By Charlie Gillis - Friday, September 9, 2011 - 17 Comments
The night before he was found dead of a suspected suicide, the former NHL enforcer was out on the town and in good spirits
In broadcasting, as in hockey, reliability ranks high on the list of professional virtues. Dead air or squandered studio time are radio sins on par with an empty dressing-room stall before practice. The responsible party can expect retribution and, if he keeps it up, a ticket to the bush leagues.
Some athletes-cum-commentators take a while to grasp that, so the text Wade Belak sent Jeremy Bennefield last Tuesday night came as reassurance to the Nashville radio producer, who had been tasked with grooming the former NHL tough guy to host a weekly show on an all-sports FM station. “I’ll be there on Friday night,” wrote Belak, who was in Toronto at the time. “Staying until Sunday. Any way we can tape a show in that time slot?” The time signature on the message read 11:29 p.m. ET. Bennefield didn’t pick it up until 9:15 a.m. the following day, and he made sure to fire off a quick reply: “Yes, we’ll make it work.”
Three hours later, Belak was found hanging in his hotel room in downtown Toronto, the victim of an apparent suicide (though authorities have not confirmed the cause of death). And Bennefield has been pondering that text exchange ever since.“Somebody actually asked me whether I thought this was a reach-out,” he says from Nashville. “You know: whether Wade was seeking some sort of reassurance that he had something to live for.” But that doesn’t square with the man he had seen at a taping just days earlier, ribbing staff at 102.5 The Game, cracking jokes at his own expense. While recording the inaugural episode of his weekly show and podcast “The Game Changer,” the 35-year-old had enthused about setting down roots in Nashville, where he’d just wound down his playing career. “Based on my conversations with him, based on the texts that I got hours before the fact,” he says, “my impression is this wasn’t a guy looking for a way out.”
By Charlie Gillis - Thursday, September 30, 2010 at 3:40 PM - 0 Comments
Beauty, meet the beast: tough guy Georges Laraque joins Battle of the Blades
In his playing days, Georges Laraque was known to issue verbal cautions. Keep up the guff, he’d tell a misbehaving opponent, and you’ll get your head pounded. And by pounded, Laraque meant like Omaha Beach in 1944: until he retired at the end of last year, he was the unofficial heavyweight champ of the NHL. This fall, Big Georges’ warning goes out to figure-skating fans, and lucky for them it is more in the vein of public service. “Don’t drink hot beverages while watching me skate,” he says, chuckling. “You’re going to laugh so hard you’ll spill it on your lap.”
He’s only half kidding. At six foot four and 270 lb., Laraque is the largest hockey player yet to lace up for CBC’s hit reality series, Battle of the Blades, and while his heft served him well in his role as enforcer for the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers, it won’t in this competition—a strangely absorbing spectacle in which retired hockey stars are transformed into the on-ice consorts of seasoned female pairs skaters.
By John Intini - Monday, July 19, 2010 at 10:57 AM - 0 Comments
The former NHLer put his off-ice struggles behind him and died a family man
In September 1999, about three years before his playing days in Chicago were over, Bob Probert and his wife, Dani, set their homecoming in motion. They purchased a waterfront property in Lakeshore, Ont., a sleepy town near Windsor, where they planned to build their dream home. After years on the road, they wanted to be close to family (Probert’s mother Theresa, his brother Norm, and father-in-law James all live in Windsor). Today, their large grey-stoned home, with its slate roof, sits on a quiet street along Lake St. Clair. There’s a swimming pool on the lake side, a big rec room in the basement with a pool table and hockey jerseys from Probert’s playing days framed and hanging on the walls, and a limited-edition Harley Davidson Fat Boy parked in the dining room. It’s a stunning place, but like the former NHL heavyweight, not overly showy. From the curb, at least, it’s not even the most palatial residence on the street. A few doors down, another home, protected by a large gate at the front, features a water fountain and a full-sized basketball court.
