hockey’s mr. clean

Born in Montreal on this date in 1936, a Tuesday, Reggie Fleming played professional hockey for nearly 20 years, a fearsome force for six NHL teams. Montreal was his first, and it was there that Henri Richard gave him the nickname “Mr. Clean” because he thought Fleming resembled the avatar for the popular Proctor & Gamble cleanser. The name stuck with when Fleming moved on to Chicago, where he helped the Black Hawks win a Stanley Cup in 1961. Later, he played a prominent role for the New York Rangers. That included scoring some goals and working effectively on the penalty kill, but mostly it played out with punches and sticks swung in anger.

Reflecting on Fleming in 1963, NHL referee Red Storey told Maclean’s this: “He may never be a great hockey player, but he probably works harder than anyone else in the league. He reminds me of what Leo Durocher one said of the ballplayer Eddie Stanky: ‘He can’t run, he can’t field, he can’t hit, but he’s a hell of a ballplayer.’ If every team in the league had a Reggie Fleming, they’d all be better teams.” Stu Hackel’s overview for the New York Times of Fleming’s career, published after his death at the age of 73, is worth your while — you can find it here.

Mention is made there of Earl McRae’s searing 1975 profile of Fleming and the cheerless end of his career, in which McRae introduces his subject as “one of hockey’s most brutal, meanest players; short on talent but long on the stick, a bully who carved his notoriety in the flesh of opposing players.” Read that, too, along with everything else you can find that McRae wrote about hockey, some of which is between the covers of his 1977 collection Requiem For Reggie.

The final, devastating chapter of Reggie Fleming’s story is the one that’s been written posthumously: late in 2009, researchers at Boston University disclosed that he was the first hockey player to have tested positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). I wrote about that, and him, in a 2017 feature for The Story of Canada in 150 Objects, published jointly by Canadian Geographic and The Walrus. That’s here. 

(Image: HockeyMedia & The Want List)

ken randall: a good fellow off the ice, but too hot-headed

Pepperman: Randall as a Toronto St. Patrick, probably during the 1922-23 NHL season. Though not so clear in the photograph, the patch high on his left breast is most likely commemorating the team’s 1922 Stanley Cup championship.

He was a Lindsay Midget and a Brantford Redman, a Port Hope Pro. In the old NHA he was a Montreal Wanderer before he was a Toronto Blueshirt. Mostly he played on the defence, though he also deployed as a winger and, back when the game was a seven-man affair, as rover. In Saskatoon he played for a team called Hoo-Hoos and another one called Real Estates. Out east, he was a Sydney Millionaire before he returned to central Canada in time to join the Toronto Hockey Club when the NHL started up in 1917. He stayed with the team when it became the Arenas and then the St. Patricks. Later, still in the NHL, but in Hamilton, he was a Tiger and, in New York, an American. In his later years, career winding down, Ken Randall was a Niagara Falls Cataract, a Providence Red, and an Ottawa Patricia.

Yesterday’s the day he was born, in Kingston, Ontario, in the year 1887, when December 14 was a Wednesday.

Toronto was where Ken Randall’s fame as a hockey player flourished, along with his infamy. He played in the city’s very first professional game, around this time of year in 1912, when the Blueshirts hosted the Montreal Canadiens, losing 9-5 in front of 4,000 fans at the Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. The line-ups that night featured some of the greatest names the game has ever known, Georges Vézina, Newsy Lalonde, Jack Walker, Frank Nighbor, Didier Pitre.

Five years later, when the NHA expired and was all but instantly reborn as the NHL, Ken Randall was named captain of Toronto’s team that wound up, in the spring of 1918, winning the Stanley Cup.

He won a second Cup with the team in 1922, though he’d relinquished the captaincy by then, and the team had repurposed itself as St. Patricks. Though Randall remains unrecognized by the hockey’s Hall of Fame, he was without a doubt one of the most effective players of his era. He was also what they used to call, mostly in earnest, a hockey bad man, a vehemently violent player who carried his stick high and often swung it, much-suspended, and seemingly as heedless of the injuries he inflicted as he was of the damage he himself suffered on the ice.

