when boston and toronto first met, 1933: leafs determined to win, despite severe handicaps

Ol’ Poisoned: The first time Maple Leafs and Bruins met in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Toronto centreman Joe Primeau soldiered through (mostly) on a bad leg.

Fifteen times Toronto and Boston have met in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and if you’re a Leafs’ enthusiast in need of historical solace while your team’s down two games to one this time out, take heart: your team has won eight of the first 14 series. (Psst, Bruins’ fans: Toronto’s last success was in 1959, with Boston winning all four match-ups since then.)

The first time Boston and Toronto clashed in the playoffs was in the spring of 1933, in the Stanley Cup semi-finals. Dick Irvin’s Leafs were the defending champions that year, with a line-up that included Lorne Chabot in goal and King Clancy on defence, spearheaded by the powerful Kid Line upfront, with Joe Primeau centering Charlie Conacher and Busher Jackson. Bruins’ coach Art Ross’s formidable team featured goaltender Tiny Thompson, defenceman Eddie Shore, and Nels Stewart and Dit Clapper up front.

The two teams had similar regular-seasons records that year, with the Bruins (25-15-8) having finished slightly better than the Leafs (24-18-6). The first two games at Boston’s Garden went to overtime, with the home team claiming the first of those 2-1 when Marty Barry broke the deadlock.

The story for Toronto — in the Toronto papers, at least — was just how beaten-up the Leafs were. Ace Bailey (dislocated shoulder) and Red Horner (broken hand) missed the opening game. And the team suffered more damage on the ice the night of Saturday, March 25. In the days before hockey injuries went shrouded in euphemism, the local broadsheets were only too pleased to itemize them. The Daily Star described Bill Thoms’ sprained thumb and Hal Cotton’s hurting hand, Charlie Sands’ sore hip, Ken Doraty’s aching back, and, for Primeau and Jackson, a matching set of “swollen and bruised ankles.” The Globe submitted its own infirmary report:

Conacher was cut in the lip. [Hap] Day had a large lump on his cheek from Barry’s stick and a cut on his nose. [Alex] Levinsky was cut across the nose. Jackson is limping today with a bruised hip and slightly wrenched knee, sustained in a collision with Shore. Clancy has a badly swollen thumb and a sore chest where a crosscheck left its mark. The others have minor scratches.

Not that the Leafs were looking for excuses; Globe sports editor Mike Rodden wanted to be sure that everyone was clear on that count. “Listing of the Toronto injuries is not an attempt to provide an alibi,” he wrote, “in the event of the team’s defeat. Accidents are part of the game, and the Leafs have more than their share of them, but they are not complaining.”

Ace Bailey and Red Horner both returned to the Leafly line-up for the second game, Tuesday night, March 28, the latter with a brace fitted to protect his tender hand. The Globe’s Bert Perry called this encounter “the hottest, heaviest, hardest hockey struggle ever played on Boston ice.” More important for the Leafs was the fact that they were able to beat the Bruins on Garden ice for the first time in four years. The tension was as thick as the pall — “for smoking,” as Perry wrote, “is allowed here.” After three goalless periods, Busher Jackson scored in overtime to send the teams north knotted at a game apiece. The series was best-of-five, it’s worth noting, and the remainder of the games would be played in Toronto.

Thursday night, March 30, when the teams met again, Maple Leaf Gardens had its largest crowd of the season, 13,128, on hand. Joe Primeau’s health hadn’t improved over the course of the week, with Mike Rodden reporting that while his “blood poisoning of the leg” probably should have kept him out of the line-up, it didn’t. His gallantry was cited as an inspiration to his teammates, though not decisively so: fans who stayed for overtime saw the Bruins’ best player, defenceman Eddie Shore, end it to give Boston the 2-1 win. Only then, afterwards, did Primeau head for Wellesley Hospital. “The best team on the night’s play skated off with the verdict,” The Daily Star confessed.

