A version of this post appeared on page 132 of The Story of Canada in 150 Objects, published jointly by Canadian Geographic and The Walrus in January of 2017.
Reggie Fleming’s brain made its NHL debut somewhere in the middle of January of 1967—that, at least, is how the newspapers framed it.
By then, at age 30, six full seasons into his professional hockey career, Fleming knew the league’s penalty boxes better than its nets. He was a policeman, in the parlance, valued for his strength, bravado and professional surliness. Born with a black eye, a wag in the press wrote in 1961. He was a knuckleman, a bulldozer, a wild bucko. Reviews of his work are filled with references to his truculence and fistic prowess, his battle-scarred face.
But here was Emile Francis telling reporters that Fleming’s brain had caught up with his brawn. He wasn’t taking foolish penalties, only wise ones; he was scoring goals. “He’s playing it real smart,” said the coach of Fleming’s New York Rangers.
The truth is, Fleming could always play. He was just very, very good at being (as another chronicler put it) “one of hockey’s most brutal, meanest players.” Like hockey fighters before and since, Fleming was a beloved figure to teammates and fans alike, and much nicknamed: Reg The Ruffian, The Horse, Mr. Clean, Hardrock.
“He had a ferocious left hook, a decent right and a beautiful head butt,” Earl McRae would write in a famous profile that’s still known as one of the most penetrating pieces of hockey prose. “He fought all the tough ones: Howe, Fontinato, Lindsay, Harris, Ferguson — and seldom lost. His only clear defeats came in the last few years; he lost to age.”
Once he retired from the game, Fleming and his wild years might have lapsed into the background, the way the careers of workaday players do, enshrined on hockey cards and in the fond dimming memories of those who saw him play.
Something else happened. When he died in 2009, his family donated his brain for study by pathologists in Boston. What they discovered was a shock to both those who loved him and to the hockey world he’d inhabited for all his skating years. It not only shifted Fleming’s legacy, but it transformed — and continues to transform — the conversation about the calamitous toll hockey can take on those who play.
If for some sinister reason you had to invent from scratch a comprehensive system for putting the human brain at risk, hockey might be what you’d conjure. The speed of the game, its accelerations and sudden stops, the potential for impacts in unyielding ice and boards, all those weaponized sticks and fists and elbows — just how is an innocent mass of neural tissue afloat in cerebrospinal fluid supposed to protect itself?
For much of the game’s history, guarding the head wasn’t exactly a priority. Toronto Maple Leafs’ star winger Ace Bailey underwent two brain surgeries in 1933 when he was knocked to the ice in Boston; he survived, though he never played again. Scared, many of his fellow NHLers donned helmets after that. Most of them soon vanished: they were cumbersome, hot. Even when they started to make a comeback in the late 1960s, hockey’s protocol for concussion cases remained simple: Got your bell rung? Shake it off, get back out there.
Not long before the Bailey incident, a pathologist in Newark, New Jersey by the name of Dr. Harrison Martland was studying boxers. In a landmark paper he published in 1928, he wrote about what every fan of the sweet science had witnessed, a fighter staggered by a blow to the head that didn’t knock him out acting “cuckoo,” “goofy,” “sluggy nutty” — “punch drunk.”
Dr. Martland was the first to propose that repeated blows to the head were doing deeper damages within fighter’s heads, and that it was cumulative, causing “multiple concussion hemorrhages in the deeper portions of the cerebrum.” His conclusions on “punch drunk” syndrome were limited — he may have been circumscribed, too, by the outrage he stirred among fight fans annoyed by his medical meddling in a sport they loved so well.
If Dr. Martland conceived that hockey players might be suffering similar injuries, he never wrote about it. Why wasn’t anyone making the connection between hockey and head trauma earlier? “I think because it’s an invisible injury,” says Dr. Ann McKee, a leading pathologist who heads Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center. “Because players aren’t getting pounded in the head like they are in boxing. You see a hook to the jaw, you think, ah. It’s not a big jump for the layperson to say that might be hurting their brain.”
