canadian forces fighting in the War on Terror. It was that kind of unselfishness that Probert should also be credited for, Yzerman said.
“Whether it was a young hockey fan, a sick child, an employee at Joe Louis Arena, your wife, your own daughter, your son, Bob always took the time to say hello and engage you in friendly conversation, and make you all feel at ease,” Yzerman said. “People meeting him for the first time always walked away, saying, ‘Wow, what a great guy.’ He endeared himself to all of us.”
Yzerman and Gallant were a few of the many former NHL players at Friday’s services, including Colin Campbell, Dino Ciccarelli, Joe Kocur, Darren McCarty, Doug Gilmour, Tie Domi, Paul Ysebaert, Tony Amonte, Wayne Presley, Kyle Calder, Sheldon Kennedy, Mike Krushelyski, Dave Lewis, John Ogrodnick, Mickey Redmond, Brad McCrimmon and Darren Banks. The Red Wings were also represented by owners Mike and Marian Ilitch as well as general manager Ken Holland and center Kris Draper.
Though Redmond didn’t play on the same Wings’ teams as Probert, he did gain an appreciation for Probie’s hard-working mentality over the years.
“I remember Bob as a guy who came to play hard every day,” said Redmond, the Wings’ TV color analyst. “He was so much of a giving guy, and that’s why I think the city of Detroit has reacted the way it has, and reached out with great memories — great fond memories — of Bob, and what he brought everyday. He embodied the spirit of Detroit. Came to work every day, gave his best. They’ve forgave him for any little downfalls that he had, and just loved what he represented. He was a hardworking guy, and came to do it every day.”
Campbell, the NHL’s senior executive vice president, was a Red Wings’ assistant coach from 1985-90. He talked Friday about the battles that Probert endured, both on and off the ice. But in the end, somehow, it was it was player, who taught the coach.
“They say that life in sports – the journey – not the destination, is truly the reward,” Campbell said. “Well, I think I can speak for all of Bob’s coaches and teammates when I say the journey with Bob was blessed. Reflecting on my time with Bob, both on and off the ice, those are special memories for me and my family. I thought I was helping Bob, but in the end, he taught me life lessons.”
During their NHL careers, Domi and Probert participated in many memorable on-ice brawls, none greater or more indelible than the battles that they had with one another. Yet, Domi is glad that he had the opportunity to know Probert for who he became as a person rather than the character he portrayed on the ice.
“Obviously everybody always wants to talk about the battles we’ve had over the years, but I got to know the guy who’s a father — a great father — who’s a great husband, and that’s what I got to admire about Probert,” Domi said. “I’m really glad that people are recognizing how much of an impact he really had, not only in the sports world, but in the community. Because, you know, this guy did a lot of things that went unnoticed and I think the support here really shows that he was a real person.
“The most disappointing thing of this whole thing is how people like to talk about pasts. Let’s not talk about the past. His four children and his wife who are left behind at a really, really young age, at 45-years-old, it was just too early to go. That’s the thing people have to focus on. … I think you have to focus on the person he was, on the husband and on the father. That’s what I hope everybody takes from this, take the good and think about the kids and his wife, Dani.”
Probert’s uncle, Mike Coady described his nephew as a larger-than-life character.
“Bob was one of those spirits who rose up with incredible forces inside him, contending for control,” Coady said. “Like a grand stallion: one moment standing there still, radiating grace and power, the next minute leaping over fences, dashing across fields, defying anything in his way.
“He was a bruise brother who fought always with honor. There was not a trace of sneer or disdain in his heart. You can ask our soldiers in Afghanistan. Every time he made that long flight over, they cheered him. Not so much as a celebrity, but as a brother who had come on a difficult journey at some real personal cost. He was their inspiration.”