Oct. 16, 2008, a date marked on a score sheet, a magical night in Deer Lake, Newfoundland. At the centre of it was Bob Probert, who died Sunday at 45.
Probert was the ex-NHLer, the draw in a charity hockey game between the local Deer Lake team and a rag tag bunch assembled to represent the Showcase series Rent A Goalie. Christopher Bolton, the star and driving force behind the series, remembered me from a skate a year or two earlier and invited me to be the token press dude on this East Coast romp. It was a hell of a trip, a night and day that blurs between the screech and the shinny but that night on the ice was one I'll never forget.
It seemed as if the entire town and then some had crammed into the local arena. Most were there to see Probert, who made his name in the NHL by fighting every challenger but who was transitioning into a post NHL career with grace and good humour. He seemed and indeed was willing to do anything to make the game one to remember for the kids at that rink, even allowing locals who put up ten bucks toward the local hockey program to shave a strip of hair off his head every time the opposition scored a goal. Probert's poorly razored noggin looked like a pack of hounds had been chewing on it after the game. You wouldn't see Wayne Gretzky doing that, I thought at the time.
Afterwards, in the dressing room, Probert explained that he needed to be bald for an upcoming Halloween party; I think there was an Addams Family motif and he was going as Uncle Fester. So there was method to his madness but, still, how many pro athletes would literally put their head on the line for a charity event?
Less than a year later, I was interviewing Probert for the CBC series Battle of the Blades. He and Tie Domi and Claude Lemieux--bitter rivals in their playing days--were talking up the series, which went on to be a monster hit last fall on CBC.
Probert's one concern was not getting kicked off the reality show too quickly. His kids told him not to embarrass them by getting booted off first. Probert's great height did not make his transition to pairs figure skating very easy and he was the first eliminated, but all the NHLers who participated in the series came out of it with plenty of respect and goodwill.
Domi, as usual, did most of the talking with reporters during the press sessions but I remember Probert (left with Kristina Lenko) chiming in at one point. The topic was fighting and keeping a hate-on for an opponent. Probert poo-poohed that notion, saying he'd lost count of the guys he fought on the ice and then had a drink with later after the game.
He hinted also that he felt trapped in that enforcer role. Probert was one of the most feared fighters ever, but the former Red Wing and Blackhawk also had a touch around the net. There did seem to be a "What if" about the guy, I want to say a bit of sadness to him but that sounds so much like what you write about somebody who just died.
He must have had one hell of a temper to have been the guy in all those fights but his good nature was all I saw in Newfoundland. He just seemed generous and humble and ego-less. To stand with him and with all those guys on that ice in Deer Lake, lined up at the blueline before the game, singing "O Canada" with 500 folks from The Rock, was my big "I Am Canadian" moment. Probert--who gave his time to many charity hockey efforts, including the annual Baycrest Hospital tournament--put that moment over the top. He did it by his calm, playful presence, just by helping to remind all of us that we were once kids and that this game is so damn cool.
News that he died this past Sunday is tragic and shocking and condolences to his friends and family.