Movie Sleuth Exclusives: Tough Guy: The Bob Probert Story (2018) Reviewed

I was not much of a hockey fan growing up, yet I was still very aware of who Bob Probert was. It was hard to avoid hearing about him if you lived anywhere near Detroit. All I really knew was he was a big, tough, fighter who played for the Red Wings and he had a drug problem. 

The documentary Tough Guy: The Bob Probert Story presents him as a man who certainly fit that description. He fought because that was the niche he could fill on the ice. He won because his macho pride would not let him lose. He drank and did drugs to dull the pain from taking so many punches. The movie skips around a bit and does not delve particularly deep into his psyche. Other than that, it is a compelling look at a guy whose lifestyle matched his professional demeanor a little too much, as well as a behind the scenes peek at the Detroit Red Wings during that time.

Though Tough Guy starts with some slight backstory on Probert, it is primarily focused on his tenure as a pro hockey player. His story is told using audio interviews, archival footage and new interviews with his family, friends, former teammates and peers. Probert makes for a good subject. He was a charismatic guy with real talent, but his main value came from intimidation. Opposing teams knew if they messed with any of the Red Wings' stars, they would have to deal with Probert. That mentality caused him trouble in his private life, especially when he was under the influence. The movie is sympathetic toward him despite his faults, but it does not hide them nor attempt to excuse them.

This is a pretty fast-paced doc, hopping from one legal issue to another, showing the effect it had on Probert’s personal and professional lives. That is what the movie is about. However, the filmmakers also take the time to touch on many different topics in the course of relating this story. In addition to pro sports and addiction, it intersects with the life of a celebrity, sports journalism, concussions and retirement. While it does not totally explore all of these things, just including them adds context to Probert’s life.

The most interesting aspect of his story is his relationship with the Red Wings. The filmmakers talked to several people in the front office during that period who discuss how the team kept an eye on him, trying (mostly failing) to make him responsible. There is an honesty present in that section that is refreshing. That kind of candor tends to be missing from sports stories, with people more concerned with protecting their own reputations than telling the unvarnished truth. That approach exists in some areas of Tough Guy, but at least the hockey players and executives seem to be forthcoming.

As a biography of Bob Probert, it is alright. As a look at the culture of the NHL at the time, it is fairly successful. It bounces throughout his life in a way that can occasionally be difficult to follow and his family (understandably) seems a little guarded when it comes to talking about his many problems. All the footage and audio of him makes this feel more insightful than it actually is. But for hockey fans or people who remember hearing stories about him in Detroit during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, it is definitely worth a watch.

-Ben Pivoz