Bob Probert's sudden death on July 5th shocked the hockey world. Probert represented more than a tough guy on skates though, to most people who actually know a thing or two about the sport. However, the role that he famously filled and relished is quickly waning in the post-lockout game.
Probert was the best fighter of all time in the National Hockey League. Probably, in all of hockey. But he did more than fight, as do the vast majority of hockey fighters.
The main role of an enforcer is to protect his players on the ice. There are many ways to achieve this, most often fighting is the only associated method. However, intimidation through body checking, trash talking, and dirty play, along with physically breaking up altercations involving non-fighters are all in the enforcer's toolbox.
So when an enforcer like Probert comes along, one who can do all of the above, and also score goals, it is something special.
This is a man who, at Steve Yzerman's retirement ceremony, received more cheers than anyone but Steve Yzerman and Konstantinov. And there were some impressive Red Wings alumni there. Like Jacques Demers and Scottie Bowman.
This is a man who was one of the first teammates that Yzerman thanked at this same ceremony, and again, received an ovation that made the speaker pause.
This is a man who, at his memorial, Yzerman yet again praised him highly, "Bob was one of the single biggest reasons for the rebirth of the Detroit Red Wings back in the 1980s."
So what is it that an enforcer does? A real enforcer lays his heart on the line for the team, the players, the coaches, the fans, and the city. A real enforcer does not have to fight 30 times a year, but will always be the first one to stand in for a teammate. And a good one will win more than he loses.
Guys like Derek Boogaard and Colton Orr are hated by the league, and receive unfair treatment from officials. Most notably, Boogaard received a penalty in a game several years back for skating in front of the opponents bench during a stoppage in play, because he did not want his legs to cramp. These are guys who are fan favorites wherever they play, are locker room leaders, and effectively extend the careers of the players they protect. But the league hates fighting, so they are going the way of the dodo.
All in a vain attempt to grow the sport in markets where a snowstorm is considered a natural disaster.
So what have we learned from all of this? To remember the good times the sport has brought all of us. To do our best to hold on to the sport that we love, even if it is a shell of its former self.
And most importantly, to appreciate the great ones that come along, for their time is short. Thanks Bob. You will be missed.