March 24, 1988 – Joe Louis Arena, Detroit, Michigan.
Hartford Whalers 3, Detroit Red Wings 2.
My old man used to say that it was the only game he missed as a season ticket holder during the 1987-88 Red Wings season. “It was the best game of the season, though, because it was the night you were born,” he used to tell me on game nights after a couple Labatt's. It was always through sports that he told me he loved me.
On the surface, 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 in a late season throwaway game, Detroit having already clinched the Norris Division. Russian defector and rookie phenom 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, however, was that underneath the surface, the gears of fate were turning deep within the Motor City hockey machine.
A few weeks later, before I had even 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. A couple mornings after the Red Wings had been eliminated from the 1988 Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Edmonton Oilers, the sports world read the details of what would come to be known infamously in Detroit as “The Goose Loonies Incident” in the morning papers, the press hot with the details of a late night drinking incident involving six Red Wings players. Under normal circumstances 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.
Three of the ringleaders turned out to be none other than Petr Klima, Joe Kocur, and Bob Probert – a was recovering alcoholic. The newspaper columnists accused the three of them of organizing an all-night drinking party at a downtown Edmonton bar 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. A Red Wings assistant coach found the hotel rooms of Klima, Kocur, and Probert incredulously empty at curfew check, put on his jacket, and went looking for the six missing players in the city lights of downtown Edmonton.
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, the assistant coach showed up at Goose Loonies, an incredulous look on his face as he imagined what head coach Jacques DeMers would have to say about his discovery. Six Red Wings caught red-handed.
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 losses. But it was a loss, and a big one at that, so the Goose Loonies Incident would haunt the Red Wings for some time.
Like Shoeless Joe Jackson and Chicago’s “Black Sox,” the six perpetrators came to be condemned as the infamous “six” that summer, the numeral six stitched permanently 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 the Joe 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 the corn stalks planted in rows behind the schoolhouse we were staying at had barely peaked out of the dormant earth.
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.
The previous summer Bob Probert had suffered a massive sudden heart attack and died on his boat on Lake St. Clair in the waters between Michigan and Ontario. The lake where he died was only a few dozen miles of waterway south by Lake Huron 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 a local columnist ironically had to ghost write the final pages of Probert’s autobiography. 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.
As I discovered in the pages of that book, the Goose Loonies incident was only the beginning of a long battle with alcohol and drugs for both Probert and Klima. Probert was shipped off on a flight to the Betty Ford Center in Minnesota for substance abuse treatment following the end of the ‘88 season, 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, Detroit police found him slouched over the wheel of his Chevy Corvette not long after the end of the ‘88 season, drunk at the scene of a single car automobile wreck; 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 rookie year with the Red Wings.
I looked up from the pages of my book and gazed out at the cornfield stretched out below the schoolhouse deck, feeling the strange buzz of a liquid breakfast. Stretched 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. Probert’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.