BRIGHTON, Mich. — Bob Probert commanded respect, created fear and never shied from confrontation. A punishing NHL enforcer a couple decades back, his larger-than-life persona — coupled with his meaty, scarred-up fists, that toothless snarl, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame and 246 fights over his 16-year career — was a mere addendum to his intimidation factor.
But he was loved, too. All over Michigan, fans had posters of Probert plastered on their bedroom walls.
Chris Tamer was no different.
Growing up in Dearborn, Tamer recalled watching hours of Probert fights on VHS tapes. He idolized the man and the player. His tattered poster, featuring a bloodied Probert scowling at an opponent, even made it to the walls of his dorm room at the University of Michigan.
[caption id="attachment_673407" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Chris Tamer at his gym. - CODY TUCKER / DKPS[/caption]
“I was impressed with the way he handled himself,” Tamer was telling me last Friday inside his office at CrossFit Brighton, a gym he has owned since 2009. “He was an icon of Red Wings hockey.”
Probert rarely lost a fight. When he did, it made headlines.
One of those happened Oct. 12, 1995, in Chicago.
In the middle stages of the third period with the visiting Penguins trailing, 4-0, Probert, then with the Blackhawks, was violently shoved from behind. His focus quickly shifted from the fray in front of the Chicago net to a young, eager defenseman in a black Pittsburgh sweater.
Probert, a 10-year veteran, threw the first punch. It didn’t connect. Neither did the next three.
The other guy, a relative unknown, entering only his second season in the league, dazed Probert with a pair of rights.
Then came the coup de grâce.
With the heavyweight champ now on the defensive, the 24-year-old southpaw blasted Probert in the mouth with a quick left, leaving one of the most feared fighters of his era crumpled on the ice, blood dripping from his top lip.
That man was Tamer:
More than two decades later, now 47, he is still humble when discussing the devastating blow he landed on his childhood hero.
“I felt bad,” Tamer said. “I truly respected him. He was a legend.”
Tamer never considered himself an enforcer. Few employed in his role ever have. He saw himself as a physical stay-at-home defenseman. So he was just as surprised as the television announcers that night at what transpired against Probert. They boasted about Tamer staging a “smart fight,” even though moments earlier they were questioning what the 6-foot-2, 212-pound fledgling was doing picking a fight with Probert in the first place.
That was Tamer's 14th fight in an 11-year career. He would go on to have 86, as well as 1,183 penalty minutes, 588 of which came during his five-plus seasons in Pittsburgh.
The gravity of the moment hit him when he walked into his Pittsburgh apartment late that night. His answering machine was flashing red. It was his friends and former teammates from back home. And a few days later, it became surreal when another NHL tough guy leaned into him before a faceoff and said, “Nice job with Probert.”
“I remember thinking, ‘You saw that?’” Tamer said, a slight grin creasing his face. “This was before the internet and social media. I was amazed.”
The TKO put Tamer on the map. It also put a target on his back. He couldn’t just float around anymore. Soon, he was drawing the attention of other epic enforcers, including Kelly Chase, Stu Grimson and Krzysztof Oliwa.
Jay Caufield wasn’t able to sneak up on the league like Tamer.
Standing 6-feet-4, 240 pounds, Caufield was built for one role on the Penguins’ rosters of the early '90s. He wasn’t blessed with natural speed or instincts on the ice. He was a college football player who taught himself this sport and willed himself to do whatever it took to make it. He embraced his new position as the personal bodyguard of Pittsburgh greats Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis.
If he didn’t do his job, Caufield can now attest, the organization would’ve found someone else. That meant when the league’s best brawlers came calling, he had to answer the bell.
“For me, I was learning as I was going,” Caufield was saying over the phone. “All I knew was, you better do it and show up every night.”
Caufield, better known to the newer generation of hockey fans as AT&T SportsNet's studio analyst, skated nearly five seasons in Pittsburgh, playing a richly appreciated supporting role in the franchise’s first Stanley Cup championships in 1991 and 1992. He is credited with 49 career fights in the NHL. Seven of those came against the Flyers’ premier scrapper of the era, Dave Brown.
As fun as those rivalry games were with his hometown team, Caufield can still remember laying in his hotel room late at night thinking about the man who awaited him at the Spectrum the following night.
“Some nights were better than others,” Caufield quipped, referring to Brown, who is credited with 148 career fights. “When you found out their lineup at the morning skate that day, let’s just say I never really had a smooth afternoon. It was not very comfortable. I’d be lying if I told you any different. There’s a mental grind to it. It comes with the job.”
Caufield tussled with feared foes like Tony Twist, Scott Stevens and, of course, Probert, but there was always something special about the bouts with Brown.
