Probert tough guy on ice, great guy off it

In all the time I knew Bob Probert, I never heard a bad thing said about him. That’s the legacy he leaves, along with being one of the tougher guys the game has ever seen. I knew him most of his career in Chicago but it wasn’t until the end of it that I was close to him.

It was the beginning of the 2002-03 season and I was the pregame and postgame radio host for the Blackhawks. Though Probert felt he had something left in the tank, the Blackhawks and then-coach Brian Sutter didn’t agree.

Yes, some of his skills had diminished, but there wasn’t a young player in the league that didn’t want a shot at the “title.” By then, Probert was a fighting legend. Whether they won or lost didn’t matter to the opponent. They were able to say they had fought one of the best. It got to the point, he told me, that he had to turn guys down because they wanted to fight just because it was him and not because of the game situation. That’s not what Probert was about at that time.

Training camp was winding down and the Hawks decided they didn’t want him on the ice, but they did want him around. I can truly say Bob Pulford and Bill Wirtz cared about him. Everybody cared about him. He was one of the nicest, most lovable guys off the ice -- which of course was in contrast to his on-ice demeanor. I’ve come to learn that most of the toughest guys playing the game are giant teddy bears away from it. I guess being that intense on and off the ice would wear a guy down.

The Hawks were paying him a little less than a million dollars, and when they “forced” him into retirement they decided he should work for his money. In reality, they wanted him to have a soft landing in the next stage of his life, for fear that the newfound free time would send him spiraling in the wrong direction. Probert and his family were living in Chicago, and he had a lot to stay on track for. He became my co-host, and the most handsomely paid pre- and postgame host the game has ever seen.

I still remember the day my boss told me Probert would be co-hosting. It was two days before the season was to start, and I wasn’t happy that I was going to have to babysit a player that undoubtedly didn’t want to be on the radio, but wanted to be playing. I didn’t like the decision at all. I couldn’t have been more wrong about it.

From the moment the microphone went on, no one knew what Probert was going to say -- least of all me. He wasn’t a natural broadcaster; it wouldn’t have been as interesting if he was. He just let things fly and whatever happened happened. He was Bob Probert. What did he care?

I remember early in the season a fan calling in to a postgame show and asking us if the Hawks should pick up then-Columbus Blue Jacket Luke Richardson. Before I could get a word out, Probert jumped in with “Luke Richardson is a [expletive],” questioning his manhood. Fortunately there is a delay in radio, and we had to use it on Probert often, but it made for some fun moments.

Then there was the time he and I were given the public address microphone during a timeout while the Hawks were playing the Red Wings. Someone (it may have been me, I can’t remember) coaxed him into yelling “Detroit sucks” on the mic. The crowd went nuts. Mind you, this was the team he made his name as a player with. He didn’t care; he just wanted to have some fun.

As he got comfortable on the air, we became more friendly off of it. I would come over to his house before a broadcast, and four of the cutest kids you’d ever see were there playing with big, bad Bob. It seemed that maybe he was adjusting to retirement better than people had thought he would.

A common theme for us during our broadcasts was food. It was the first time in a long time he could eat anything he wanted -- and he did. And I did too. We ordered from everywhere in Chicago, and on the occasions when we had to actually pay for it, Probert always took care of the check. It became a running gag on the air. Where would we be eating our next meal? I’m no expert, but I had to figure that with his appetite, it meant he wasn’t messing around with other things. I was wrong.

The good times came to an end at the All-Star break. I knew something was up in the final couple of weeks before the break. Things had changed with him, least of all his huge appetite. He just wasn’t the same Probert.

I was informed he wasn’t returning and had checked back into rehab. I asked him later how -- and why -- he kept his relapse a secret from me. He could have told me it wasn’t my business, but he simply said he didn’t want to get me in any trouble.

We did about 50 games together, many in bars and restaurants in front of his adoring fans. Never did he not sign an autograph or talk with someone. Never did he have an annoying word to say about anything. He was just lovable Bob Probert.

Yes, he had his demons, which should never be trivialized, but he also was as caring as they come. And one of the best that ever lived once the gloves came off. If ever there were two sides to a human being, Bob Probert is the evidence.

So long, Probie.