Sunday, 2 September 2012

Review: "Tough Guy" by Bob Probert

"Tough Guy: My Life on the Edge" is the autobiography of Bob Probert, a fast and eye-opening read, but possibly a disappointing one.  Mr. Probert and his co-author, Kirstie McLellan Day, delve pretty thoroughly into his life, his career and his struggles with his addictions, and the material is brutally honest, and certainly not a puff piece or hagiography.  The man knew he wasn't a hero and had no false impressions about his character or reputation or role in hockey, and doesn't try to gloss over his many failings.  As hockey players tend to do, he's also relatively modest about his accomplishments, often affecting a Gretzky-like 'aw shucks' demeanor when he is in a position to brag.

The circumstances surrounding the book are tragic, and may provide insight into its great failings.  While it was mostly complete, in that Mr. Probert had provided the material to recount his entire life story, he passed away before it was ready to be turned over to the publisher.  To this reader, this may explain why while the material is exhaustive, it tends to be shallow, uncritical or reflective, and devoid of insight.  The impression we get is that the author had finished tape recording his story, either spontaneously or during interviews with the co-author, but never had to opportunity to review the material.  More importantly, the co-author never has a chance to delve deeper into some areas.  Her subject has a frustrating tendency to rely on truisms and meaningless turns of phrase such as "It is what it is" and other such uninformative patter.  We get the sense that some tough questions needed to be asked in some sections, to probe further and break through the superficial, and that Mr. Probert would have been forthright and informative.  That this didn't happen is a loss for the reader.

I was also tempted to blame the co-author for this, thinking that she may have been out of her element, that she might have been awed by the subject, or that she was more of a typist than anything, just getting Mr. Probert to regurgitate the dates and events of his life and limiting her role to lining up his words into a rough first draft that was never put through a re-write or strenuous editing.  I do know that she has worked on other books with Theoren Fleury and Ron MacLean, so I'll reserve judgment until I pick up one of these.

Nevertheless, the book is entertaining, and helps the hockey fan who watched Mr. Probert's career to relive those days and flesh out some tenuous memories.  It is easy to forget how important his presence on a team could be, in that when healthy, he was probably the toughest, most feared pugilist in the game, yet was talented enough to play a regular shift on the Wings' second line.  He was easily capable of scoring 20 goals, hitting a high of 29 in 87-88, and racking up seasons of 20 and 19 on other occasions.  Again, if injuries and suspensions hadn't regularly interrupted his career, he might have tallied many more such seasons.

The most enjoyable parts for this reader were his descriptions of his relationships with teammates and management, as well as league officials.  Especially interesting are his opinions on coach Jacques Demers, owner Mike Illitch, team captain Steve Yzerman and teammate and close friend Sheldon Kennedy, himself a troubled player who fought addiction and great trauma in his life.  The juiciest parts are his descriptions of how he bamboozled hapless Colin Campbell, the Wings team official who was in charge of ensuring that he didn't partake of any drugs or alcohol and relapse and fall prey to league suspension again.  How easily Mr. Campbell was fooled again and again provides great insight into this very flawed man who somehow held a position of Senior Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations with the NHL, and continues as Director of Hockey Ops to this day.

So while this book is not highly recommended, the average hockey fan will enjoy blasting through it on a rainy weekend.  It is well worth your while obtaining it at your public library.

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