Dani Probert finds strength and purpose, 10 years after death of Red Wings enforcer Bob

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Dani Probert expects Sunday to be bittersweet.

To mark 10 years after the sudden death of her husband, Bob Probert — the former Detroit Red Wings enforcer and one of Detroit’s most popular and polarizing sports figures in the 1980s and ’90s — the 52-year-old widow plans on a “somber” day with her four grownup children but also a day “full of celebration” in the Windsor and Essex County area.

Still, as a lifelong planner, organizer and now fundraiser who is helping to improve cardiac care in her community, Probert says there’s also only so much she can prepare for when they get together Sunday to honor her husband and her children’s father.

“We miss him so much,” Dani Probert told The Detroit News. “There are some days, it seems like a whole lifetime ago and then now, it just seems like yesterday.

“In the 10 years, he’s missed all of them graduating, getting driver’s licenses, all the ups and downs and the wonderful things they’re doing as young adults. My twins (Jack and Decyln) only had their dad for 10 years. I’m struggling with that. I really am. It’s heartbreaking.”

On July 5, 2010, Bob Probert died from a heart attack at age 45 while boating on Lake St. Clair. Since then, Dani  Probert said she’s found inner strength she didn’t think she had and navigated a “difficult” journey and found purpose at work with help from family, friends and colleagues at Hotel-Dieu Grace Healthcare. Together, they’ve raised $1.2 million dollars in nine years with the Bob Probert fundraising motorcycle ride.

This year’s 10th annual event, which draws more than 1,200 motorcyclists from across the United States and Canada, as well as former NHLers Chris Chelios, Darren McCarty, Mark Laforest, Ryan VandenBussche and Dave Hutchison, was postponed until June 27, 2021, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This has been a blessing, a healthy distraction,” Probert said. “When Bob’s life ended so tragically, my immediate thought was the kids. They were 15, 12 and 10 when their dad passed away. 

“I tried to protect them, but they worried about me, too. They needed to see me out of the house and in something other than sweatpants and a ponytail on my head. As they got older, they saw that mom was OK and they would be OK, too.”

More: OctoPulse podcast with Stu Grimson on Bob Probert’s NHL legacy

More: Don Cherry, Jimmy Devellano, teammates remember when heavyweight champ Bob Probert ruled the NHL

Probert’s transformation from a stay-at-home mom with Brogan, Tierney and the twins to her part-time role as the hospital’s coordinator of philanthropy and community events and main fundraiser for the motorcycle ride, was an important part of the grieving process, according to Bill Marra, the vice president of the Hotel-Dieu Grace Healthcare Foundation.

“From my perspective, I’ve seen that growth, firsthand,” Marra said. “She didn’t have to do any of this. They had some challenges with media and law enforcement over the years and she had every right to have a chip on her shoulder. Instead, she made herself vulnerable and stepped out of her comfort zone. She doesn’t seek the spotlight but she’s been able to create positive change with her courage and conviction.

“If there’s a conversation about a family in need or a broader need like buying new equipment for our cardiac rehab program, she doesn’t hesitate for a moment to ask, ‘How can we help with the ride or how can I help?’ She’s become a role model for a lot of our younger women leaders in the organization and that’s something to be proud of.”

Tierney, who is now 22 and headed to Scotland in the fall for her master’s degree in science, says they did “grow up a little faster than the average kids,” but she credits her mom for strengthening and keeping the “family unit” together during tough times.

Her older sister, Brogan, 25, studied sports psychology at John. F. Kennedy University in San Francisco and just completed her thesis. The twins are 20 years old with Jack studying architecture at a combined program at Detroit Mercy and the University of Windsor and Declyn working on her hairdressing apprenticeship at Salon Utopia.

“My dad was the enforcer, but she’s the real fighter,” Tierney said. “Honestly, a death can tear a family apart, but we’re closer than ever and our relationships have never been better in the last 10 years. She allowed us to communicate our feelings and get everything out in the open. We’ll have heavy hearts (on Sunday) from sun-up to sun-down, but we’ll also be able to shine some light on what my mom has accomplished.”