In 1917, at the dawning of the NHL, he was living on McGee Street in Toronto, a half-hour’s walk due east along Queen Street from his place of business, Arena Gardens. You’ll find him, if you look, in the city directory, where you’ll see him identified for the job he did when he wasn’t on the ice: plumber.

There was no mention of that in the sport pages. Randall’s Actions This Winter Cause Surprise To His Friends is a headline from a 1916 story in an Ottawa newspaper reporting on an NHA suspension levied on him after he threatened referee Cooper Smeaton. Fiery is an adjective applied to him in 1918. In 1923, another Ottawa paper described him as not as dangerous as Cleghorn, alluding to the vicious Sprague, and not as a compliment.

Skating in 1925 for Hamilton against Canadiens in Montreal he inspired this account:

Randall was the target for abuse from spectators and also for a pipe thrown in his direction. He was also slapped on the head by a woman spectator during a scuffle with Morenz alongside the boards.

During the NHL’s inaugural week in December of 1917, Randall was down for having run amuck on several occasions. He scuffled and scored, too, on into January, during which he was also fined by President Frank Calder for using bad language to a referee. That levy was forgiven, apparently, when Randall apologized, though Calder hit him up again in early February, $5 for abusing referee Lou Marsh. A couple of weeks later, he was up $35 owing for bad behaviours, which is when Calder threatened to suspend if he didn’t pay up forthwith.

“I am sorry for Randall, who is a good fellow off the ice, but too hot-headed,” Calder said. “But our officials must be protected at any cost. I can see no other step to take. It will serve as a warning to other players also.”

There are various versions of how Randall resolved the situation at Arena Gardens on the Saturday night of February 23. Toronto was hosting Ottawa again, with Lou Marsh refereeing. Before the puck dropped, Randall presented the referee with a brown paper bag containing either (the Montreal Gazette’s version) $31 in bills + $4 worth of pennies or (Toronto’s Daily Star) an IOU for $32 and 300 coppers.

Either way, the bag ended up on the ice and either a curious Ottawa player (the Star) or one of the Toronto players (Gazette) batted it with his stick.

“It burst, scattering the pennies over the ice,” the Gazette’s man wrote. “A number of small boys were on the ice in an instant, and there was a scramble for the coins, as exciting as a game in itself.”

“The affair was received good naturedly all around,” the Star reported, “and everybody had a good laugh.” Toronto manager Charlie Querrie held Randall out of the game, it should be noted; Calder had wired to warn that if he did take part without having settled his debt, the game would be forfeited to Ottawa. Randall-free, Toronto skated to a 9-3 victory.

Shayne Randall in 2017, when he published a biography of his grandfather.

Shayne Randall wrote about that and more in a 2017 biography of his grandfather, The Pepper Kid: The Life and Times of Ken Randall, Hockey’s Bad Hombre. A Peterborough, Ontario, businessman and writer, the younger Randall, who’s in his 70s now, is the son of Fen Randall, the eldest of Ken’s nine children.

In a full and fascinating account of a largely forgotten career, he revealed his grandfather to be a prodigiously hardy, highly talented, and extremely unforgiving player who happens not only to have been Toronto’s very first NHL captain, but also, it turns out, a great-uncle to Doug Gilmour, the 24thplayer to wear the franchise’s C. (Gilmour’s great-grandmother was Ken Randall’s sister.)

“He made me a hockey fan,” Shayne told me when I talked to him at the time of the book’s publication. “I was only five years old, but I recall listening to Foster Hewitt on the radio with him on a Saturday night, the winter he died — the winter of 1946-47.”

While he recognizes just how turbulent a player his grandfather was — “He seemed to be a banshee on the ice,” he said — he’s also quick to emphasize that Ken Randall could play. Take that first NHL season: “He played 21 games that year, he had 12 goals — playing defence. But he also had 96 penalty minutes. Which was a lot; only [Montreal’s] Joe Hall had more.”

What surprised him most about his grandfather’s hockey career? “I didn’t realize how versatile he was,” Shayne Randall told me. “He’d start out on defence with, say, Harry Cameron. Then Harry Mummery would come in and Randall would go up on the wing. So he was a 60-minute man — unless he was in the penalty box. And he was in there a lot.”

