The applause was thunderous. Big Bob Probert was back.
The date was March 22, 1990. And Probert was making his season debut for the Red Wings after yet another battle in the courts—the one type of fight that no. 24 could rarely seem to win.
Probert, the bruising forward with fists of granite, had been suspended by the NHL, concurrent with his incarceration after being found in possession of cocaine in the summer of 1989 at the Detroit-Windsor border. When Probert’s time in prison and a halfway house was over, the league granted him permission to play again.
Probert’s return in March of 1990 coincided with the Red Wings’ desperate attempt to qualify for the playoffs. His presence was hoped to provide some sort of boost to the team’s post-season chances. Only six games remained in the season when Probie came back, and the Red Wings were a handful of points out of a playoff berth.
The Red Wings were in fifth place in the five-team Norris Division at a time when the top four clubs in each division made the playoffs. The team directly above the Red Wings in the standings, the Minnesota North Stars, were in town when Probert stepped onto the ice for the Red Wings for the first time in nearly a year.
Despite the cheers, despite the electricity in Joe Louis Arena, Probert’s return couldn’t help the Red Wings, who lost that night to the North Stars, 5-1.
The Red Wings went 1-4-1 in their supposed playoff push, and missed the tournament by six points. Probert played in four of those games, registering three points and, naturally, 21 penalty minutes.
Those final six games, with the Red Wings welcoming Probert back for a push, represent the last time the regular season drained away without a team from Detroit making the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The playoff streak almost ended last year during the lockout-shortened 48-game season, but a four-game winning string to close the schedule lifted the Red Wings into the post-season.
It appears that another frantic, late-season push is going to be needed for the Red Wings to extend their playoff-making streak to 23 years.
But whether the Red Wings squeeze in or not, the future looks much brighter now than it did before Thanksgiving.
The infusion of youth, mostly necessary due to injuries, should give Red Wings fans reason for optimism. The water bottle is half-full, not half-empty.
The playoffs would be terrific, of course, and not just because of The Streak.
It would be wonderful to give the likes of Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco and Riley Sheahan a taste of Stanley Cup playoff hockey, for example.
Not that Tatar, especially, is foreign to post-season hockey as a professional. He scored 16 goals in 24 games for the Grand Rapids Griffins last spring, en route to the Calder Cup as American Hockey League champion. Sheahan played in 24 playoff games for the Griffins last year as well.
But with all due respect to the AHL, which has been a fine minor league for the NHL for decades, those playoffs can’t truly compare to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Red Wings may not be able to give their kids, who have done so much for the team this season, a dose of playoffs, NHL-style, this spring. In fact, given the team’s youth and thinness because of injuries to key players, the playoffs are unlikely.
It would be an upset if the Red Wings qualified. Tuesday night’s 4-1 loss in Columbus, which featured a third period collapse, is more representative of who the Red Wings are at this point.
Playoffs or no playoffs, it doesn’t matter.
The Red Wings’ future is brighter for all the regular season experience the kids are getting, which should make the team much deeper when everyone gets healthy and reports to Traverse City for training camp in September.