By Brian D’Ambrosio
Dearborn, Michigan native Chris Tamer grew up watching Bob Probert play hockey. Tamer even had a picture of the rugged Detroit Red Wings battler on his wall when he was attending college at the University of Michigan. It was the only photo on his wall, he says.
Probert will always evoke memories as one of the toughest, most besieged players in National Hockey League annals. Those who played with and against him during the sixteen seasons he skated for the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks also recollect that at the peak of his career he was able to land the puck in the net.
“I admired not only how he showed up against the toughest but how he fought for his team,” says Chris Tamer, 42. “He made the teams he played on better. I truly believed he made the players on his team better.”
As a tough, young scrapper at the start of his third season with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Tamer knew that a clash with Probert on October 12, 1995 was inevitable. It would be Probert’s first regular season fight as a Chicago Blackhawk.
“I watched videos of Probert and Kocur,” says Tamer. “I must have seen the majority of his fights. When I stepped on the ice during warm-ups, I immediately sought him out. For me it was a great experience just to skate on the same ice with him.”
Chicago had a 4-0 lead at home when a small fracas broke out midway through the third period. Earlier in the game, Probert had offered the challenge, but Tamer rebuffed.
“We played two periods, and then the game was out of hand in the third. The game started getting tougher and the fourth line guys got more ice time. During the shift, something broke out and I figured I was going to see if he would fight. I knew much more about him than he did about me. I was also younger and maybe a bit more willing.”
Tamer caught Probert with a solid left hand that dropped the aging warrior and bloodied his upper lip.
The loss to Tamer perhaps was the beginning of the end of Probert’s reign as heavyweight champion, and certainly contributed to the inevitable trouncing of his once awesome mystique.
“He was past his prime,” says Tamer. “He was getting tested by many younger players looking to make a name for themselves. In my mind he was the best fighter ever to play the game. It was a privilege to fight him.”
In 644 NHL regular season games, Tamer played for the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers and Atlanta Thrashers over a period of twelve years. A smart stay-at-home defenseman never reluctant to play physically, he collected 1,183 penalty minutes, including a career-high 181 in 1997-98. That same season with the Pens, Tamer amassed a career-high 15 fighting majors, including bouts with Stu Grimson, Sandy McCarthy and a pair with Louie Debrusk.
With the advent and proliferation of You Tube, fights such as the one he had with Probert and the pair of scraps against Craig Berube in early 1999 are a permanent part Tamer’s legacy and reputation.
“I do think it is a bit embarrassing when people bring it up,” says Tamer, owner and head trainer at CrossFit Brighton in Michigan and married father of three. “I still hear people come up to me saying their kids ‘You Tubed’ me. I have to tell my youngest daughter to stop searching for You Tube clips of me.”
Even though the threat of injury from a hockey fight is exceptionally low, fighting has taken a solid hidden cost on the psyches of some of the game’s toughest guys. Since the NHL’s dreadful summer of 2011, in which three players – Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard, and Rick Rypien, all prolific fighters – died at their own hand, the discussion quickly shifted to whether or not injuries they incurred while fighting were somehow to blame.
“I wish I knew more about the effects of fighting but I don’t,” says Tamer. “There are many former NHL fighters that move on to successful careers. It is a shame that some suffer side effects. That is a big topic with the NFL now. I do think the leagues should continue to investigate the connection and causes.”
Tamer says that fighting definitely has its place in hockey. He says that it serves a valuable purpose to the game when used appropriately and that he rarely saw the act of dropping the mitts as anything but an occupational obligation.
“Most tough guys in the NHL don’t dislike their combatants,” says Tamer. “There is a huge respect as they know what each other goes through on a nightly basis.”
Early in his career, Tamer discovered that many of the game’s roughest players possessed contrary off-ice demeanors. And that the line between personal and professional was one that could be drawn.
“One of my first years playing,” says Tamer, “I fought Brad May (February 9, 1995). We had a good fight that night. I saw him later a restaurant and he bought me a beer. I was caught off guard, but goes to show you that these are some of the nicest players around.”
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About the Author: Lifelong hockey fan Brian D'Ambrosio lives in Missoula, Montana. His latest book about the life of Montana boxer "Indian" Marvin Camel is due out in mid-2013. D'Ambrosio writes widely for multiple publications.