I had some interest in reading Bob Probert’s autobiography Tough Guy before the events of this tragic offseason given his *ahem* interesting career path. The passing of pugilists Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak this summer provided an added impetus for me to pick up the book, however. I wondered if Probert’s own experiences would perhaps give me a glimpse into the tribulations enforcers have to face, as well as their potential impact on their lives outside of the rink.
Probert and co-author Kirstie McLellan Day provide plenty of details of his experiences both on and off the ice. The book is liberally peppered with discussions and anecdotes from his career as a player, including details from his junior days all the way up to contract negotiations with the Red Wings and Blackhawks. The tone and feel of the prose is informal and has the feel of a friendly discourse with Probert over a few beers (he drops more than one F-bomb). It mostly works, although the book sometimes suffers for this style – the constant weaving in and out of subject and phase makes reading somewhat erratic and disjointed. So while stories about pranks in the locker room or why Probert called Sheldon Kennedy “Mo Melly” are amusing and humanizing in isolation, they often act as figurative speed-bumps when they interrupt sections on the direction of his career, problems with the law and struggles with drug abuse.
I’ll note that “struggles” is something of a misnomer in the context of “Tough Guy”. While this term and others typically associated with addiction conjure the portrait of a tortured soul, hopelessly warring with internal demons, Probert was at once completely honest and mostly unrepentant in the recounting of his own alcohol and cocaine abuse. The details of his avarice as well as the consequences including run-ins with the law and trips to rehab are presented in Probert’s blunt, unapologetic voice. His delivery is often so matter-of-fact, he might as well be a man reminiscing about a trip to the coast or his time at the cracker factory.
This works both for and against the book: in the first, because it strips the narrative of any cloying or saccharine recantations which can sometimes mark the endeavors of recovered alcoholics or drug abusers and make them seem either dishonest or preachy.
In the second, Probert becomes less sympathetic due to his seeming lack of insight. One is left wondering if Bob simply couldn’t appreciate both the emotional and practical consequences engendered by his behaviors. Not that he is wholly apathetic to the damage he causes on occasion: there are several points where he admits feeling guilty about his latest arrest or descent into “partying”. However, his guilt is rarely spiked with the enduring awareness of the risks and externalities that are necessary accoutrements of drug and alcohol abuse. When confronted by, say, a frazzled agent or fearful wife, Probert’s reaction is one of a child who feels bad when he shoots his friend in the eye with a bb-gun. When he’s arrested at the border for smuggling cocaine or shuffled off to rehab at the behest of the NHL, his is the chagrin of kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He often regrets the unintended pain in the moment or the necessity of bearing arbitrary penalties, but there is always the sense he was more mournful about getting caught than indulging his destructive habits in the first place.
As a result, one is often struck by how profoundly amoral was Probert’s ethical landscape, especially outside of the rink. For example, he shares a particular experience in junior where he begins a short-lived affair with the wife of the couple with whom he is billeted. He eventually “passes her off” to a teammate because he figures it isn’t worth the complications and later notes how common it is for juniors players to strike up adulterous relationships with the women they board with. Probert doesn’t look back at this episode with remorse, disgust or even pride (nor does he indict the hypergamous impulses of the err, hockey fans in question) but merely notes that this stuff happened. In the finally summary, that is more or less how Probert seemed to conceive of various things, be it in the environment or in himself – they simply were. Behaviors, emotions, impulses – all crowded together as immutable metaphysical objects on Probert’s ethical plane; not necessary to consider beyond the fact that they exist. One doesn’t question a mountain range or morally censure a lion for eating a gazelle for instance.
Not that Probert ever descends into outright villainy at any point in the book. He may have lacked introspection and too often been at the mercy of his whims, but there are aspects of his personality that also come across as genuinely likable. His sense of humor, for example, shines through in his stories about friends and team mates. His ultimate affection for his wife and family is clearly stated at a number of points, particularly towards the end of the book when his career is over and the need to finally overcome his love for mind-altering chemicals finally takes precedence. His narrative also never loses a sort of aww-shucks humility, despite the various levels of success he achieves. Probert always seems mildly surprised that so many women find him attractive, for instance. In reading, this pose doesn’t come across as an affectation to beguile the reader – merely, like most other things in Tough Guy, a statement of fact.
Hockey fans will of course be intensely interested in the on-ice details of Probert’s biography. He shares many of his finer moments from junior on up, and of course lingers on the numerous notable fights he was party to over the years. While the value and morality of fighting in general (and the enforcer specifically) is a contentious issue currently, even hardline anti-fighters will have a difficult time not perusing the details of Probert’s various bouts. He talks about which of his era’s heavyweight were tougher or cleaner to scrap with. He also discusses the various pressures of being an enforcer, from stress of the anticipation of a fight to the constant need to remain “relevant” to a club by staying in the line-up and dropping the gloves without hesitation.
Anyone looking for material to advance an argument regarding fisticuffs in the NHL (be it for or against) will likely come away from Tough Guy disappointed. Probert relates the price and consequences associated with the role but also never condemns or bemoans them. It is clear throughout the book he mostly enjoyed being an enforcer and there is never any clear indication of regret for following that path. Probert’s substance abuse is also an idiosyncrasy that seems to run parallel to his career as player/figheter, rather than arise as an unfortunate effect. Probert talks about binge drinking as a teenager near the start of the book, long before he ever faces the demands and physical toll of the NHL. Although he relapsed again and again over the course of his career, one never gets the sense Probert was using to dull psychological pain or escape from some unpleasant reality – he simply liked how coke or booze made him feel. It’s therefore entirely plausible that Probert would have indulged just as heavily had he ended up a mechanic or security guard.
Adding to the ambiguity is that fact that Probert embraces the well-known “hockey code” without hesitation or reflection. Although he was often at arms length from a moral compass outside of the rink, there’s no question he consistently clove to the enduring mores of the game while he was on the ice or in the dressing room. Every hockey fan or player will recognize the basics: defend your team, don’t let any insult go unanswered and don’t ever rat out your teammates to the press. Violence and retribution are acceptable within certain boundaries, while unforgivable transgressions including showboating and selfisheness. Of course, this may or may not up your estimation of the protagonist, depending on how critically you evaluate the sociological function of “the code”. There’s no doubt in Probert’s mind that it serves the players and the game in general though which is in some ways counter to his bouts of casual nihilism outside of the arena. Say what you will about the code, dude, at least it’s an ethos.
In the end, Tough Guy doesn’t bring any more clarity to the fighting debate. And although the book itself is colloquial and easy to read, Probert emerges as conflicted and complex. His passions and interests were relatively simple and there was no pretense to speak of in the man, but his apparent mix of avarice, loyalty, humor and humility is one that makes for a compelling read overall. Probert was at once a scoundrel and a jester, a family man and a philanderer. After reading, some fans may have their idolatry of Probert tarnished, others may find him even more endearing. Either way, I recommend the book whether your interest lies in a behind the scenes peek at Probert’s career and sordid extracurricular activities or the ongoing conflict surrounding fighting in the NHL.