Story by Dick Hildebrand
Photography Courtesy Nightschool Films
On July 5th, 2010, the hockey world was stunned with the sudden death of NHL enforcer Bob Probert at the age of 45. He suffered a massive heart attack, while on a day of boating with his family, shortly after he had completed a collaboration with Calgary author, Kirstie McLellan Day on a tell-all autobiography which was released several months after his passing.
Titled, “TOUGH GUY…my life on the edge” the book presented a no- holds- barred look at Probert’s controversial life both on and off the ice. Now, more than 8 years later, the author’s son Geordie, has released a TV documentary based on that book.
The 28 year-old Day, who grew up in western Canada studied broadcast journalism in Calgary. One of his first jobs was at a radio station in Comox British Columbia, after which he moved to Los Angeles, aiming for bigger and better things. He interned on the Jimmy Kimmel show for a summer, an experience he relishes; “I really liked seeing how smoothly a machine like that works and operates.” Even though he loved journalism, he preferred documentary film production so he moved to Toronto and obtained a degree in film at York University. After graduating about 7 years ago he returned to Calgary where his parents were “doing some cool and exciting documentary work”, and began working for them. He got his feet wet behind the camera, producing a number of hour long tv presentations before embarking on his first independent feature, ‘Tough Guy: The Bob Probert Story’.
As a youngster Geordie played hockey and has always considered himself a fan of the game. Picking Probert as the subject was not difficult since his mother had hours and hours of tape gleaned from her interviews with the controversial player and others. Using those tapes in Probert’s own words, Geordie fashioned a movie around them. The producer figures he listened to more than 100 hours of audio, including the 40 or so his mother had taped with Probert and interviews with other players and family members…a painstaking operation that resulted in a 1 ½-hour video story. The film was shot in June and July this past summer at various locations that highlighted Probert’s life. The crew went to the funeral home where services were held. They were on the boat in Lake St. Clair with Probert’s wife Dani, who described the events of the day. “We went to the exact spot where that happened,” says Geordie, “to the spot where he was brought to shore and we went to the hospital in Windsor where he was pronounced dead.” Filming also took place at the intersection where Probert had crashed his car and to the spot in Michigan where he had a near-fatal motorcycle crash in 1994. Along with new commentary from his wife, teammates and opponents were also interviewed; among them Don Cherry, Joey Kocur, Steve Yzerman, Tie Domi and Chris Chelios. As Geordie points out, “there was a definite consensus that he was the best hockey player of his generation. And many of his opponents claimed that when they knew Probert would be in town for a game they had trouble sleeping the night before, because of the anxiety they felt.” Even Tie Domi, the Maple Leaf scrapper from Belle River, admitted feeling vulnerable.
The film was edited and ready for viewing at the end of October. After family members and friends had seen it, it was presented to a sold-out audience at the Olde Walkerville Theatre on Wyandotte Street a couple of weeks before Christmas, It made its television debut on the Super Channel the following day.
While it’s difficult to describe what he considers to be the documentary’s highlights, Geordie suggests; “maybe we should call it Probert’s greatest battles. In fact, most of us can say that the biggest achievements of our lives were preceded by our biggest challenges. This is very true in the case of Bob Probert – just when he appeared to be at his lowest, he came back!” When Geordie thinks back on the hours of tape he heard, the one thing about Bob Probert that stuck in his mind was, “his kids. You meet them and they’re smart, confident and articulate…they’re incredible. I’m totally convinced he must have been an absolutely great father and a very important part of that family.” Then, there was Probert’s dark side. The film doesn’t hide the warts, like his habitual use of cocaine, his binge drinking, his rage on the ice and the injuries that plagued him, both mentally and physically. Even though Dani Probert has said, “the film is dark,” she wanted the world to see Bob as a human who made mistakes and took responsibility for them. The documentary succeeds admirably, a fact that family members and friends all agree with. “It’s definitely not G-rated,” says Geordie, “It’s an honest look at the former NHLer and because of some language, it’s not suitable for kids. It contains lots of archival footage from the NHL and home videos that, hopefully, will give viewers a complete picture of Probert. You can’t actually call it a sports video, but in the end we wanted to have the hockey community appreciate who he was and to give viewers an insight into the Red Wings organization and how they dealt with the situation.”
Currently Geordie is working on a project for a wider distribution, but is staying mum for the moment. The film is designed for an audience that’s interested in learning about the life of a Windsor native who retired from the game in 2004 after finding success with 2 NHL teams — the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Black Hawks, and success as a devoted family man, despite the horrendous consequences he faced as a result of a life punctuated by bad choices. It is well worth seeing.