The same can’t be said for Georges Laraque.
As a 6-foot-3, 273-pound behemoth of a teenager, he lined up for a preseason faceoff shoulder to shoulder with Brown. In his autobiography, 'The Story of the NHL’s Unlikeliest Tough Guy,' he makes a startling admission: He asked his coach if he could go back to juniors to “work on his game,” solely because he was terrified of Brown. Laraque says the image of Brown crushing Grimson’s face in with a single punch played over and over in his mind. The fact that Brown was in his face breathing like “Darth Vader” didn’t help, either. Laraque said he was so scared of Brown that his head was literally between his own legs, staring behind him in the direction of his goaltender.
Brown even scored a goal that day.
Laraque recalled that he seriously considered congratulating him.
“I didn’t like fighting anyone,” Laraque said over the phone from Montreal. “The thought of dying crosses your mind. I was always scared. Not just scared of losing, but getting hurt.”
Obviously, Laraque got over that fear, enough to participate in more than 240 fights in his 13-year career. Like Probert, he mostly came out on the winning end. Fear motivated Laraque. It also left him, like Caufield, staring at the ceiling of plenty of hotel rooms. And that’s not all. Laraque said he would be so nervous that his blanket, sheets, and even his mattress, would be soaked in sweat.
“When you would show up at the rink and the guy’s name wasn’t in the lineup, it was a relief,” he said of the NHL’s enforcers. “I had so much anxiety knowing that I’m going to fight one of those guys. Sleep was the hardest thing. When I was a rookie, no lie, I used to go to church and pray that the guy will be a healthy scratch or not play. That’s how much anxiety I had. It would drive me insane.”
He got over that angst a little more each year. Mainly, he said, because he knew other guys were dreading facing him, too. Eventually, Laraque’s fight total diminished. He had made such a name for himself on the ice that fighters were avoiding him at all costs. His pregame smiles also left rivals worried. That was just as effective as the actual fighting, he said.
No one was taking runs at Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin during his 88 games with the franchise. That’s what he was hired to do.
Laraque calls the enforcer’s work “the toughest job in pro sports.”
Unfortunately, he said, the position is now all but obsolete. Stories like these are becoming less frequent with each passing season.
If you like the fighting element in hockey, avert your eyes. The numbers aren’t pretty.
For instance, during the 2008-09 season, there were 734 fights, according to HockeyFights.com, a website dedicated to preserving the history of the league’s brawlers. Aside from a slight rise from 344 to 372 fights from 2015-16 to 2016-17, the decline has been steady.
During that 2008-09 season, 41.38 percent of all games featured at least one dust up. Fast forward to last season and only 17.86 percent of contests saw even a single scrap. In 2017-18, there were only 280 of them. Only six of those games featured more than one fight.
Only three players reached double digits in the fight category last season.
Can you name them?
Didn't think so.
It used to be easy to name a bunch, but the leader is Florida nobody Micheal Haley. He had 22 fights, three goals, 212 penalty minutes and probably zero posters hanging in any kid's room. Tom Wilson and Cody McLeod finished with 13.
The Penguins had only 17 fights, seven involving Ryan Reaves, who was dealt to the Golden Knights in February after it had become clear Mike Sullivan had little use for him. Jamie Oleksiak had six fights, Ian Cole two, and Matt Hunwick, Kris Letang and Malkin one each.
That's the way of the NHL now, but is it the right way?
Caufield, candid as ever, pointedly stated that the Penguins’ fans don’t have to look too far in the past to see what the lack of a tough guy can mean to a championship dream.
Exhibit A: Tom Wilson.
The Capitals’ 6-foot-4, 218-pound repeat offender ran wild on the Penguins in the recent playoffs, knocking Brian Dumoulin out of Game 2 and ending Zach Aston-Reese's season — and summer — with a devastating shoulder-to-head blow that brought a broken jaw and a concussion.
Wilson received a three-game suspension, but according to Caufield, that was the only thing putting a halt to Wilson’s run through the postseason. The Penguins simply didn’t have an answer.
And the way the current roster is constructed, he added, they still don’t.
“You have got to have a fourth-line guy that plays 8 to 10 minutes a night,” he said. “Wilson plays that game for Washington, and he’s effective. When you have world-class, elite players, you would think you would want to have that. They had it in Reaves. I’m not sure what happened there. I know you would feel better if you knew there was someone in the lineup to help and deter certain hits.”
Laraque couldn’t agree more.
“I wanted to punch him in the face,” he said of Wilson's preening and posing after the Aston-Reese check.
He was no less ornery about Jim Rutherford trading Reaves. He called it a major mistake.
