Most fans will remember Bob Probert as one of the most feared hockey players to ever play in the NHL. A fierce competitor that never backed down from a fight, he is now the subject of a new documentary chronicling his career both on and off the ice, entitled Tough Guy: The Bob Probert Story.
*Now showing in nine Emagine Theatres throughout Michigan until April 17. Additional screenings and information can be found on the movie’s website www.toughguymovie.com
Geordie Day, the writer/producer/director of this film presents an honest depiction of the struggles and addictions that Bob faced throughout his career, including a stint in prison due to drug charges. Through home video footage provided by his wife Dani Probert, it allows viewers to see a glimpse into his home life with his family and children.
‘Tough Guy’ features an overarching posthumous narration from Probert. Day’s mother, Kirstie McLellan Day, worked with Bob in 2010 to write his autobiography, a must-read for all hockey fans. The audio narration in the movie is from recorded conversations she had compiled.
“I think that’s what got us excited about doing the documentary too, was that she was sitting on these taped interviews that she had done with Bob from back in 2010,” said Geordie Day. “They were working on his autobiography, and he passed in the middle of it, and she had been doing all these taped interviews. So, I think we were really excited about the idea of having Bob tell his own story in his own words through those tapes. And so, he narrates the documentary.”
*The book, released after Probert’s death in 2010, was entitled “Tough Guy: My Life on the Edge.”*
Throughout the movie, outstanding interviews from many of Bob’s opponents he faced throughout his career, are presented. These are often paired with actual game footage. Some of the former players include: Tie Domi, Chris Chelios, Jeremy Roenick, Stu Grimson, and Joey Kocur, the other half of the infamous “Bruise Brothers” duo that helped put Detroit on the map during a period where the team struggled to find success.
As one of the most popular players ever to don the Detroit Red Wings uniform, viewers will walk away with a different perspective on who Probert was, and will empathize with him throughout the movie.
Following is my interview with Geordie Day:
Kevin Sporka, HOHM: Do you have a background in hockey? What inspired you to make this film?
Day: A little bit. I grew up playing hockey. I didn’t go super far with it. I think I just was particularly interested in Bob’s story. He can be such an interesting guy. You know, not only kind of having fought his way into the league, which I thought was kind of an interesting story. A guy that probably wouldn’t have otherwise gotten drafted, and then ended up becoming an All-Star player. So from a sports angle, it’s such a rare story. And then additionally, obviously all the scandal and his notorious drug use I thought was interesting, and to sort of juxtapose that with his family life. So, you know, to show the home video footage and having his family and friends that talk about him as like, this loving, sweet guy. I was more interested in the documentary just from like, I guess, a character study, then totally as a sports story.
HOHM: How many years was this documentary in the making?
Day: From when we were greenlit, it was about a year. But it had sort of been in the works for a long time. It takes a while for it to become the right time to do a documentary. But in terms of actually making the film, it was probably just under a year, once we were actually ready to go.
HOHM: What was it about Probert that made him such a beloved figure in Detroit? Do you think it was just the era that he was playing in that the fans tended to gravitate to him so much?
Day: I think a lot of hockey fighters are popular and I think he was really dominant in that position. So that made him become popular. I think the idea of somebody on a hockey team that sticks up for other players and is willing to put their body on the line to protect other players on the team, is something that people just love. And I think additionally, he was just a really lovable person. He would do a lot of charity work in Detroit. He was really into motorcycles and cars, and that obviously fits well within this city. I think it was just a perfect fit.
It’s amazing. We’re doing two screenings as a part of the Detroit film festival, and they’re telling me that it’s sold out, both screenings on the first day. It’s pretty crazy. It’s wild just how his fame and the love for Bob has just lived on for so long.
HOHM: Is it fair to say that Probert’s time with the Wings and being part of the Bruise Brothers with Joey Kocur helped to set the table for some of the success that Detroit saw in the 90s, and for attracting a new fanbase to the team that may have strayed away in the 70s and early 80s?
