Colin Campbell was at the lake when the news moved across the sports ticker on his television screen: Bob Probert, dead at 45 of an apparent heart attack.
Few knew Probert better than Campbell, the NHL's senior vice-president of hockey operations. As an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings, Campbell tried to move heaven and earth to get and keep Probert on the straight and narrow.
Probert was one of the toughest fighters in NHL history, but he battled demons - drugs and alcohol - for many of the 16 years and 935 games he played in the league. He had a rare talent for someone known primarily as a fighter; when he was at his best, he also had the skill level of a top-six forward. Most of those close to Probert lamented that fact, that he had so much ability, and except for a handful of years, wasn't able to harness it the way they thought he could.
"He was a big, lovable guy," Campbell said Monday. "He wasn't a mean guy at all."
It was a sentiment echoed by Patrick Ducharme, the lawyer and player agent in Windsor, Ont., who, like Campbell, acted as Probert's babysitter for years.
Ducharme, who represented Probert for more than 20 years, said during that time a couple of doctors told him that Probert's drug abuse could create problems for him later in life.
"Beneath that tough exterior, he really had a good heart," Ducharme said. "He was a good father."
Probert leaves his wife and four children.
Probert's father-in-law, Dan Parkinson, said at a news conference Monday in Windsor that Probert had complained about "severe chest pain" around 2 p.m. before collapsing on his boat in Lake St. Clair.
"This is a tragedy for the family," Parkinson said. "We ask that you respect their privacy at this time. This was totally unexpected. Bob lost the fight of his life this afternoon."
An autopsy will be performed Tuesday to determine the cause of death.
Probert played 16 NHL seasons. He started with the Detroit Red Wings, who drafted him in 1983, the same year as hall-of-famer Steve Yzerman and fellow enforcer Joey Kocur joined the fold. Probert and Kocur became known as the Bruise Brothers, and multiple NHL players weighed in Monday to say Probert might have been the "scariest" player they ever faced in a fight.
Kocur described Probert as "the brother I never had. We have lost one of the toughest players, best power forwards and all-round great guys who ever wore the Winged Wheel. My favourite memory of Bob would be sitting down before a game, going over the opposing lineup and picking and choosing who would go first and if the goalie would be safe or not. It was great to be able to go out on the ice knowing that he had my back and I had his."
Probert's best year was the 1987-88 season, when he scored 29 goals, accumulated 398 penalty minutes and played in the all-star game.
Sadly, Probert's legacy also featured legal problems, most of them relating to alcohol and substance-abuse. In 1989, he served three months in prison for attempting to smuggle cocaine into the United States from Canada. Just the before the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, Probert was injured in a motorcycle crash in West Bloomfield Township, Mich. At that juncture, the Red Wings decided not to offer him a contract. Senior VP Jimmy Devellano called it "the end" and said that in his 12 years in the organization, "we've never spent more time on one player and his problems than we have on Probert."
Campbell was one of those people who spent oodles of time on Probert. Campbell came to know the family so well that Probert's mother often babysat his own children and became like a second grandmother to them.
One time, during one of Probert's many attempts to stay clean, Campbell challenged him to a fight. Campbell said he was trying to make a point, that he, an out-of-shape, retired player approaching his 40th birthday, could give him a run for his money. Probert was out of shape, coming into training camp, but they agreed to go down to the Kronk gym in Detroit, put on the gloves and fought a series of one-minute rounds.
"At the start of every round, he'd just ding me with a haymaker," Campbell said. "I came home the next morning, I had black eyes so bad, they started from the side of the eyes and went right around. Jacques [Demers, the Red Wings' coach at the time]said, 'What were you doing?' I said, 'I was so upset with Proby, I told him that I knew Joey Kocur would kill me, but I'm not afraid of you.' I was trying to make the point that a fat, overweight 39-year-old could handle him."
Campbell noted that Probert's father, a former Windsor police officer, died of a heart attack at 41. He also remembered attending the funeral of Steve Chiasson, a former Red Wings player who died in North Carolina in an alcohol-related, single-vehicle car crash after the Hurricanes' season-ending party at Gary Roberts's house in May of 1999. Chiasson had a blood-alcohol count of 0.27, more than three times over the North Carolina legal limit.
"He [Probert]came over and hugged me at Steve Chiasson's funeral," Campbell said. "I think he thought to himself, 'that could have been me.'"
Most recently, Probert was on Battle of the Blades, a TV show that matched former NHL players with female figure skaters in a skating competition. Probert skated with Kristina Lenko.
"He was always a competitor in that Detroit-Toronto rivalry in that old Chuck Norris Division we played in," said former NHL forward and tough guy Wendel Clark. "Off the ice, everything was a whole different story. He was one of the good guys and he'd do anything for anybody."
Campbell last spoke to Probert about two months ago. At the time, Probert called, looking for a job in hockey and said he was willing to try anything - watch games, scout for a team. Nothing ever came of it.
"I don't believe he needed to work," Ducharme said, "[but]I think he would have liked a full-time job and it probably would have been good for him."
"He had four kids, the oldest 15, plus twins," Campbell lamented. "It's such a sad, sad story."
With reports from David Shoalts and The Canadian PressReport Typo/Error