Only four men in hockey history spent more time in the penalty box than Bob Probert.
Probert could skate, shoot, and score—but most of all he could fight. He didn't just punch people—he cut their faces open, literally cracking their skulls, even knocking them out. Probert was so good at fighting, he was made an enforcer, whose unofficial job is to punish the opposing team for dirty play by creaming the offender or the other enforcer. The 3,381 minutes (56 hours) Probert spent in the sin bin show what an excellent employee he was of the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks for 17 seasons.
Probert died on Monday at the age of 45, after retiring in 2002. But what he personified in hockey has been on life support for years.
Following a 2005 lockout, the NHL added an "instigator" rule to its books. In addition to five minutes in the penalty box for fighting, the man who starts a brawl on the ice now gets an extra two minutes in the box. More people would watch hockey if games didn't take so long to play, the NHL thought, so cut down the game-delaying fights and TV ratings will rise.
Forget this dubious proposition—that fans prefer fluid clocks to rough beatings—and think of what it says culturally.
Hockey, like baseball, allows players to take justice in their own hands. On ice, it's the job of the enforcer to stick up for his teammate who received a dirty hit. On the baseball field, a pitcher can beam a batter who maybe took out the second baseman's legs on a slide in the previous inning. Both actions are central to the game—not merely incidental—because they represent attempts of one player to resolve or punish what's been done by another. Fighting is the continuation of play, just as war is the continuation of politics by other means.
The idea that men should be subject to justice is strong. It's why we're drawn to stories about mafioso, cowboys, and thugs: in their imagined worlds, people are punished with speed, ruthlessness, and without court appeals. It's seductive to believe matters could be made right if someone was certain who the bad guy is and powerful enough to make him pay.
In reality, certainty and power don't exist—or at least shouldn't exist because of how they would corrupt the judgment of those who should impartially bring criminals to justice. That's why there is due process, the burden of proof on the prosecutor, and the presumption of innocence for the accused.
No wonder sports elicit such passion: fans have near omniscience over players because sports are meant to be seen in full. We feel certain we know who's done wrong (if we're not, we'll know after the third replay in slow motion) but we're powerless to make it right. Maybe that's one reason we cheer men with whom we have little in common and who may be otherwise loathsome. We don't feel powerless when they do what we wish.
That's how fans can root for a gruesome hockey fight. And that's part of the reason why they'll miss Bob Probert.