An upcoming expansion of a cardiac wellness and rehabilitation center at Tecumseh Arena, which is just east of Windsor, will be named after the former heavyweight champion of the NHL. The existing two centers are located at Hotel-Dieu Grace’s home base in Windsor and in the county at the Sherk Complex in Leamington.

“Looking back, Bob had signs of cardiac issues,” Dani Probert said. “He should’ve changed his diet, exercised more and stopped smoking. He was stubborn like a lot of males. He should’ve been at the doctors and paid more attention to the signs. So many should’ves and could’ves. If you experience cardiac-related symptoms, there’s places to go for angioplasty, angiograms, to exercise and to recover.”

Probert said that “stubbornness” and “determination” showed up on and off the ice. During his NHL All-Star season in 1988, Probert scored a career-high 29 goals playing alongside Steve Yzerman and broke Gordie Howe’s playoff scoring record with 21 points in 16 games. Probert still leads the team in all-time penalty minutes with 2,090.

His off-ice incidents were also well-documented. Probert’s drinking and substance abuse led to 10 rehab stays, two NHL suspensions and a jail sentence for carrying cocaine across the Windsor-Detroit border.

He was also one of the first NHL players to be diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease which may have been partly caused by a lifelong career of playing one of the most physical sports, including 246 career fights in 16 years with the Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks. 

“It was difficult telling those stories again right after he died and when they were finishing his book (“Tough Guy: My Life on the Edge”),” Probert said. “He wanted it done and we honored his wish. That first year, so many people wanted to pay tribute to him and I didn’t want to say no to everybody. I never could’ve imagined the importance of starting and planning this motorcycle ride. It’s been my saving grace, a real blessing.”

Marra said there’s no guarantee the motorcycle fundraiser will last forever. Year after year, they sit down after each ride, assess what went right and what went wrong, decide on another possible year (“The answer is always yes,” he says) and then how their seven-member foundation can raise more money and best “serve with humility.”

“Dani has never tried to glamorize her life,” Marra said. “She’s humble and grateful and she’s taught us so much about commitment to family, perseverance, strength of character. During the pandemic, we’ve also asked her to use her time and skills to support our staff and help take care of others. She’s really run with that responsibility.”

With the 10-year anniversary only a few days away, Probert said they’ve had to deal with a “very painful” month of memories. June 5 would’ve been his 55th birthday, Father’s Day was two weekends ago and Wednesday was their 27th wedding anniversary (“Bob and Sheldon Kennedy got up on stage and he sang to me, ‘Some Kind of Wonderful.'”)

“That was Bob’s final gift to us … living in the moment,” she said. “He always lived life in the moment, so spontaneous in everything he did, I was always the planner, organizer, thinking ahead. Now, we’re even more grateful for every day, the simple moments, the true beauty in that. We take nothing for granted.

“After some time and a lot of therapy, you realize that life will never be the same but it doesn’t mean it can’t be wonderful. I would love for someone to read this and get their health checked out and be more aware of cardiac care. When I look at my kids with heart disease in the family, we know to pay more attention to our health. That’s part of Bob’s legacy now. We’re grateful to give back.”

mfalkner@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @falkner

Bob Probert glance

►Born: June 5, 1965

►Birthplace: Windsor

►Died: July 5, 2010

►Family: Wife Dani, children Brogan, Tierney, Jack, Decyln

►Drafted: Detroit Red Wings’ 3rd-round pick in 1983

►Position: Left winger

►Height: 6’4″

►Weight: 225 pounds

►Regular season stats: 163 goals, 221 assists, 384 points, 3,300 penalty minutes in 935 games with the Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks 

►Playoff stats: 16 goals, 32 assists, 48 points, 274 penalty minutes in 81 games