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)

match point: hockey’s unlikeliest cautionary tale

Hockey historian Mike Commito’s daily Twitter miscellany of achievements and anniversaries yesterday revived this believe-it-or-not oddity from the annals of the icy past:

It’s a story that ran originally in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on Tuesday, February 18, 1930. The improbable news carried overseas, too, showing up in The Manchester Guardian in slightly abridged and Anglicized form that same day:

Hilarious. Well, not the phrase “badly burned:” that’s awful. The second clipping, abstracted, anonymized, is easier to laugh at than the first. What happened? How? Is it plausible that puckstruck matches could ignite? On Twitter, someone suggested that a call to Mythbusters might be in order.

I wanted to know more about Abie Goldberry. Was he okay? Did he recover? Make a return to the ice?

The London and New York stories originated with wire services; both would seem to have been more or less hastily rewritten for local consumption. The Guardian’s story suggests that the incident itself happened the day before, Monday. The typo-laden Brooklyn account bears the same Monday dateline, but also mentions “yesterday,” Sunday.

Sifting the archives of Montreal’s Gazette didn’t yield anything. I don’t have ready access to all the other Montreal papers from that era, the Star or Herald, but I did search French-language papers, La PatrieLa PresseLe Devoir. Nothing. I fed our unfortunate goaltender’s name to the standard hockey databases; none of them bit.

What if the name wasn’t Abie Goldberry? I tried another spelling, and another one. Yes. Okay. There was a hockey-playing Abie Goldberg in Montreal in 1930. As well as misspelling his and belongings, it seems, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle bungled Abie’s surname.

The new name didn’t get me anywhere in the Montreal papers, but it did unlock some vital statistics that may or may not be relevant to the case: an Abie Goldberg was born in Montreal on September 26, 1915, to Max and Mary (née Greenberg).

That Abie would have 14 in February of 1930, which makes it entirely possible that he’s our boy. Either way, a new search of Toronto papers for February of 1930 did turn up a detailed account of the matchbox story, also datelined to the Monday, in which Abie Goldberg is identified as the goaltender for a downtown Montreal team, the Dufferin Square Canadiens of the Quebec Amateur Hockey Association. “Today Abie is suffering from severe burns,” the Star reported:

When Abie changed from his school clothes to his hockey suit yesterday he transferred some odd things from his trousers to the back pocket of his hockey shorts. Included was a box of matches and a celluloid comb.

Everything went well until the second period, and Abie was guarding the net when a hard shot struck the box of matches in his pocket. The matches burst into flames, igniting the celluloid comb and also Abie’s trousers.

That’s all. As before, if the story prompts a sympathetic wince, it’s parcelled up for its novelty, as a comical anecdote. No confirmation here of the Brooklyn account of players and fans dousing the flames, nor of Abie’s removal to hospital, his condition, or prognosis — or (for that matter) of the outcome of the game.

And with that, all the Abies, both Goldberry and Goldberg, vanished from the news. No further bulletins, it seems, reached Toronto or Brooklyn or Manchester — none that I’ve been able to find, anyway.

Back in Montreal, the Gazette did take note, two years later, of the grave news that an Abie Goldberg had died. This was December of 1932 now. The age given doesn’t exactly match up with the Abie born in 1915, and nor do the names of the parents. And this Abie, who’s buried in Montreal Baron De Hirsch Jewish Cemetery, wasn’t tending nets in the year of his death. We could be talking, I guess, about as many as three different Abie Goldbergs. Could be, too, that there’s just the one, who died too young, even as his legacy lives on as hockey’s unlikeliest cautionary tale.

damage report

The Costs of Doing Business: Artist LeRoy Neiman’s 1974 portrait of pain shows some of the damage André “Moose” Dupont sustained playing defence. Drafted by the New York Rangers, Dupont made his name in Philadelphia, where as a feisty Flyer he helped win two Stanley Cups in the mid-1970s. He also served time with St. Louis and Quebec before retiring in 1983.