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Tough Guy: The Bob Probert Story

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(Last year, I wrote a review of Bob McKenzie's book, which I thought went over pretty well, and decided to make reviews like that a more regular thing. Or at least write one whenever I read a good hockey book. Nobody sent me a free book this year, but I did get a chance to read Bob Probert's memoir Tough Guy:My Life on the Edge, and thought it was worthy of a post.)

The idea of "protection," as one might expect, is one of the central themes in the 30-probert_mediummemoir of hockey's all-time greatest--growing up near Detroit in the late 80's/early 90's, I will tolerate no debate on that-- enforcer, Bob Probert. Probert's story is the strange, sad, almost tragic juxtaposition of a man who understood that concept of protection, and the rules that went along with it, so clearly on the ice, but was never able to make that same connection off the ice.

On the ice, Probert tells a story about Tony Granato starting some trouble late in a game that was already decided, which Kings enforcer Marty McSorley then had to clean up. McSorley's point, echoed by Probert, was that just because a player had someone willing to clean up their messes doesn't mean that privilege should be taken for granted and abused. Meanwhile, off the ice, Probert's life was a seemingly never-ending string of abuses of the privileges granted to him by the protectors in his own life--from team management that continued to give him chances, to lawyers that kept his punishments lenient, to an endlessly patient wife.

On a deeper level, one could say there is an acute but significant difference in those types of loyalty. On the ice, it was loyalty in its most honest form, born out of the fact that two players were teammates. Probert's main objective may have been protecting Hall-of-Famers like Steve Yzerman and Paul Coffey, but he would do the same for any teammate simply because they wore the same jersey. Motivations become a bit more complicated off the ice. The loyalty of his team or his lawyers were much more conditional on what Probert could provide for them in return.

But ultimately, Probert's struggles off the ice are more a testament to the crippling power of addiction than anything else, as he struggled with alcohol and cocaine abuse throughout his life. At what point does the almost pathological inability to say 'no' to anything cross the line from poor use of free will to a disease? Probert, for his part, doesn't take the easy way out and blame it on disease, but it's also abundantly clear that he's far from a doctor. I'm equally unqualified to make such distinctions, but while his problems could have been managed better, perhaps much better, it's hard to read about such a genuine, caring person willfully hurting people he loved so much.Then again, maybe those of us that grew up with his legend just want to believe his most fatal flaw was outside of his control.

The book itself is written first-person in Probert's voice, about the only way a book this brutally honest could be written, though with obvious help from co-author Kirstie McLellan Day. That doesn't lend itself to great prose, but the short, simple sentences make for a very quick read, and Probert's voice shines through, showing the sense of humor that made him such a likable character.

One of Probert's main motivations for writing this book was that his kids were starting to come of age and hear stories about their father, and he wanted to set the record straight on his past. As a result, there are plenty of mentions about his drinking, drug use, and womanizing. But while a writer looking to make some money selling his story may have trumped up similar stories with graphic details of the wildest of times for shock value, Probert treats them much more matter-of-factly. They're an inescapable part of his history, but he walks a fine line by not making any judgments on them as a matter of pride or regret, just as facts of his life.

Similarly, Probert goes much lighter on the details of his numerous fights than one might expect. There's the obligatory run-down of his opinion on most of the famous tough guys of the era, but for the most part, Probert didn't like to brag much about his exploits. He saw it as just doing his job.

Hockey in general takes kind of a backseat in the story. He took great pride in his belief that his numerous off-ice issues never affected his play on the ice. He wrote off the infamous Goose Loonies playoff incident by saying that he, along with teammates, did the same before every game in the playoffs, and that story only became a big deal because his least favorite columnist Keith Gave just happened to get wind of it. But the only time hockey is ever really at the forefront is during his time with the Chicago Blackhawks when he was clean. Maybe that stuff was just fresher in his memory, but it certainly seemed like everything was secondary to his addictions when he wasn't clean.

It's hard to judge a memoir because it's like putting a grade on someone's life. All in all, I don't know that Probert's story is particularly ground-breaking or contains the types of shocking revelations that will get it serious public attention, but it was a book that I finished in a day and thought very seriously about for a couple days after, which is about as high a compliment as you can give a book, or any piece of art for that matter. Even with his most painful flaws on display, nothing will be able to tarnish the legend he created on the ice.