Less concerned about his jumpshot, Probert treated himself instead to a massive garage. It’s the ultimate man cave, with 1,725 sq. feet of space to work on his old Chevrolet Chevelles, Monte Carlos and a ’68 Dodge Charger. (The garage also houses Probert’s Porsche, and a couple of Harley Davidsons.) He collected all kinds of tools and old car parts. But it wasn’t a secret, say friends, that Probert was better at taking cars apart than putting them back together.
Still, after facing off against some serious demons in his life, Probert was in full control. Much of his focus, say friends, was on his family (his wife, four children, and two Yorkies named Carly and Simon) and his charity work. Then, on the afternoon of July 5, the former left-winger died suddenly of an apparent heart attack while boating on Lake St. Clair with his family. Probert was only 45, leaving some to wonder if all those years of hard living in his playing days—his struggles with alcohol and substance abuse during that time were well-known—had caught up with him. Or, perhaps, it was hereditary. In 1982, his father Al, a Windsor police officer, died of a heart attack at 52.
Whatever the case, the death of Windsor’s favourite son struck a nerve in this blue-collar town. Everyone, it seems, was quick to share a story about “Probie.” His popularity benefited from being one of a rare breed of enforcers. In his 16-year NHL career, split between the Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks, his fists made him the most feared man in hockey, and yet he could also be dangerous with the puck, scoring 163 goals and assisting on 221 others. For many who knew him, his well-documented struggles off the ice—including the three months he spent in jail after trying in March 1989 to cross the Canada-U.S. border with cocaine in his underwear—are secondary to the family man that he had become. He was a guy who was most comfortable in a T-shirt, jeans and a pair of Crocs—the ones with fur lining were favourites since he could wear them year-round.
That’s not to say retirement for Probert was totally smooth, especially in the early going. Though not necessarily front-page news, Probert had a few run-ins with the authorities in the last decade. In June 2004, he was Tasered by police in Delray Beach, Fla., and charged with battery, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct (a jury acquitted him several months later). Probert would later say he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. “Some guys were getting mouthy and I was getting mouthy and then the police arrived.” In July 2005, police were called to the Probert’s Lakeshore residence. Nine officers arrived, eight were wearing black gloves, “as though ready to do battle,” says Patrick Ducharme, Probert’s long-time agent and lawyer. Probert was charged with assaulting police and intent to resist arrest. But video footage, captured by surveillance cameras that he had on the property, showed that Probert had not been aggressive with the police at all, says Ducharme.
After the Crown saw the tape, the charges were withdrawn. Ducharme thought his client might have a good civil case, but Probert didn’t want to proceed. “He said, ‘That’s my community and I don’t want them angry with me,’ ” recalls Ducharme. Then, in June 2006, Probert was asleep on the sidewalk when he was picked up by the police and brought in to the station on suspicion of public intoxication. During a routine search, the authorities found half a gram of cocaine in his pocket. He was charged with possession. But according to Ducharme, there was no fingerprint evidence to indicate Probert ever touched the packet in question, and two individuals, who had been drinking with Probert that night, came forward to say they had stuffed the cocaine in his pocket after he’d passed out, and planned to come back for it later. That charge was withdrawn as well.
Through it all, Dani stuck with him. The couple first met about two decades ago when Probert was serving out a suspension from the Red Wings in Windsor. On Canada Day, four days before he died, they celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary. “I’ve learned a lot from that guy,” says Donald Cadarian, one of Probert’s friends. “I’ve learned how to say ‘sorry.’ I’ve learned how to say ‘I love you.’ He used to tell Dani every time they were on the phone, ‘I love you, baby,’ ‘I love you so much.’ Every time. Every day. Nobody does that after 17 years of marriage. If you’d seen them together, there was no question why they stayed together.”
By Charlie Gillis - Tuesday, December 8, 2009 at 6:40 PM - 1 Comment
Figure skating & hockey
“Raw power” was the phrase Dick Button invoked repeatedly this fall as he co-judged Battle of the Blades, CBC’s hit reality show pairing female figure skaters with retired NHL players, and the words took some getting used to. Yes, Craig Simpson, Claude Lemieux, Stéphane Richer and others oozed testosterone as they cut into the ice, effortlessly hoisting their partners through the seven-week contest. But since when was rawness a virtue in figure skating?