“Wilson probably went to church and lit up some candles after they traded Reaves,” Laraque said. “It worked. Whatever church he went to, it worked. I can’t believe Rutherford made that trade. Wow. How does that make sense? Reaves was popular in the locker room, well-liked by his teammates and fans. Look what happened. Thanks to that play, Wilson got a contract. If the Pens have Reaves, none of that happens. They should give that Cup to Rutherford.”
After the Capitals’ Game 3 win, Barry Trotz might as well have been referencing the sentiments of Laraque and Caufield in his press conference.
“Tom's a unique player,” Trotz replied to a reporter. “There are few Tom Wilsons in the league. That’s why he is very effective.”
Inside Tamer’s gym Friday morning, the smell of rain — mixed with stale locker room — sets in as more than a dozen crossfitters run past the window, dragging stacks of iron weights. Fellow lifters offer shouts of encouragement. The damp conditions are turning humid in Tamer’s office.
“This is an addictive lifestyle,” he says, adding that his own workout is set to begin soon.
This is life after retirement for the former bruiser. His laidback demeanor doesn’t suggest that this is a man who once took on all comers who dared to mess with Lemieux, Jagr, Francis or, later on, Wayne Gretzky and Ilya Kovalchuk. This man has 99 fights under his belt.
Quietly, he confesses, he wishes he would’ve known that number before.
“Maybe I can sign a one-day contract with someone and get one more in,” he says with a smirk.
He never watches YouTube videos of himself fighting. On occasion, one of his gym members will tease him about seeing a different side of their coach. He seems stunned that fans at PPG Paints Arena would still be wearing his No. 2 sweater to this day. He laughs when asked why he never received a gruff nickname like Bob “Battleship” Kelly, Stu “Grim Reaper” Grimson or Steve “Demolition Derby” Durbano. He says Don Cherry once called him “Tamer the Gamer” one night on Hockey Night in Canada. It didn’t stick.
Tamer compares himself to his favorite NHL destination. He says he is blue-collar, hard-working and passionate. Just like Pittsburgh. His only regret is that he never hoisted a Cup in the city. It still burns him when people ask if he was on the championship teams of the early '90s. He came one year too late.
Tamer's only other stated regret?
He fears the day of the fighter in the NHL has come to a close, though he swears that it still takes a tough guy to win in the postseason. And here, too, one name popped up, albeit reluctantly and without elaboration: Wilson.
When he watches games, Tamer said those same feelings still rise to the surface. He fought for the sweater. So did Caufield and Laraque. All three are peeved about the direction the league is heading — even the Flyers — but they understand. Will the traditional fourth line ever make a comeback? Will a team dare blaze a trail back to the olden days, implementing multiple enforcers again? Will fighting ever be prevalent again?
They say no.
The risk of injury and skill have taken center stage, forcing fighting and the men that make their livings doing it, to the sidelines, Caufield said.
It’s a sad proposition for three of the top fighters in franchise history.
"The game has changed," Laraque said bluntly. "The way it is now, the physicality is out of the game. It's growing more and more than we have ever seen. The game is great. But, with the physicality, I thought it was more exciting. Guys were more accountable for their actions. Now, guys are just young and fast."
All three are adamant they are doing fine physically and mentally. Laraque has a radio show, a vegan restaurant, his own clothing line and is a public speaker in Quebec, among other ventures. Caufield is doing the television gig and is best known for helping Lemieux make his comeback from retirement to the NHL during the 2000-01 season.
They are also fully aware that the stories of some of their fellow enforcers didn’t come with a happy ending — including the man featured on the poster in Tamer's dorm room. Probert suffered heart failure in 2010 and died on the shores of Lake St. Clair in Ontario after a day of boating with family. He was just 45 years old. His struggles with addiction and risky behavior were well documented. In 2011, the reason for his tumultuous lifestyle may have been uncovered. Doctors at Boston University say Probert suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that goes by the more common term CTE.
The potential for trouble down the road is always there, Tamer conceded. He recalled a time he blacked out after a fight, finally coming to in the penalty box. He admitted he had no clue how he made it that far.
For now, he said, he has seen little to no effect.
One word — aside from Wilson — became the common theme in all three players’ stories: Respect. They don’t like when players take liberties with guys not in their weight class. They hate cheap shots. They are proud of what they did for their teammates and cities.
They are a dying breed.
And they know it.
“I feel very strongly that there is not a guy today that wouldn’t re-sign on the dotted line,” Caufield said. “I feel for all of those players that have been rocked, one way or the other, down the line. But I still feel .. I signed up for it. I signed on the dotted line.”
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