Day: For sure. What I’ve heard from the people we’ve talked to, the Wings were losing. They weren’t selling tickets. And so, when they had Bob and they had Joey, people were coming to see Bob and Joey fight. And, as it turns out, Bob was able to do a whole lot more than fighting and was able to actually end up becoming a really effective player as well.
HOHM: One of my favorite scenes from the documentary was the scene showing a young Steve Yzerman making the championship belt gesture to Tie Domi from the bench. How important were guys like Probert and Kocur in this time period, making sure that their star players were protected? Wayne Gretzky had McSorley etc…
Day: Talking to players that played in that era, their answer would be crucially important. McSorley, when I talked to him, felt adamantly that Bob Probert belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame, that he was that impactful on the team. And Craig Coxe gets into it a little bit in the documentary. When you have a player like that, that the other team fears, all of a sudden everybody else on your team, they get bigger, they get stronger, they get more room out there. It doesn’t just help your All-Star players like Yzerman or Gretzky. It helps the whole team.
HOHM: Another thing I really liked from the film was pairing the interviews with the players he fought with the actual fight footage. Talk about gathering the footage for that and talking to some of those guys and having them kind of relive their history with Probert.
Day: We went through a lot of game footage to decide on what fights to include in the documentary. There were many, many great fights. It’s not like a boxer’s career, where they’re only fighting one or two times a year. These hockey fighters fought like every game. So there was an amazing amount of fights to go through and decide which belongs in the documentary. The ones that were picked for the documentary, they had to be on story. They had to add something to the human story. It couldn’t just be because they were great hockey fights. And then talking to the players, we kind of tried to do the same thing. I think fundamentally the film is a human story. And so, it wasn’t just about like, former players providing sports commentary on the fights. [Instead] they were providing a human perspective, so that people are able to kind of empathize and understand what that position is about.
HOHM: Of those former players you talked to, were there any that stood out to you as a favorite to talk to. I know you talked to guys like Jeremy Roenick and Stu Grimson; those guys seem like they have hours and hours of stuff to talk about and stories to tell.
Day: I thought they were all really great. I enjoyed talking to everybody. I thought Scott Parker was phenomenal. Jeremy Roenick’s great. I actually thought Tie Domi was amazing and I was really blown away by how emotionally open he was. Tony Twist is somebody who I thought was just hilarious and he’s just an interesting guy. Tony’s not in the doc a whole bunch, but that just had more to do with, again, like forming the narrative and what makes sense from the documentary. But his interview was phenomenal.
HOHM: You mentioned Tie Domi getting emotional. Did that kind of surprise you with having him kind of reflecting on the possibilities of his own future, especially being that he went through a lot of the same physical tolls as Probert did in his career?
Day: It probably would have surprised me more, except all the players were like that. All the hockey fighters that I talked to were, and not just the fighters, were really thoughtful about their time in the league and not just thoughtful from a sports perspective, but thoughtful emotionally. And I think maybe that has something to do with, sort of, retiring so young, that at like 40 you have to kind of go through a bit of an existential crisis…And a lot of those guys had to ask themselves some pretty big questions like just about life in general. And so, they just tend to be really thoughtful, smart guys.
It’s such an intense role to fill on a hockey team, obviously you hear a lot about the physical toll…I think it’s emotionally very challenging as well. There’s a lot of anxiety from that. And then they fight these massive guys every night. These are guys that have really been through a lot.
HOHM: Something that really struck me was how honest the doc is. It doesn’t sugar coat the struggles Bob faced, while also allowing viewers to empathize with him as he goes through his struggles and battles his addictions.
Day: I didn’t go into it being like, oh we’re going to make a documentary that has incredible honesty, and no sugar coating and that kind of thing. The idea was just to have Bob tell his own story. And in those taped interviews, he just straight up says what happened. He doesn’t make excuses for his behavior. He owns his behavior. He’s very honest about the addiction issues and what he did. I think that’s why it comes across that way in the documentary.