Say all you want about TV ratings. Or the softer side of hockey players. Battle’s real accomplishment was to show the benefits of playing up virility on the male side of an ice-dancing duo. For too long, the sport has been held hostage to a faux-arts aesthetic, in which sequin-encrusted men act more like ladies-in-waiting than impassioned lovers. Battle of the Blades, refreshingly, treated viewers to more exposed biceps than rhinestones, and the unabashed masculinity helped expand the audience. “We wanted the men to look like men,” says executive producer John Brunton, “and the women to look sexy.”
During the penultimate episode, Shae-Lynn Bourne lay like a broken angel over Claude Lemieux’s head, creating a vision both poignant and seductive. We all knew Jamie Salé could delight, but who knew she could be raunchy? And the players furnished revelation after revelation. Turns out Tie Domi is a creditable skater when he’s not chucking haymakers. Ron Duguay—whose rock hair was legendary during his time on Broadway playing for the Rangers—is now Canada’s official answer to Mick Jagger. And who could forget Lemieux skating to the sound of his own voice singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah? “That was my first take,” he later smiled. “I come from a very musical family.”
By the Nov. 16 finale, the show could boast a checklist of entertainment coups. Not only did it get men watching figure skating (more than 40 per cent of Battle’s 1.7 million or so weekly viewers were males), it got the rest of the world interested in something Canadian. The New York Times wrote a glowing story about the program, while Insight Productions, the company that delivered the show into the CBC’s grateful hands, has been fielding queries from as far away as Sweden and Russia from networks interested in replicating the format. Here in Canada, planning for a second season has already begun.
More important to Canadians, the program brought together worlds that have remained separate while living side by side in arenas across the country. Bourne, for one, admits she more or less ignored hockey while growing up in Chatham, Ont., and had scarcely heard of Lemieux when told the former agitator would be her partner. “It’s not that figure skating and hockey have been enemies,” she says. “They just haven’t always worked together.” Bourne points to Russia, where she has witnessed hockey skaters and figure skaters working together to improve. “How great would it be if our skating coaches and hockey coaches teamed up in Canada?” she asks. “Both sports would be better, and the athletes on both sides would benefit. We should be on the same team.”
By Charlie Gillis - Tuesday, November 24, 2009 at 10:25 AM - 1 Comment
How a tough guy broke the figure skating barrier, won over Canadians and sang his heart out
He may have finished second, but a creative, downright sensual Claude Lemieux was the big revelation of Battle of the Blades, the CBC show pairing retired NHL players with female figure skaters. He spoke to Maclean’s between practices for the finale.
Q: I hope you won’t be offended when I tell you I never associated you with graceful skating.
A: Hey, that’s fine. I’ve always been an underdog in some way. I believe people in hockey underestimated my skill level and my physique. I’ve read a few comments, you know: “This guy’s got a short little choppy stride,” and I knew that wasn’t the case—that I could skate pretty well.
Q: As a player did you ever give much thought to how you looked as you moved across the ice?
A: No, most of us players actually don’t like how we skate. Only a few enjoy watching ourselves play. We can always see something we could do better. There weren’t a lot of hockey players in my family background, and we never had the financial capability for me to take any special power-skating clinics the kids get today. It was just something I picked up and went with and loved.
Q: You did have a 18-season career in the NHL, though. That suggests a certain aptitude.
A: I was solid, really strong on my feet and I was always in balance. Sometimes that’s even better than having a graceful, straight-up kind of skating style.
Q: You were best known, of course, as an agitator, and sometimes a dirty player. You were routinely described as the most hated man in hockey. Was signing up for Battle of the Blades an attempt to show people another side of your personality?
A: That was one of the reasons. I thought it would be a fun experience, a journey, but I definitely did think this could be an opportunity to show the Canadian people, really, who I am. In hockey, you put on this suit of armour, you go out on the ice in your equipment and you perform as well as you can with the gifts you’ve got. But most of the tough guys are great people off the ice, real soft-spoken and sensitive guys. It’s the complete opposite of what one would expect.
