An Exclusive Look at Tough Guy
When Bob Probert died unexpectedly at 45 this past July, he was working on a memoir with the help of Kirstie McLellan Day. Tough Guy: My Life On The Edge was released at the end of October by Triumph Books.
We've been given an exclusive excerpt from the book where Probert talks about his battles with Troy Crowder and his immigration issues.
Excerpt: Chapter 13, “Let’s Show Some Enthusiasm” Pages 133-138
Because I only played four games the season before, I really got off on playing in 1990–91. We had some new guys—Sergei Fedorov was one of the youngest guys coming in. He was trying to find his way. Think about what it would be like the other way—going to Russia to live, not knowing the language and suddenly you are a superstar over there. He was a great player, but it had to be so hard to come over here and fit into our society and perform day in and day out. We had a lot of character players, and Sergei was definitely one of them.
Bryan Murray was our new coach. He’d been fired by the Capitals the year before and replaced by his brother, Terry. I got along with Bryan. The team liked to play for him.
At the start of the season on October 4, I got into a scrap with Troy Crowder with New Jersey. I think I hit Claude Lemieux with a hockey stick as payback for something he had done earlier. Claude had a reputation for being a shit disturber. Crowder only had three league fights under his belt. But he came flying off the bench towards me, and I gave him the head-nod.
If you watch the tape of the fight between me and Crowder, you can see we were going around and around. I’ve got him by the jersey and I’m using my left arm to string him out. We’re swinging and pushing and pulling, but not really connecting. Balance is half the battle on the ice. You have to have decent balance to fight. Most guys wanted to have a good grip on you so they could hold on with one hand and throw with the other. I liked to get my jersey off fast, because if there is no jersey, what do you hold onto? Nothing. You are all over the map. Crowder was a big, strong kid. We were very similar in size and height, but he had no experience, so I was thinking it would be over quick. Our sticks were on the ice and I was shuffling one of them between my feet, when all of a sudden, I stepped down on it with my left skate. I took a half-turn on it and kind of slid. I had no balance. I was on one leg while trying to stay up and scrap. You can see my foot kind of cross over in front. That’s when he tagged me over the left eye. In those kinds of fights, sometimes you get a good punch in, and he just happened to throw one that cut me. That didn’t happen to me very often, so for him, as a rookie in the league, it helped his reputation. Guys started coming after him, and he realized he had done something bigger than protect his teammate. It quickly launched his career. It was a pretty big jump-start.
On October 10, the Calgary Flames were in Detroit. We went to overtime, and the Flames left me alone in front of the net. I picked up a simple rebound and put it in. It felt good, and it gave me a good footing with Murray. He seemed to like my play and made a comment in the room a couple of games later after a scrap I’d had with Jay Miller of the L.A. Kings. He said, “If somebody is going to fight for this team, goddammit, we’re going to show a little bit of enthusiasm for them.”
That was appreciated, because the fighting was almost expected, you know? There were guys who were capable, but instead of getting in there, they would sit back and expect me to go do something about their problem. I think if a guy’s got the balls to stand up to somebody, whether they get the shit kicked out of them or not, if they just stand up, it shows the rest of the players that this guy wants to win bad enough to go out there and get his ass kicked. Yzerman did it.
I was feeling pretty stressed about the whole deportation issue. Our first game in Canada was in Toronto on October 13, and I was refused permission to cross the border to play. Then the Immigration and Naturalization Service sent me a letter ordering me to turn myself in—they wanted to put me back in jail until my appeal went to court. So on October 22, we got a hearing with federal judge Horace Gilmore. I was pretty worried—if the government got its way, I’d either have to go to jail or leave the U.S. forever.
Three days later, the judge gave his decision. The Wings were supportive through all this. Murray thought about sending the whole team to court with me, but I said no thanks. I didn’t want to put the guys through all the media questions and stuff. Judge Gilmore ruled that the law the INS was trying to jail me under was unconstitutional, and I could keep working in the States.
When I was sentenced to serve ninety days at the Federal Medical Center in Rochester, Minnesota, the judge had granted me what was called a JRAD—a judicial recommendation against deportation. Basically, it meant I couldn’t be deported on the grounds of my drug conviction. By November of 1990, the immigration law was changed, and all JRADs were wiped out. Including mine. My lawyers had to go back to the drawing board. They were able to appeal because the doctors said I was drinking due to ADHD, and they can’t stop you from coming into the country when you have a treatable psychiatric disorder. Meanwhile, I was free to play—as long as I didn’t leave the country.
The media was full of hype about our game against New Jersey on January 28 because of the last fight between me and Crowder. People were talking about it on the news, on the street and in the papers. I just kind of blew it off. Crowder was cool about it. He didn’t start a pissing match—he didn’t say two words. He’s a cool guy. I planned to fight because I wanted to do it, not because I felt obligated to do it. I wasn’t going to fight just for the fucking papers.
Crowder had no shortage of practice opportunities before our next fight. By the time of the game, he had fought maybe fifteen other guys. A lot of guys thought that if they could take him, they’d be ranked up there as well. And Crowds had this trainer who liked to instigate fights. He’d talk to the other trainers before Crowds’s games and almost provoke a fight—you know, “My guy is going to go after your guy,” and next thing you knew, guys were coming after Crowds.
Most fights that Crowds got into were started because someone was coming after him or he was trying to protect a teammate, so knowing it was going to happen made him nervous. He had a really good captain, Kirk Muller. The night before the game, Muller decided to take the whole team out to let off some steam. So they all had drinks and partied a little. He didn’t want Crowds lying in his hotel room the night before thinking about the fight. It was a good distraction.
The first part of the game, Crowder and I were never shifted at the same time. Then, finally, there was a line change and I kind of brushed him. I said, “Well, let’s go.” He had a hold of my sleeve and jersey and tried to stay close, but I bent forward and my jersey moved up. His hand was around my collar, so my right arm came loose. I was able to pull back and string him out. I got a couple in and he went down.
Later in the period, he went after me. And in the second fight, he threw a couple at my helmet and shoulder pad. My head was out of range, then I got out of my jersey and put a few to his body. He had nothing to grab onto—he was just trying to hold on. I was getting more and more pissed off. We were in pretty close, and he reached back as far as he could and hit me as hard as he could, connecting with my chin. Later, Crowds told me he was thinking, “Oh God, this punch is going to knock him out for sure.”
When you look at the tape, you see my head jerk and then snap back. I remember I was really mad by then. I pulled him forward off the ice. Crowds says it was all slow motion for him. He was just in shock that I wasn’t down. He says he thought, “Holy shit! I can’t believe I just smacked him with one of my hardest punches, and now he’s pulling me up off my skates.” Crowds says he was kind of frozen in a combination of disbelief, confusion and fear. I threw at him, he ducked, and I grazed his helmet, but he lost his balance and fell to the ground.
Crowder hit the big ticket after he fought me. Detroit signed him for $400,000 the next year.