HOHM: Looking back on those old newspaper articles and news footage, he was a very polarizing figure in sports in general, not just in Detroit sports. As polarizing as he was back in his playing days, it seems like nowadays he’s looked upon very fondly, even though fighting continues to diminish year over year. Why do you think that is? Do people just move on from those headlines to look at him differently? What still resonates with people now?
Day: I think the reality is that some people still remember him for some of those incidents. They were pretty high profile in the league at the time. I don’t think the hockey world had really seen anything like that. Not that no player had ever had their struggles with addiction before, but the media wasn’t at a place where it could blow up the way it did with Bob. And so I don’t know if that kind of notoriety had existed, but a lot of people remembered it. But hindsight’s twenty-twenty. People have gained perspective on his life. I think through the book and through this film, hopefully they’re able to empathize with his struggles. We all go through struggles and I think when someone is brave enough, like Bob was to be open about it, it really helps a lot of other people.
HOHM: Talk about the importance of CTE awareness in this current sports climate. You have the NFL and the NHL both dealing with head injuries and prolonged trauma to the head. Talk about the importance of getting that out there for people to see, that this is a real thing that these players struggle with.
Day: I think it’s crucially important. I was doing a Q&A at the film [Thursday] with Bob’s daughter Tierney, and one of the things she said, was that she felt that one of the things that could be a silver lining was that he was starting to show those symptoms and that the family was happy that he didn’t have to go through early onset dementia or something like that. And I have seen that with other retired players. I mean, it’s brutal. So I think it’s definitely something that the league has to take seriously. And I think they’re starting to, so that’s a good thing.
HOHM: And too, you had that string of CTE-related deaths with Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, Steve Montador…from a period starting around the time that Bob died, that these enforcers were dying due to CTE.
Day: And I don’t think that’s a coincidence for sure. Scott Parker has a line in the documentary: “You get punched in the face for long enough that those [punches] do something to you over time.” I think it’s probably true.
HOHM: Talk about working with Bob’s family, his wife and his daughters, and his friends on this.
Day: Dani is just like an amazing person in general. She just gets things done. So, whether that’s like helping line up interviews, and sending over home video footage, photos, things like that, she’s phenomenal at that. And you know, she’s just bringing her courage to the table and her bravery in the interviews. The kids are amazing too. We were able to interview most of them, and they’re all so thoughtful, charismatic, smart kids. We wanted to be able to show that.
HOHM: What do you hope young hockey players can take and learn from this story, either avoiding too much partying or just being aware of the dangers of drugs and alcohol?
Day: I hadn’t really thought of that, but that’s a really good question. I guess I would hope that they would see that it could maybe work as a bit of a cautionary tale in that regard. That they can see that, you know, Junior hockey has a bit of a party [reputation], and you got to be careful not to get too sucked into that. And then once you make it into the league, there’s going to be a lot of temptation, probably more so now than when Bob played. There’s opportunities for excess, but you’ve got to stay disciplined.
HOHM: Talk about the relationship with Emagine Theatres here in Michigan and getting distribution for this movie.
Day: They reached out to us. I’m really excited and glad they did. We’re just thrilled that Probert fans from Michigan are going to get the opportunity to see the movie and to see the movie in theatres. It’s not always something you are able to have happen. In this day and age, you don’t always get a theatrical release. So we’re thrilled about it.
The fanbase here is amazing for that. You see people in Probert jerseys coming to the screenings. We had screenings in Windsor…Even in Calgary, where I’m from, we had a screening there, and there were Probert jerseys everywhere. It was great.
HOHM: Do you have any other projects you’re working on currently?
Day: Nothing we’re ready to announce. I directed a true crime series that’s just being released now on Reelz in the States, called Sex, Lies & Murder, so that’s coming out in the Spring. And just now working to figure out what the next documentary project is.
Be sure to see this movie while it’s in theatres. If you’re interested in learning more about Bob Probert’s life, be sure to purchase Kirstie McLellan Day’s book as well.
A big thanks to Geordie Day for taking the time to chat about his movie.
Follow me on Twitter @KevinSporkaHOHM