But hockey players? “They look invincible. There’s no blood, no pain, usually, so I think it was just — I think even the field of medicine didn’t recognize that these low-level hits, the ones that aren’t even causing concussions or any symptoms — just the repetitive impact injuries are leading to long-term loss of quality. We were all sort of oblivious.”
Reggie Fleming didn’t mind talking about the role he played on the ice. He was open, affable — “a soft-spoken, mild-mannered quipster,” one interviewer wrote. Born in 1936 into a large Catholic family in east-end Montreal, he first stirred tempers as a star for the Junior Canadiens. His mother hated to watch. Seeing his cuts, the blood he wore home from games, she wanted to talk to coach Sam Pollock. Her son told her no. That’s my job, he told her, the only way I’ll make it.
Pollock went on to a management job with the big-league Canadiens, and Fleming eventually followed him there, first as a fill-in defenceman, always as a willing warrior when a teammate wanted revenging, or Canadiens felt a need to send one of hockey’s proverbial messages to their opponents. Although I guess there’s such a thing as message overload — as the story goes, Pollock traded Fleming to Chicago in the summer of 1960 after he roughed up a couple of teammates in practice.
Rudy Pilous was the coach of the Black Hawks when Fleming arrived in the early 1960s. “We can’t skate with most teams,” he was explaining around that time, “we’ve got to knock them down.” Fleming remembered his first game with his new team for the brawl he viewed from the bench. Unacceptable, Pilous told him: he should have been out there in the middle of the messing. “So I went out and fought,” Fleming recalled later. “I didn’t do it to be cruel, I was just following orders.”
His time in penalty boxes would eventually tick up to total 1,468 career minutes, or just over 24 hours. The websites that archive and revel in hockey’s fights don’t have a good fix on just how many he fought: at least 69, but maybe 96, and (almost certainly) many more. Still, he was relatively restrained compared to some of his heirs, the fearsome likes of Tie Domi (338 fights in 1,020 games) or Bob Probert (302 in 935).
A ledger of the punishments he dispensed and received during his career isn’t hard to coax out of the newspaper archives. There’s a whole angry thesaurus of NHL violence in there: Fleming struck Jack McCartan with a vicious right (1960), slugged Wally Boyer (1969). The NHL fined him $175 for charging a referee (1964). Other uproars he sparked by swiping a goalie (1967) and trying to cross-check Bobby Hull’s face (1972). Eddie Shack clotheslined Fleming with his stick (1964), sending him to hospital with a concussion and cuts that needed 21 stitches to close. He was incoherent when he left the rink, the papers reported.
Fleming was a proficient penalty-killer, too, and he was a key asset of Chicago’s when they won the 1961 Stanley Cup. One year, in Boston, he found the net 18 times.
“I would rather have been recognized as a guy who scored a lot of goals like a Bobby Hull or a Stan Mikita,” he’d say in 1979, aged 43. “But I did something I loved: played hockey. If it meant I had to be a tough guy, then I was a tough guy. I was brought up in an area where you had to fight to survive. I worked my butt off to get to the top in hockey, and I had to work twice as hard to stay there.”
Chris Fleming remembers going to rinks to watch his dad, even if he doesn’t really have any clear memories of seeing him on the ice. The elder of Reggie Fleming’s two children, Chris, 49, is a medium, paranormal researcher, and TV host in Chicago. He’s writing a book about his father life and career, and about the fractious relationship they shared.
His childhood memories include many dressing-room scenes. He recalls the vinegary smell of shed sweaters and shoulder pads, can still see his father soaking off a game in a tub of ice. He talks about the gum he’d cadge from hockey players, and tape. “I’d make these tapeballs, and I’d play with the other kids, we’d play catch and baseball.”
He recalls the time his father broke his jaw, 1975 or so. “He had it wired shut, and he was only having baby food. “ I remember my dad would open his mouth and I’d put my fingers into his mouth and I’d touch the wires.”
He never talked much to his father about the toll his job demanded. Reggie told him not to fight, but they never really got into why he fought. They didn’t discuss concussions. It was only years later, when his father was in his hospital bed, that they tried for a tally. “He’d say, ‘Son, I don’t know. Twenty? More than twenty? It was just part of the game.”
