Even though Bob Probert was a complete cro-magnon of a hockey player, he managed to be ahead of his time in many regards, and has become a case study in what not to do from a player management standpoint.
Even in the mid 90s, before progressive thought began to thoroughly permeate the hockey landscape, the Hawks’ signing of Bob Probert away from the Red Wings was flawed in logic. Bob Pulford saw a behemoth of a man in Probert terrorize his club in the mid to late 80s both with physical violence and occasionally on the scoreboard, though Probert’s two 20 goal seasons were statistical anomalies of the highest order. Undeterred, Pulford thought that the Hawks needed at the very least that level of enforcement on a team with stars like Jeremy Roenick, Chris Chelios, Tony Amonte, Gary Suter, Bernie Nicholls, and Ed Belfour, none of whom could ever be accused of not being able to take care of themselves. But the rationale of “this guy kills us so we need to sign him” almost always bites general managers in the ass, and Probert wasted no time in proving that correct.
Even with past legal and substance troubles which resulted in a federal prison sentence and nearly in his deportation, the Hawks remained undeterred and signed Probert anyway, 8 days after an arrest wherein his BAC was triple the legal limit, and the Red Wings walked away from him. Probert was promptly rendered “inactive”, if not outright suspended, by Gary Bettman following another drunk driving incident, and missed the entirety of what would have been his first season as a Hawk.
Probert’s troubles are well documented, and his battles with substances and addiction are not to be taken lightly. But even aside from these points, which a 12 year old can’t even really comprehend as they’re unfolding, Probert’s entire involvement with the Hawks was enough to make my stomach churn from the beginning.
First off, this not only was a Red Wing, but one of the most violent, hated Red Wings ever to don a blood soaked sweater, and now I was expected to root for him. And then to make such a first impression as to miss his first year here, Probert always had an uphill battle with earning any kind adoration from this adolescent hockey fan. And that his production from his hayday in Detroit dropped precipitously while in a Hawks sweater, providing nothing material that helped the team win while receiving chance after chance after chance only amplified my ire at him.
When the Hawks began to crumble under the weight of their own ineptitude, with star after star leaving or being traded, it was a true barometer of how bad things had gotten when even at the ages of 35 and 36 for a guy who could not really move to begin with, Brian Sutter would consistently trot Probert out on a wing with Tony Amonte and Alex Zhamnov on the top line, ostensibly to provide protection and give them room, even though Probert did so only through his name at that point and no actual action. And seeing that now into my 20s was a clear reminder of just how bad things had gotten, and how hopeless they felt, because Probert, no matter how many times he would squander it, would always seemingly get another chance.
But, there are many lessons to be learned from the whole Probert saga with time and perspective afforded. Some statistical, like not signing a guy hoping he’ll reproduce shooting 23% for an entire season. Some medical, as Probert’s brain has been donated to science after his death, and there was significant evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (brown brain protein), revealing the damage that a career of taking bare knuckle punches to the skull has long term negative effects. That Probert had the game pass him by at such a rapid pace was perhaps one of the early inciting events that led GMs (at least not named Pulford) start to believe that players had to actually be able to skate to succeed has now led to the fastest product the game has ever seen in the present day. And all of these things are net positives.
However, none of this can fully choke down the bile that begins to rise up in my throat whenever someone begins to wax poetic about what Probert brought to the game, and that it’s what’s missing from the league and from the Hawks at this time. The fact of the matter is that that player never existed here, and was nothing more than a recurring sideshow.