Friday, August 9, 2013

Goose Loonies (Visions of Yzerman)

[Edit: updated as I've been editing the book]



March 24, 1988 – Joe Louis Arena, Detroit, Michigan.
Hartford Whalers 3, Detroit Red Wings 2.

My old man used to say that, as a season ticket holder, it was the only game he did not attend or at least watch during the 1987-88 Red Wings season. “It was the best game of the season, though,” he used to tell me on game nights after a few Labatt’s, “because it was the night you were born”. It was always through sports that he told me he loved me.

Ostensibly it was an unremarkable regular season loss, the box score and newspaper collections in the National Hockey League archives indicating only that Hartford defeated the Red Wings 3-2 at Joe Louis Arena that night; it was a late season throwaway game, Detroit having already clinched the Norris Division. Soviet defector Petr Klima scored a goal for the Wings, bad boy Bob Probert notched an assist, and the ever-scrappy Joey Kocur amassed a whopping seventeen penalty minutes with his fists alone.

What that box score couldn’t suggest was that, underneath the surface, the gears of fate were turning deep within the Motor City hockey machine. Objectively, as opposed to my father’s biased perspective, the best game of the season would have been the night the Wings clinched that Norris Division title, as it was Detroit’s first division title in twenty-three years. Along with the squeaky-clean Steve Yzerman, who had been named by new head coach Jacques Demers in 1986 training camp the youngest captain in Red Wings history, Petr Klima and Bob Probert were pivotal cogs in the hockey revolution that brought Detroit out of the depths of “Dead Wings” era dormancy and into serious contention in the late eighties, but the pair, who had been drafted together in the 1983 draft, had already developed a reputation for themselves as hard-drinking troublemakers. Three years removed from Soviet Russia, now sporting a diamond earring and blond streaks in his hair to the chagrin of Demers, Klima notched a career high 37 goals during the Norris Division-winning ‘87-88 campaign; Probert, fresh out of his third addiction treatment facility the previous offseason and now on antabuse, a drug prescribed to alcoholics to cause a violent reaction to alcohol, made the All Star team en route to posting his own career highs that season with 29 goals and 33 assists. Jacques Demers, himself the son of an alcoholic, understood that while in Yzerman he had Detroit’s next great leader, his other young talent – especially in Klima and Probert – were of a different breed, rebels. “When you strart winning with a bunch of kids,” Demers recalls of coaching the wild young Wings of the eighties, “you start playing father and you start playing doctor. They were just troubled kids. We knew we were always in a [ticking] time bomb with a couple of those guys.”

A few weeks later, just after I had left the hospital – an incision stitched halfway across my belly, I was a hospital baby in my first couple months in this world – rumors of a scandal scorched the hockey world. On May 12, the morning after the Red Wings had been eliminated from the Western Conference Finals by the Edmonton Oilers for the second consecutive year, the sports world read the details of what would come to be known infamously in Detroit as “The Goose Loonies Incident” in the sports pages of the morning papers, the press hot with the details of a late night drinking incident involving six Red Wings players. A young Mitch Albom, whose sports column I would grow up reading in the Detroit Free Press, detailed the night in a Free Press column titled “Wings Lost Much More than a Game”. Under normal circumstances, perhaps – it being the late eighties – it wouldn’t have merited news, but the six perpetrators happened to pull this stunt on the eve of the biggest Red Wings game of the season and perhaps even their biggest game of the nineteen eighties to date – an elimination game in the conference finals against the juggernaut Edmonton Oilers. It was more who than what, perhaps, too.

Three of the ringleaders turned out to be none other than Petr Klima, Joe Kocur, and Bob Probert – the was recovering alcoholic; Probert had been swapping ibuprofen for his antabuse pills under his coaches’ noses. The rumors were that the three of them of had organized an all-night drinking party at a downtown Edmonton establishment called “Goose Loonies.” The Red Wings fan base, starving for a winning team, took the Goose Loonies incident personally, feeling a few bad apples had jeopardized the franchise’s best shot at a Stanley Cup in years. It was a big story in the newspapers in Stanley Cup-deprived Detroit that summer, and Goose Loonies became a household name in my neighborhood in the following days, weeks, and months. Even now, twenty-seven years later, I still come across references to the infamous Goose Loonies Incident in the sports section of the Detroit newspapers every now and then.

The oft-troubled Probert must have lost control at some point that night; I of all people should be sympathetic of an alcoholic relapse. No stranger to trouble with the law, Detroit’s notorious tough guy had famously cleaned up his act the previous offseason, and it seemed he had managed to pin down his demons for most of that 1987-88 regular season – 87-88 was Probert’s lone all star game appearance – but even one drink can be the unraveling of a recovering alcoholic. Red Wings assistant coach Colin Campbell incredulously found the hotel rooms of Klima and Probert empty at curfew check, put on his jacket, and went looking for the missing players in the city lights of downtown Edmonton. Enlisted to aid in the search was front office assistant Neil Smith, who recalled: “Probert had alcohol issues and Klima had a track record of runnng wild. So Colin and I went out to try and find them.”