Q: I think up until now—at least outside of Montreal—you may have been best remembered as the man who caved Kris Draper’s face by shoving him headlong into the boards. Have you ever spoken to him about that?
A: No, I’ve really never spent any time with him. People have said I should call the guy and apologize. But if something really bad happens to you, and the next day the person who did it calls and says, ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ you’re like, pfffft. You know what I mean? Maybe two or three years later, when it’s more sincere. But I can show you 5,000 hits that were worse than that. I played 1,500 games in the NHL and you remember me for one hit?
Q: You were also known as a relentless competitor. How has that aspect of your personality played into this contest?
A: When you’re a dedicated, focused, zoned-in type of person, you’re just going to do whatever it takes—within boundaries. In hockey, we pushed those boundaries further because we were physically confronting our opponents. Here, there is no mental or physical game against your opponent; you’re really competing against yourself. I’ve asked my partner and our coach David Wilson to push me as far as I can go. When the lights go up, it’s about your mental strength.
Q: Who first asked you to do the show?
A: It was [goaltender] Sean Burke, a former teammate of mine, who had committed to it. He’d gotten an opportunity to move into a full-time assistant coaching job with the Phoenix Coyotes, so he bailed out, and asked me if I’d be interested.
Q: What was your reaction?
A: [Laughing] ‘Uhhh, no. I think I’m busy.’ To be honest, there was fear about how good the quality of the production would be, and how the producers would try to portray us.
Q: What changed your mind?
A: I found out Tie Domi had committed. He’s been here in Toronto a long time and has a good image in the city, so I figured he would know whether it was going to be a good production. As it turned out, the producers have been great, allowing us to voice our opinions on how we felt we should present ourselves to the viewers. I think that’s part of the reason everyone from little kids to grandparents is enjoying the show. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, at times it’s sensual. But it’s all been done with a lot of class.
Q: What was your wife’s reaction?
A: She was very positive. We’ve had our ups and downs because the show’s been so demanding time-wise. She’s had to spend a lot of time here, and the kids have been back and forth a few times from our home in Phoenix.
Q: You did play hockey in China last year to prepare for an NHL comeback. Maybe this looked reasonable by comparison.
A: China was a crazy idea, but it was basically hockey with different people, and that was within our comfort zone. This was completely outside our comfort zone.
Q: Were you one of those players who admired figure skaters?
A: Yes, I always watched it during the Olympics—especially the pairs. I thought it was beautiful how they could be in such perfect sync and move so elegantly.
Q: Why do you think you’ve taken to it so naturally?
A: You have to have a good ear for the music, and I’m very musical. It’s all about the beat and when the stride happens. I’ll know, for example, if I’ve missed a step just from listening to the music; I don’t need my partner to tell me.
Q: One of the things the show has demonstrated is how important athleticism is in figure skating. Why do you think hockey players regard the sport as effeminate?
A: I think it’s been portrayed that way, and that’s wrong. We’ve done a lot of good with this show by bringing the two sports closer together, and I think Hockey Canada should be all over the opportunity to go recruit some of the Figure Skating Canada coaches who might have been viewed as people who don’t know hockey skating. I truly wish I’d done this 20 years ago. I would have been a better hockey player, and if a guy like me can improve his skating at 44, imagine if you could get this kind of education at a young age.
Q: Are there lessons for figure skating, too? I’ve long thought international skating could use, to be blunt, some bigger, stronger men.
A: Yes. I think we’ve broken the barrier, this belief that big, tough guys could not be figure skaters. Maybe we’ve brought out of the closet—so to speak—a lot of guys who wish they could just go out and be comfortable as figure skaters. Hopefully figure skating in Canada will be better because they will have bigger, stronger men who have been hiding, not making themselves available, not wanting to take on the figure skating world, because of their size.
Q: Speaking of masculinity, who makes your wardrobe selections?
