Bob Probert: Even the Kronk heat couldn’t melt the Baddest Man on Ice
The Kronk Gym was hotter than ever in the latter half of the 1980s, literally and figuratively, with dozens of top ranked contenders, a handful of former world champions working hard to regain their crowns and some of most feared world champions in a boxing ring at the time. Who would have thought that one day, down in a basement inferno hot enough to melt steel, in would walk one the most feared men on NHL ice, Bob Probert.
Accompanied by his Detroit Red Wings teammate Joey Kocur (known by all as the “Bruise Brothers” because of their reputation for being two of the toughest guys in the league), Probert entered the famous entrance to the Kronk Gym, a red door that read, “This door has lead many to pain and fame.” They both had their fair share of both by that time and, despite Probert being a very talented forward in the NHL, he was primarily known for his role as “enforcer,” regulating the ice for his fellow wing Steve Yzerman. Ironically, during that time, the Detroit Pistons were famously known as the “Bad Boys” but even they were not bad enough to enter the Kronk Gym. If you entered that gym with any bit of “fame” already attached to your name, it just meant a bigger bullseye was placed on your back.
Trainer Emanuel Steward was busy handling the careers of several fighters at the time but agreed to work with the two prior to the start of the 1988 NHL season. Steward had told me personally on countless occasions that he felt there was nothing like boxing for conditioning an athlete. He felt the same very basics he emphasized throughout his Hall of Fame career – balance, distance and movement – applied to all sports. Steward never abandoned his belief in using proper technique and form to generate maximum punching power. He also was a firm believer that boxing worked every muscle in the entire body and nothing could replace the muscle to muscle contact as he liked to demonstrate, inside a boxing ring, to strengthen the body and also the mind.
With Probert and Kocur training with Steward at Kronk, it became a hot story among the NHL. The Red Wings organization may have wanted to stay away from any potential negative press about sending the Bruise Brothers to learn how to fight better, so soft quotes were given to the media by saying things like both were being helped with their “left hooks.” The intense training paid off as the 1987–88 season became, arguably, the best of Probert’s 16-year career. Kronk’s world champion Milton “Iceman” McCrory may have held the nickname but Probert applied the lessons he learned on the ice as he led the league that season with 398 penalty minutes, the sixth-highest single-season total in NHL history. While he became known as the league’s most feared enforcer, it should be noted he also scored 62 goals (tied for 3rd on the team), played in the NHL All-Star Game and lead the team with the most points during the Red Wings’ playoff run.
Upon Probert’s untimely death at the age of 45 in July of 2010, the Detroit Free Press contacted Steward and he offered a very rare look at someone often referred to as one of the “most feared” men in Detroit sports history: “He could have been a world champion. He had the coordination, reflexes and toughness. He was also extraordinarily humble and gracious.” It was that kind side to which Steward referred that not many got to see off the ice, when he would buy up tickets to games and give them to underprivileged kids.
But as humble as he may have been when the gloves were off, he was anything but when he laced them up. “He was a tough guy. He was afraid of nobody, including heavyweights I trained in the gym.” continued Steward. “I taught him to tighten up his punches, make them short and hard.” One boxer who was on the receiving end of some of those short and hard punches was Detroit’s own Ka-Dy King (known as one of the hardest hitting light heavyweights to box out of the Kronk Gym). “He was a mean, hard-punching motherfucker, John!” King told me when I asked about sparring Probert. King, a former Top 5-ranked contender, who once challenged for the WBO and lineal world titles (held then by Dariusz Michalczewski) in 2000 and was one of Thomas Hearns’ favorite – or not so favorite – sparring partners (depending on the day) was hand-picked by Steward to box Probert. “Emanuel trusted me to box with (Probert) because he knew I would work with him.” And to define “work” in the Kronk dictionary would amount to the fair exchanging of hard leather that cracked like thunder and lightning.
Like all great fighters, Probert was not only fighting his rivals on the ice but also his demons off for much of his career. He waged wars against drugs and alcohol frequently during his playing years, losing some and winning some.
As Father Time came calling on Probert, approaching 40 and fighting to stay sober, the Red Wings’ Colin Campbell challenged him to a fight. So as the tale goes, an out-of-shape Probert accepted the challenge and it was decided the venue would be the Kronk Gym. Campbell summed up the infamous Kronk fight thusly, when quoted by internet media: “I came home the next morning. I had black eyes so bad; they started from the side of the eyes and went right around.”
Probert took part in some of the greatest fights in hockey history against Wendel Clark (of the Toronto Maple Leafs), Tie Domi (of the Leafs, New York Rangers and Winnipeg Jets), Stu Grimson (of the Anaheim Ducks), Craig Coxe (of the Vancouver Canucks), Marty McSorley (of the Pittsburgh Penguins) and Donald Brashear (of the Canucks). Those wars on the ice helped cement his place in the Red Wings record books, in which he still holds the franchise record for career penalty minutes (2,090), penalty minutes in a single season (398 in the 87-88 season) and he remains fifth on the NHL’s all time penalty minutes with 3,300.
Bob Probert was one heck of a hockey player, a tough son-of-a-gun and just might have been tough enough to become heavyweight champion of the world!
Rest in peace, Robert “Bob” Alan Probert (June 5, 1965 – July 5, 2010)