Meanwhile Probert and gang were still sucking down Molson’s in the whiskey hours of the Alberta night, undoubtedly under the hazy spell of Jack Daniels and Canadian women. What a buzzkill it must have been for the six of them, when, to their great infamy, assistant coach Colin Campbell showed up at Goose Loonies, a sardonic grin on his face as he imagined what head coach Jacques DeMers would have to say about his discovery. Six Red Wings caught red-handed.

I waited outside and Colin went in and found not only Klima and Probert but four or five others,” Smith remembered of the fateful night. Detroit’s third goalie Darren Eliot, who eventually would become a Red Wings commenter for Fox Sports Detroit in the aughts, recalled of being one of the six caught that night: “Neil Smith and Colin Campbell were looking for Probert. In a hockey town like Edmonton, the word was out that Probert was on the streets and going crazy.”

A surely hungover Probert dressed in the following evening’s Game 5 against Edmonton anyways – the Wings couldn’t afford to sit him. He accumulated a tell-tale minus three rating in a lopsided 8-4 loss to that loaded Edmonton team. Wayne Gretzky, Canada’s soon to be departed hero, scored a goal and added two assists for the hometown Oilers. Had it been a victory for Detroit, the details of the previous night might have fallen away into the great chasm of forgettable sports stories. But it was a loss, and a big one at that; the Goose Loonies Incident would haunt the Red Wings for some time.

A la Shoeless Joe Jackson and Chicago’s “Black Sox,” the six perpetrators were condemned on the sports radio airwaves in Detroit that summer, the words “Goose Loonies” forever more stitched onto their jerseys like damning scarlet letters, The proverbial last straw broken, the Red Wings then-coach Jacques DeMers stood shame-facedly at a podium in front of news cameras back at Joe Louis Arena and issued a heartfelt public apology to Detroit fans, calling the incident a “blemish on the entire organization” and “a black cloud on the season”. Fighting back tears, DeMers apologized profusely, looking like a broken man.

DeMers’ public apology, while dramatic, masked much more volatile currents running through Detroit’s front offices. There, hot-blooded internal discussions raged behind closed curtains, Detroit’s management team discussing rehab facilities for Probert and debating the termination of some of the other perpetrators’ contracts. The fault lines beneath Hockeytown were shifting, and some of its big names from the eighties would crumble in the aftermath. The turn of the decade fast-approaching, Detroit’s brain trust wanted to put an end to the “Dead Wings” era, for good.

Years later, while vacationing Up North in Ontario with some of the guys I grew up with, I would read Probert’s own version of the Goose Loonies incident in his autobiography, Tough Guy: My Life on the Edge, over a 24 ounce breakfast beer. It was springtime, the year 2012, and we were visiting my lifelong friend Jim Racine’s schoolhouse cottage on Lake Huron. The corn stalks planted in rows behind the schoolhouse had barely peaked out of the dormant earth, the North Country air still crisp as morning dawned.

Hungover and jittery – unable to sleep – I retrieved my copy of Probert’s book from my duffel bag and tried not to wake my buddies as I snuck a handful of beer bottles out of the refrigerator. Although I drank in the morning all the time with my college buddies back in Ann Arbor, these were the guys I grew up with, and they were much less further gone than I was at the time. As the eldest of our friend group, a role model to those guys, I didn’t want them to catch me drinking so early in the morning.

Operational from 1898-1969, the nineteenth-century style schoolhouse was situated just off the Bluewater Highway along the eastern coast of Lake Huron, where magnificent red pines bent from waves and wind lined the shores, north of the beach town of Grand Bend and into the bucolic farming country of St. Joseph township, on Black Bush Line. Maintained in its original layout and decoration, the interior of the school house was a de facto historical site with its one room classroom on the main floor, a kitchen and bathroom on one end and a chalkboard and wood stove on the opposite, a separate entrance hallway at the front where the rope to school bell dangled temptingly; we rang it as frequently as we had as children, its magnificent gong-like chimes echoing into the Ontario days and nights – we must have annoyed the neighboring farm houses to no end.

A metal spiral staircase led upstairs to an overhead wood-floor balcony lined with bookshelves that held old classics and elementary school readers on the second floor; a doorway from the balcony led to the sleeping quarters. The school house had doubled as a boarding house when operational, and its second floor featured a school master’s bedroom and a separate, open sleeping room that featured an old billiards table that squeaked with the floorboards. A small ladder in the open boarding room led to a small loft area that looked out of crow’s nest window above the school bell tower, where I preferred to sleep when it was not inhabited by bats or bees.