When that Earl McCrae profile appeared across Canada in 1975, the depiction was as harsh as the headline: “The Agony of A Punched-Out Bully.” (The latter softened when it was collected in a book under the title “Requiem For Reggie.”) By then, Fleming was out on the far ragged fringe of professional hockey, in remotest Wisconsin, still punching. He was weary, maybe, and his bones ached, but what worried him most by then was going home, where his children would see his cuts.
Still, he didn’t want it to end, and a man who’d made a career of raging raged harder.
He was all finished by 1978. Going back to junior, he’d been on the ice for 25 years. He’d been working over the years selling beer to bars and that became his full-time job. He coached some college hockey, dreamed of a job behind an NHL bench. “I was a hard-nosed roughneck,” he mused when that didn’t materialize, “and they say, ‘He blows up too fast, he gets angry, he can’t control his temper, how is going to control the players?’ I think that must be what they’re saying.”
Beyond the rink, Reggie was gregarious, his son says. “He would take time for everyone.” But the anger was still there, too. He’d fight in bars, rage on roads. As the years went on, he was drinking, too, and gambling. His marriage ended.
“My dad,” Chris Fleming says, “was dealing with an inner struggle. About not being able to play hockey any more, having to find a new career, and the depression he started going through, and the drinking he started doing. That was not a good mix.”
His memory was frayed, he had trouble with numbers. Confused, fearful, he’d break down crying. “He said, I don’t know what the fuck’s wrong with me, I don’t know. I just — I can’t think straight any more.”
When arguments turned toxic, father and son ended up not talking for five years. That was in 2001, and the silence only ended when Reggie called Chris from his hospital near Chicago, weeks after he’d suffered a stroke and a heart attack. Doctors didn’t think he’d last two years; he survived for five. He was confined to his bed for most of those, couldn’t feed himself for the last few. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and showed signs of Alzheimer’s.
It was a difficult time, of course, but for Chris Fleming there was the reward of reconciling with his father. On good days, he even regaled him with hockey stories. “I never really had a good role model,” he says now, “but the last years of my father’s life he became a good role model.”
Reggie Fleming died on a Saturday in July of 2009 . Shortly after his father’s death, while Chris was still at the hospital, his phone started to ring. Reporters were eager for quotes, but this wasn’t one of those calls. It was Chris Nowinski, the Harvard graduate and former professional wrestler who co-founded the Concussion Legacy Foundation in Boston with Dr. Robert Cantu.
Other researchers picked up the threads of Dr. Harrison Martland’s initial findings, and over the years they had started to weave together a picture of what repeated subconcussive blows were doing to the brains of athletes. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the progressive neurological deterioration they were homing in on got the name we know now: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). In 2002, Dr. Bennet Omalu was the first to make the link between NFL football players and CTE (maybe you’ve seen Will Smith playing him in the 2015 movie Concussion they made of the book he wrote).
Nowinski’s work had followed from that, with his Concussion Legacy Foundation partnering with Boston University and the U.S. Veterans Administration. Mostly, at that point, they’d studied the brains of football players and soldiers. Reggie Fleming’s would be the first from the hockey world. Would the family consider donating?
Chris Fleming didn’t hesitate. “It was a no-brainer to me,” he says. “We gotta do this.”
Dr. Ann McKee heads the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank and she was one to perform the autopsy when Fleming’s brain arrived in Boston. “He had a lot of pathology,” she says. Normal weight for an adult male brain is 1350 grams or so; Fleming’s was an atrophied 1150.
“It seemed to be the worst in the frontal cortex and temporal cortex, which is something we see all the time. It was mainly just the shrinkage of the tissue in areas that we expect to influence memory — that area of the brain was very small. His amygdala was very small, which is the part of the brain that we think regulates emotional control and maybe rage behaviours. He had very classic changes of CTE in parts of the brain — like the mammillary bodies, another part that’s concerned with memory, were also very small. And there was thinning of the white matter, meaning the connections between the two sides of the brain were compromised.”
