Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Permanent Bruise

I confessed at the outset of this blog that I was a latecomer to the Red Wings nation. In my own defense, it was really my parents who were to blame, since they raised me in a relatively sports-neutral and hockeyless environment. Hell, I never even took figure skating lessons as a kid, so to me, ice was just what made for a nice day off of school now and then. Hockey just never blipped on my radar.

Until I met Hannah.

My best friend started out as a stalker, really, but that's another story. In the end, she ended up like a sister to me, just a sister who had grown up not in Connecticut with me, but in Michigan. Hockey country. Red Wings country. At first, I teased her about it. "Who watches hockey?" I asked. "I mean, aside from Canadians." She was, naturally, offended, but she took it like a champ and bided her time until we decided to share expenses and become housemates, and then she had me cornered.

We settled into the house in March. "It's the run to the playoffs," she informed me, remote control in hand. "You need to start learning about hockey. You'll be watching a lot of it." Which turned out to be true. Thank God.

It was like having the blinders ripped off my eyes, like someone had suddenly turned on the lights after I'd lived in the dark for a (carefully) unspecified number of years. Hockey was amazing. It was gorgeous. It had everything I'd always found lacking in sports--excitement, skill, speed, sustained action, finesse, strategy that didn't make me think of boring chess matches, teamwork, dazzling displays of brilliance, and athletes who (at least the ones I was watching...the ones in Red and White) seemed to place the game and the team above the need for personal stardom. How cool was that?

That was the beginning of the end; it didn't take long to hook me. The thing was, though, that Hannah knew that I needed to learn not just the game of hockey, but the glory of the Red Wings. She fed me stories and legends, encouraged me to do ridiculous amounts of historical research, and introduced me to the Numbers in the Rafters. Then she showed me the Wings of her childhood, the ones she'd grown up cheering on, the Russian Five, the Grind Line, The Captain, Darren McCarty's right hook, Darren McCarty's left hook, little Mikey Vernon, and, of course, the Bruise Brothers.

I got to know Bob Probert second hand. Watching the old games, reading the old stories, his name certainly came up more than a few times. "Oohhhh. Bob Probert," Hannah said. "He was a bruiser, an enforcer, and he was a damn good one."

He was, too. I've seen the tape. He and Kocur, keeping things even, making sure no one took a shot at a teammate and got away clean, making it clear that you couldn't mess with Stevie without taking on Probie as well. He came to embody to me the Red Wings spirit, the all-for-one, all-for-the-game mentality I saw in Detroit that made them not just my friend's team, but my team, too, the same spirit that brought Darren McCarty sailing straight at the Turtle's head on a March evening in 1997.

Oh, I heard about the night in 1989 at the US-Canadian border. It was kind of hard to avoid hearing about it. I heard that for at least one period he couldn't travel across the border with the team because of that incident. I heard about Probert's legal troubles and cocaine troubles and alcohol troubles. But through all of it, I also heard what a wonderful, gentle, kind, and giving man Probie was, how even the people who hated what he did to himself loved the man he was. To me, that's the mark of a man--he couldn't outrun his demons, but he didn't let them consume the core of him, the part that made him a good man, the man who was mourned over the past week and eulogized in glowing terms by those who knew him best.

A lot of people out there loved Bob Probert, and a lot of Red Wings fans will never forget the contributions he made to the organization. Even some of those who never got lucky enough to see him play with the team in person. I hope he knows that, because in the end, that's a pretty good legacy to leave behind.

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