“I read accounts from Lou Marsh, Elmer Ferguson, old hockey writers, and Charlie Querrie, his general manager, and they all agreed that that he was the key guy for both those Stanley Cups [Toronto won in ’18 and ’22], because he was so versatile. In 1918, he was the rover in two of the games against Vancouver for the Cup. He had played it when he was younger and he was up against Cyclone Taylor. And he held him off. So that proved to me how good a player he was. He could face up against Cyclone Taylor, who’s supposed to be the fastest man ever on skates, and hold him back — and he did — the had to be quite a player.”

Talking about his grandfather’s hockey years, Shayne Randall didn’t shy from considering the cost he paid. “The family never said it, but I think near the end he was he was suffering from what we’d call CTE today. He was really beaten up.”

“There were lots of fist fights, but there were lots of stick fights. I mean, the stick fighting was brutal. My dad said, at the end of the season, it would take him a month to recover. He’d be in bed for two weeks. He really took a lot of punishment.”

There’s no means, now, of calculating how many concussions Ken Randall sustained in his 26-year hockey career, but the sombre conclusion that his grandson reached in his book is that the blows Toronto’s first NHL captain took to his head playing the game he loved “left him in a traumatic state near the end of his life and hastened his demise.”

Ken Randall died in 1947. He was 58.

 

 

rewriting the game: ken dryden on no hits to the head, no excuses

A version of this post appeared on page B11 of The New York Times on January 4, 2018 under the headline “Hall of Famer Says N.H.L. Must Put End To Head Hits.”

Awareness is important — people need to know and acknowledge and understand — but at a certain point, it’s time to act.

That’s what Ken Dryden decided two years ago when he started writing the book he published earlier this fall, Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador, and the Future of Hockey.

A Hall-of Famer and six-time Stanley Cup champion with the Montreal Canadiens, Dryden, who’s 70, was one of 15 goaltenders to be named earlier this year to the NHL’s pantheon of 100 Greatest Players. In the years since he retired from the Canadiens, he has served as president of the Toronto Maple Leafs and as a cabinet minister in Canada’s government. He’s never stopped thinking and writing about hockey. The book he wrote soon after he retired from the NHL, The Game (1983), may be the most insightful reflection on the sport ever published.

As the league continues to celebrate its centennial season this year, Dryden’s focus is now locked on hockey’s response to concussions and their devastating effects on the lives of its players. For too long, he believes, the NHL has failed to act decisively, content to let awareness be its watchword, and to treat brain injuries as issues to be rationalized and managed.

In Game Change, Dryden investigates the career of Steve Montador, a tough and capable, salt-of-the-ice journeyman defenceman who played for six NHL teams. “Hard-trying,” Dryden calls him, with respect; Montador prided himself on the importance of being “a good teammate.” Beloved by those who knew him, he saw his career ended by concussions —seven of them, at least, and probably more. After struggles with addictions, Montador died in 2015 at the age of 35. Post-mortem studies of his brain revealed that at the time of his death Montador was suffering from the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

The book also skates deep into hockey history: underlying Montador’s story is Dryden’s compelling and comprehensive case on just how, for reasons cultural and otherwise, the game has failed to adapt to its own evolution in pace and equipment and tactics. For Dryden, it all comes down to this: now is the time for hockey to eliminate hits to the head outright, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is the only man who can make that happen. He’s called it a “test” — for himself, for Bettman, for hockey. And so in September, Dryden flew from his home in Toronto to New York to carry that message, along with his book, to Bettman. They met for lunch.

In December, Ken Dryden sat down in Toronto to talk about Game Change and his vision for hockey.

How did it go, that meeting with Gary Bettman?

It was a good lunch. We’ve known each other for a long time, we’ve worked together. I think we each know how the other thinks, and does things. I introduced it as a serious book about a serious subject and the next few months will be a challenge for both of us. But a worthwhile challenge. I just told him about what was in the book. I told him that he was the first person to receive a final copy of the book. He said he would read it.

I came away feeling that he would. And that he would think about it very hard.

Why was Steve Montador’s story the right one to build your book around?