Despite many family vacations with the Rivard’s and the Racine’s, who were more like aunts, uncles, and cousins in practice and in spirit than close family friends, trips to Hilton Head, South Carolina, Outer Banks, North Carolina, Virginia Beach, Virginia, where Mr. Rivard was stationed at a naval base, Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, the school house remained my favorite vacation spot throughout my adolescent years and into the young adult ones. A relic of a forgotten time, its old photographs and teaching artifacts encased in the first half of the twentieth century in rural Canada, its wide farm fields and stagnant creek waters moving at a slower pace of life, a trip to the school house on the Ontario shores of Neil Young lore offered more than a mere escape in destination; it was an escape to the past.

Two summers prior, Bob Probert had suffered a massive sudden heart attack on his boat on Lake St. Clair in the waters between Michigan and Ontario while boating with his children and in-laws. He was pronounced dead later that afternoon at Windsor Regional Hospital. The lake where he died was only a few dozen miles south, by waterway, down the coast of Lake Huron and up the St. Clair River, from that Canadian schoolhouse where I read his book. The loss of one of the great tough guys of all time devastated the hockey community, if it didn’t surprise them. Probert died just a couple chapters shy of finishing his autobiography, and Helene St. James, a local hockey columnist, ironically had to ghost write the final pages of the book. Only a year had passed since his death, and the wound of his passing was reopened as I voraciously consumed his roller coaster of a life story, sipping morning beers.

As I discovered in the pages of that book and in subsequent research, the Goose Loonies incident was neither the beginning nor the end of a long battle with alcohol and drugs for both Probert and Klima. The Red Wings put Probert on a flight to the Betty Ford Center in Minnesota for substance abuse treatment following the end of the ‘88 season – Probert channels Jeff Spicoli in his autobiography in recalling the summer following the Goose Loonies incident: “after the Goose Loonies incident, the team was telling me I had to go into rehab again. I told them, ‘No way. I just got a boat and a new car and I’ve been in rehab three summers in a row!’” – but he was unable to maintain any long term sobriety throughout the remainder of his playing career; the Goose Loonies incident must have seemed like small potatoes to him the very next season, when United States customs officials found a hefty bag of cocaine in Probert’s SUV at the Windsor border. To his credit, Probert served his time in federal prison and would go on to find a successful career with the Chicago Black Hawks, but his personal demons would forever be linked to his name, fairly or unfairly. Probert had been sober for some time at the time of his death, but it was hard not to speculate that his early demise was somehow loosely connected to that fateful night at Goose Loonies in 1988.

As for Petr Klima, he had been busted for drinking and driving in May of 1987 and would go on to acquire two more of those cases subsequent to the Goose Loonies incident before his welcome in Detroit was permanently severed. It is hard to imagine that sort of consistent troublemaking would be tolerated in today’s media-driven sports world (see: Johnny Manziel, Steve Sarkisian).

The bad boy duo of he and Probert actually struck again before the ‘88-89 season could even begin, if you could believe it. Such is the rapid descent of addiction. In Tough Guy, Probert confesses to having found his way into the white grasp of cocaine that summer. In it, he recalls he and Klima’s inauspicious start to the season: “In September 1988, Petr Klima, who was a pretty good buddy, and I got suspended. I’d been sent down to Adirondack and fined $200 a couple days before because we had missed a team bus and a flight from Chicago to Detroit for a game. Petr and I were at my house the night before, and we were supposed to report the next day by 11 A.M. We stayed up late, so we called up and postponed our flight. It was time to leave for the second one, but we postponed it again. We headed out to catch the [third one], but got held up at the titty bar near the airport. We finally got on the last plane, but didn’t get in until about 12:30 A.M., so the team left us a message on our phones, saying, “Don’t bother staying. You’re suspended.” According to the team’s account, both Klima and Probert skipped practice before missing that flights to Glen Falls, New York, where they were supposed to report to the Adirondack Red Wings.

Klima’s whirlwind year didn’t end there. With Probert at the Betty Ford Center, Royal Oak police arrested for Klima for drunk driving on Sunday, October 9, 1988, after he backed his car into a parked vehicle outside of The Jukebox, a Royal Oak bar, a violation of his probation terms for his previous drunk driving violation. In late May of the following Spring, he was again arrested for driving under the influence of liquor, this time in Bloomfield Hills, this time for the last time with Detroit. Between Detroit, the minors, and several other NHL franchises, Klima would bounce around from team to team throughout the remainder of his career, even winning a Stanley Cup in 1993 with the Edmonton Oilers – perhaps fitting that he won back in Edmonton – but he never quite lived up to the hype he generated during his first three seasons in the league with Detroit.

Setting down the book, I grabbed my beer and gazed out at the cornfield stretched out below the schoolhouse deck, feeling the strange buzz of a liquid breakfast. Rolled out across the shell-pink horizon was Canadian farmland as far as the eye could see, the fields glowing golden under the early morning sun, hawks circling the fields from high above, blackbirds watching from the telephone wires. Probert and Klima’s struggles with cocaine and booze captivated me. I was reading a lot of books about the dark side of alcohol at the time, memoirs of battles with the bottle, probably on some subconscious level knowing that my own toe to toe battle with the bottle was looming right around the bend.

But all that was still in the stars.

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