A: I’ve really not had much say. The designers and wardrobe creators have been great at keeping it pretty basic.
Q: Any puffy pirate shirts get left on the dressing room floor?
A: Well, one time they did want me to wear a see-through shirt. I said, “Um, no. That’s not going to happen.”
Q: You were one of the first players in the competition to switch over to figure skates from hockey skates. Why did you do that?
A: I knew that as a fan watching the show, I would not be that impressed with a hockey player doing a few spins and carrying girls around in his hockey skates. I would be impressed with a guy who’s learned to make those turns, who’s learned to get comfortable with figure skates.
Q: What’s the principal difference?
A: A figure skate throws you forward right away. And your radius is different—it’s built to turn, so it allows you to get much better at that. It’s actually got two flat spots under the blade, one at the front and one at the back, because there are some moves you do on your heels and some on your toes. That really creates a different feeling from a hockey skate, which has one flat spot in the middle.
Q: What about those toe picks?
A: Oh, I did a couple of face plants right off the bat. My right knee still hurts.
Q: You lucked out with your partner. Shae-Lynn Bourne is one of the best ice dancers in the world. How does the dynamic between you two work?
A: I thought she lucked out with me [laughing]. No, the fact I’m older—I’ve got a good 10 years on her—has helped, because she’s been more like my little sister. The fact that she’s single, not married, could have been uncomfortable. But she’s very driven in her work and she’s got a good head on her shoulders. Somebody who leaves home at the age of 11 to go skate, living with other families so she can compete at the top of her sport, is going to be tenacious.
Q: People were floored last week when you skated to the sound of your own voice, a recording of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Are you a closet karaoke hero?
A: I do like karaoke. Usually we’d end up fighting for the mike. I grew up in a very musical family. My grandfather was a really good singer, and my sister won a music contest in Quebec when she was 12. I’ve sung in public, but before last week the highlight of my singing career was to sing to my wife at our wedding—Have I Told You Lately that I Love You, by Rod Stewart.
Q: In this case, there was a delay getting the rights to broadcast k.d. lang’s version of Hallelujah. How did the job fall to you?
A: They wanted a duet, featuring a male with a deep voice. My wife and I were out for dinner and she said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ I was like, you’re crazy. I didn’t even know the lyrics. So I got home that night, and I was, like, [sings]: “I heard there was a secret chord . . .” It’s a difficult song in some ways, but it was a good register for me, and I think it showed we were willing to do that little bit extra.
Q: Was that your first recording session?
A: It was, and that was my first take!
Q: I heard that you are pretty good friends with Wayne Gretzky. Does he know you’re doing this?
A: I haven’t spoken to him lately, but he wouldn’t be surprised. He knows me. He’s even heard me sing.
Q: You should know you once put my father and me in grave danger. We’re Montreal Canadiens fans and in the late ’80s we went to see you guys play in Vancouver. You cross-checked Rich Sutter, and since the Canucks fans in our section couldn’t get at you, it looked like they were going to take out their anger on us.
A: That was in their old building, right? Are you sure it wasn’t when I suckered Stan Smyl in front of their bench?
Q: I thought it was Sutter, but I could be wrong.
A: Well, sorry, but I was lucky to get out of there alive myself.
By Scott Feschuk - Thursday, November 5, 2009 at 10:40 AM - 9 Comments
It combines two things Canada loves most: hockey and the risk of serious head wounds
Moments before eight o’clock and I am urging the taxi driver onward, cajoling him to consider stop signs as optional. He dutifully speeds as though he were rushing a fully dilated woman to the hospital or Kirstie Alley to the drive-through. Tires squeal. The brakes squeal. The driver squeals. Rules of the road be damned, my good man: Battle of the Blades is about to start!
Driveway, door, stairs two at a time, and—whew!—I enter to catch the opening credits. That old lady we clipped at the last intersection won’t have died in vain. I throw myself on the couch, relieved to have made it and ashamed to realize I am in the crushing grip of a full-blown addiction to a reality show about . . . ice dancing. I say unto you: help me, Canada. Continue…