I wanted to write about somebody who was an Everyman player. I didn’t want somebody who was a superstar, who was too unique and unrelatable in that way. And I didn’t want somebody who was a fighter-goon, for the same reason. I wanted somebody who, when people read about Steve, they would see themselves, see their kids. Coaches would see their players. He was somebody a lot like them. And whose experience was a lot like theirs. He was somebody who was not dismissible.

You’ve talked about what you’re trying to say in your title: not just that the game needs to change, but how it has been changing, always, and keeps changing. Is that why you think this all so eminently do-able?

It’s one change that’s needed: no hits to the head, no excuses.

At the core of the problem of brain injuries is hits to the head. So you focus your attention there. The increased speed of the game generates more collisions and more forceful collisions. It’s not hard to see how this happens.

You can think about dealing with it as a revolutionary change, or you can think about it as an incremental and really evolutionary change. Right from the beginning of hockey, we’ve recognized the danger of hits to the head. We created high-sticking penalties, we created the elbowing penalty.

What we’ve come to understand better, with the force and the frequency of the collisions now, is that the dangerous instrument is not the stick or the elbow, it’s the body as a whole. So you don’t call a penalty for a stick or an elbow and not call one for a shoulder or a fist. It’s not the cause, it’s the effect. It’s not whether it’s intentional or accidental. The brain doesn’t distinguish. The brain is affected similarly. So you think of it in those terms, and you approach it in those terms. You connect it to the very set of understandings that is already in place, and to the penalties that are already in place. You just extend them to the changed circumstances of the game.

As you point out, Gary Bettman never played the game. But he is surrounded in the NHL head office by plenty of smart, committed people who did play. Why haven’t they recognized the problems you’re identifying. What’s kept them from urging the changes you’re advocating?

They haven’t played this game. We know what we’ve learned, we’ve know what we’ve heard, and we tend to then apply both, as if everything else were constant. The myth and lore of a game like hockey is very difficult to undo and rewrite. And whether it’s in hockey, sports, or climate change — anything — we all have a certain set of understandings. We’re comfortable with them. We always believed in them, and believed deeply.

But it’s a question of going beyond what you know to what there is to see. We’ve stopped seeing what is there. We notice the speed of the game, we notice the frequency and the severity of the head injuries, but we haven’t quite made the connection that then generates the response that’s needed. There’s this gap that is almost always present in terms of decision-making.

In order to get somewhere and change circumstances, you have to undo a set of understandings that are already in place. All we need to do is just see, see the game that’s there on the ice. And it’s a game that’s played with far greater skill than was the case in the past. Players are faster, they’re using lighter sticks, which become precision instruments in their hands, so they’re developing a dexterity that in turn pushes their creative minds.

And in the game now, the idea is not to go in straight lines, you go to open ice wherever open ice is, and so the pass is more important than the rush. All of a sudden you’ve got this incredible freedom, this possibility. The excitement with which people talk about Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews — that’s how they play. That is the game that has emerged, and it’s the game that’s being developed and understood by 10-year-olds and 12-year-olds everywhere in the world.

You’ve been traveling with the book, talking about it across Canada. Do you get the sense that parents and coaches and the people who run minor hockey have an appetite for change? Is it coming from the bottom up, too?

Yes. But a bottom-up movement is not going to change things as much or as quickly as needs to happen. But I think that what it means to that decision-maker at the top is important: he can feel a kind of confidence that in fact a decision that he would make about hits to the head would be understood and accepted. The conditions are present.

You haven’t heard back from the commissioner yet. Not to doubt or pre-judge him, but what if he doesn’t see what you’re seeing as quickly as you’d hope for? Does the challenge — and your campaign for change — simply continue?

Something that’s been so powerful for me on my book tour has been talking to the hockey guys, the sports guys on the all-sports radio stations: a lot of them are thinking in these directions. This is not a matter of starting at zero and trying to argue or persuade your way to 100, they’re already at 60 or 70. They see the problem. And so do people in the game I’ve been hearing from.

So all of this just kind of builds. That’s not unimportant. It will be moving forward, a little faster or a little slower. Five years from now, the game will be extremely different. How much in advance of that the change happens is really up to Gary Bettman.