Microscopic study showed dense — severe — pathology. “He had the classic changes of CTE,” says Dr. McKee. Her team detected other abnormalities: small infarcts, or strokes, Parkinson’s disease, Lewy Body disease, and indications of Alzheimer’s.
“We do see some cases that are just pure CTE, but we’re finding as individuals age, they tend to take on more diseases. It’s very common with older individuals that have CTE — and believe it or not, 73 qualifies as older — you start to see multiple diseases setting in.” Head trauma not only leads to the breakdown of brain tissue, it causes build-up of an irregular protein called tau. “Right away, just from looking at the brain,” she says, “we thought this is a compromised individual.”
Advocates for concussion awareness are careful to emphasize that they’re not out to end hockey. Addressing themselves and their findings to football and hockey leagues, those who’ve moved to the forefront of the campaign to address what gets called the concussion crisis spend a lot of their time making that point.
While many in the movement are doctors and researchers, a growing constituency of former players has also joined the effort.
Kerry Goulet is one of those. A gifted forward, he never quite made it to the NHL, but that doesn’t mean his career in Germany didn’t afford him the opportunity to fall headfirst in the boards, or take an errant puck in the eye. His concussion count is three — that were documented. He thinks he actually suffered “north of twelve.”
Today, as co-founder of StopConcussions, an international educational organization based in Toronto, he works to promote concussion awareness and shift the culture across all sports.
Their motto: “Change the mindset, not the game.”
“It doesn’t mean we have to stop playing,” Goulet says, “it’s just that we’ve got to get rid of the gladiatorial approach to the game. You still can play tough, you still can play hard — and that’s eventually where the game is going to have to evolve to.”
“It doesn’t mean we have to stop playing, it’s just that we’ve got to think differently and start getting rid of the gladiatorial approach to the game. You still can play tough, you still can play hard — and that’s eventually where the game is going to have to evolve to.”
Even that sort of message isn’t one that leagues like the NHL find easy to endorse let alone embrace. As former players file lawsuits against the league to claim that the NHL should have protected them better against head trauma, the reluctance of much of the hockey establishment to admit that there’s a problem to address has proved an ongoing challenge.
When Reggie Fleming’s CTE came to public light, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the league wanted to digest the news before they made any comment. That was still underway, maybe, two years later when CTE showed up in the late Bob Probert’s brain.
“The findings are interesting and certainly something we’ll add to a much broader body of knowledge,” Daly advised. “But we’re not going to react or make changes based on findings related to one player, especially when it’s impossible to identify or isolate one of many variables that may have factored into the conclusions reached, and when there is no real ‘control group’ to compare his results to.”
The NHL has, it’s true, moved to amend its rules over the past several years, attempting to curb hits to the head, introducing concussion “spotters” to NHL rinks. It hasn’t legislated to eradicate fighting, and maybe never will, preferring to let it select itself naturally out of the game, a process that does seem to be (slowly) underway. As recently as the summer of 2016, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was saying that the link between concussions and CTE “remains nascent.”
Along with his co-founder, former (and at-least-four-times-concussed) NHLer Keith Primeau, Goulet has agreed to donate his brain to Chris Nowinski’s Concussion Legacy Foundation. “I want to be optimistic,” he says, “but I want to be realistic.” As important as the contribution will be in the future for science, he takes comfort too in knowing that in the meantime he’s a phone call away from the experts in Boston. As part of the program, he undergoes a yearly test of memory and brain function. “I can honestly say, from the first time I’ve taken it to now, I’m not better.”
Snap-frozen to -80˚F, a total of 366 brains are stored in Dr. Ann McKee’s Brain Bank now, where they’re available to researchers for further study. They belonged to football players and soldiers and, 18 of them, to hockey players. Sixteen of the latter have been evaluated to date, with 9 showing signs of CTE.
Among those, Reggie Fleming’s remains one of the worst cases they’ve seen. All the years of Fleming’s life during which it hid its devastating secrets are past now, but his brain remains an important symbol both of the revolution in knowledge that’s taken place over the last decade, and of the distance hockey still has to go.