DETROIT – Even though they were part of the same Red Wings’ draft class, former NHL enforcer Stu Grimson can’t count the number of times that he dropped the gloves with Bob Probert.
Grimson and Probert were part of the same 1983 draft class with Steve Yzerman, Joe Kocur, Petr Kilma and Lane Lambert. Though Grimson never played on the same Wings’ team with Probert the two had plenty of encounters, including their first.
“The Ilitch family flew us into Detroit shortly after the draft,” Grimson said. “They kind of wanted to show our draft class the city and welcome us to the organization. I remember the whole lot of us assembling in the lobby of the Hotel Pontchartrain back in ’83 and there stood myself, Joey Kocur, Bob Probert, a guy that I played junior with Jeff Frank, and everybody was 6-foot-2, 6-foot-3, 6-foot-5 and 230-pounds.
“I felt that I was more part of the offensive line for the Detroit Lions, never mind the Detroit Red Wings. It was an interesting and amusing time, and the first time that I get to meet Bob and get to know him a little bit.”
Probert, who played nine of his 16 NHL seasons with the Red Wings, died tragically Monday afternoon while boating with his family on Lake St. Clair. He was 45. A funeral is scheduled for this Friday in his hometown of Windsor, Ontario.
Grimson remembers Probert as an intense adversary.
“He was always such a stone-faced and fierce competitor,” Grimson said. “He never gave away anything by way of the expression on his face. He was always very stoic and went about his business in a very determined and fierce way.”
At 6-foot-4, Grimson, known as the Grim Reaper for his colossal on-ice battles during a 14-season career, returned to the Red Wings in 1995 to fill the physical void left when Probert departed for the Chicago Blackhawks.
“I tangled with Bob more than any other player that I tangled with over the course of my career,” Grimson said, “and the one thing that I will always say is: I knew I had my hands full whenever I came up against him.”
Like it or not, fighting was once a vital part of the NHL, and Grimson says that Probert was the game’s marquee pugilist.
“As enforcers you are part of the most unique part of our game,” Grimson said. “It’s an out-and-out fist-fight on skates and you can say what you want about that aspect of the game, it’s a pretty remarkable spectacle and I think there are folks who have always loved that about the game. And Bob did that very frequently and he did that very well. He was involved in some of the most amazing fights of all time. You think of guys like Dave Brown, Marty McSorley, Troy Crowder and (Tie) Domi. Those are some of the most amazing fights that hockey players have ever been involved in and Bob is the common denominator of all of them. He was very exciting to watch and you knew something was going to happen when Bob was on the ice.”
Probert’s laundry list of heavyweight challengers was long and featured such notables as Tony Twist, Link Gaetz, Shane Churla, Gord Kluzak, Chris Nilan and more. But those pale in comparison to the titanic showdowns that Probert had with roughnecks McSorley, Domi, Craig Coxe and Troy Crowder.
In one of his final bouts in a Red Wings’ uniform, Probert tangled with McSorley, who was playing in his only season with the Pittsbugh Penguins. It was Feb. 4, 1994, and the game was televised nationally. The two combatants slug it out. The fans on their feet and The Troggs’ “Wild Thing” blaring out of the Joe Louis Arena sound system, the fight lasted nearly two-minutes. Once it ended, McSorley skated off with a large cut over his left eye, and ESPN announcer Gary Thorne declaring, “This is one of the longest fights that the NHL has ever seen.”
“It’s funny, people will bring up that fight with both Bob and I there,” McSorley said. “We both kind of smile and shrug it off. It’s not something that neither Bob nor I would dwell on. But we certainly got into a situation where he wasn’t going to take a step back and certainly wasn’t going to quit. And that much you knew about Bob Probert from the get-go.”
Probert played in 935 regular-season games and amassed 3,300 penalty minutes, including 2,090 PIMs with the Red Wings, which still stands as a franchise record. He compiled 114 goals and 145 assists in Detroit.
But Probert shouldn’t be remembered as a one-dimensional player, McSorley said.
“Bob was in a position to be called upon to be, not only a regular player, but a valued player,” McSorley said. “Of the tough guys, Bob was a valued part of the team, who was on the ice, who was on the power-play, who played in the All-Star Game.
“What that does is puts a huge impact on the other team. How were they going to react and how were they going to match-up? I think there were quite a few tough guys who made money because of Bob, where teams needed to sign somebody, or have somebody to match-up with Bob Probert.
“Other teams had to have guys who could fight against him. Then they also had to have defensemen who where big enough and physical enough that could try and move him from in front of the net. Teams in the division, especially, had to know how they were going to match-up against Bob Probert. But then as you went outside of the division, Bob helped epitomize the game that was getting bigger, and bigger and bigger. Somebody of Bob’s size who plays regularly helps fuel that mentality that we have to be bigger and we have to be stronger.”