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ON ICE FOR KEEPS
Bruce Newman
March 13, 1989
The NHL banned Detroit's Bob Probert after his arrest for importing cocaine
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March 13, 1989

On Ice For Keeps

The NHL banned Detroit's Bob Probert after his arrest for importing cocaine

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After all the hard living and all the arrests and rehab centers, Bob Probert has now been accused of breaking the first rule that every mother teaches her child: Always wear clean underwear, because you never know when you might be in an accident. Probert, a popular 6'3" forward for the Detroit Red Wings, was, authorities said, driving a borrowed car filled with empty beer cans and an empty liquor bottle when he was stopped after crossing the border from Canada to the U.S. at the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel at 5:15 a.m. last Thursday. "Some people said he was a bomb waiting to explode," said Red Wing forward Joe Kocur, who roomed with Probert for a year. The bomb apparently went off when U.S. Customs agents allegedly found a cocaine mill—used to grind rock cocaine into powder form—in Probert's coat pocket. During a strip search, agents said they then discovered 14.3 grams (about half an ounce) of cocaine concealed inside his underpants.

Probert was arraigned in U.S. district court in Detroit and charged with importation of cocaine into the U.S. He was released on a $50,000 bond. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine. Acting with a firmness he seems to exhibit only on the subject of drugs, NHL president John Ziegler expelled Probert from the league two days later (the expulsion is for life, unless Probert is exonerated of the charges). Ziegler didn't wait to speak with Probert before acting. Probert had finally crossed a line at which there were no border guards, and now there may be no going back. "What I see is a 23-year-old kid throwing a career away," said Detroit defenseman Lee Norwood. "But it's out of our hands now. Bob's going to go away for a while."

Probert had been in five alcohol rehabilitation centers over the past three years, most recently the Betty Ford Center in Palm Springs, Calif., in October. When Probert was told he would have to stay at the clinic two to three months, he bolted after less than two weeks—a move that should have been a warning that he was dangerously out of control. When he fled the Ford clinic, he was already under a team suspension for missing several flights and practices during training camp. In his three previous seasons with the Red Wings, Probert had been convicted of refusing to take a breath test, pleaded guilty to driving while impaired, and was convicted of assaulting a police officer in a scuffle in a Windsor, Ont., bar.

The Red Wings were already well-acquainted with Probert's escapades when they signed him to a new three-year contract last March reported to be worth $200,000 a year. In May he was caught drinking and violating curfew along with several other Detroit players the night before Game 5 of their Stanley Cup semifinal series with Edmonton. "I was shocked at his latest trouble because it was drugs," said Red Wing coach Jacques Demers last week. "If I got a call and they said that Bob Probert was drunk, I'd say, 'Oh, he's done that again?' But drugs, this is something completely different."

Well, not really so different, of course. But it is that inexplicable mind-set, one so common in the NHL and pro sports generally, that helped make it possible for a chronic substance abuser like Probert to avoid dealing with his condition until he finally got caught with a drug that pro sports higher-ups actually take seriously. The fact that Probert was of value as a player—he led the league with 398 penalty minutes last season and was generally considered to be the best fighter in hockey, which is no small accolade in the NHL—no doubt prompted the Red Wings to give him so many second chances. At the time of his arrest he had only recently returned from being suspended for arriving late for a game.

"These things just kept going on and on," Kocur said. "They didn't stop. But the Bob Probert saga is over with now. He's gone."

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