“Leafs Determined To Win Despite Severe Handicaps” was a subhead topping Bert Perry’s report ahead of the fourth game. Primeau was anxious, of course, to play, but the Leafs weren’t banking on getting him back. “The blood-poisoning has been checked to some extent,” Perry divulged, “but he is still in pain, and the swelling in his leg has not been entirely reduced.” Rookie Bill Thoms was slated to replace Primeau on the Leafs’ top line, though he was poorly, too, “with a large lump on his head where he had been struck with a stick,” along with an acute charley-horse that trainer Rube Bannister was tending.

Never fear, Perry wrote: “The Leafs, crippled badly, are far from downhearted.” A win would be fuelled mostly by nerve, he felt, “for no team has ever been so badly handicapped in a championship series as they are.”

Coach Irvin wasn’t a bit rattled. “Why worry about Saturday’s game,” he breezed. “Even had we won on Thursday night, we would have had to play it anyway, and win it, too, and I am convinced the Leafs are far from out of the running yet.”

In the end, Primeau remained in hospital, listening in with the rest of Canada to Foster Hewitt’s radio broadcast. What he heard was a crowd of 14,511 delighting in a 5-3 Leafs’ win powered by a pair of Charlie Sands’ goals. The Globedetailed new Leaf injuries, notably to Bob Gracie’s knee and King Clancy’s scalp — “minor incidents in the lives of this stout-hearted band of Maple Leafs.” Collectors of unreported concussions from the 1930s might want to note down that Clancy surely suffered one, hitting the ice with what the Starcalled “a resounding smack” before staggering off with a bleeding head. And (of course) he was “back again minutes later, full of fight but with his condition wobbly.”

Primeau was back in for the final game of the series on Monday night, April 3. (Clancy was, too.) The crowd at Maple Leaf Gardens this time was 14,539, a new record for the rink, though I can’t say how many of those fans stayed until the end. With neither team able to score in three periods of play, they again went to overtime, extending it famously this time, into a ninth period. The Leafs outshot Boston, with Tiny Thompson stopping 113 Leafs’ shots while Lorne Chabot turned away 93 of Boston’s.

The one that got away from Thompson came at twelve minutes to two on Tuesday morning, when Boston’s Eddie Shore made a mistake and the Leafs’ Ken Doraty scored. At 164 minutes and 46 second, the game was the longest in NHL history at the time, and kept that distinction for a whole three years, until the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Maroons went longer in March of 1936.

The Leafs caught a special train out Tuesday morning an hour after they’d won, and they played the first game of the Stanley Cup finals that same evening in New York. The Rangers beat them 5-1 and carried on to win the Cup in four games.

Like Mike Rodden, I don’t mean to be offering alibis when I tally Toronto’s injuries. But I will pass on what the Star reported after that last elongated Boston game. Red Horner had so much bandaging on his bad hand that he couldn’t hold his stick properly, it was noted, while Baldy Cotton played with one of hishands rendered “almost useless.” Ace Bailey was wearing so much extra padding, meanwhile, on his wounded shoulder that he looked like “an overstuffed chesterfield.” Joe Primeau, everybody in Toronto agreed, should have been back in hospital, even though (of course) he wasn’t. He stayed on the bench for most of the night, finally making his first appearance on the ice well into overtime, as the clock ticked up towards midnight.

 

the alluring penalty shot: introducing hockey’s greatest thrill

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Conacher’d: In December of 1934, Andy Aitkenhead of the New York Rangers was the goaltender trying to stop Charlie Conacher from scoring the first penalty shot in Leafs’ history. He didn’t.

A little historical housekeeping: Charlie Conacher did indeed score the first penalty shot in the august annals of the Toronto Maple Leafs, it just wasn’t on this day in 1936, despite the anniversary announcements you may be seeing across sociable media.

A bit of the background: it was September of 1934 when the NHL’s braintrust added the penalty shot to the league’s rulebook. The meeting they did it at was in New York, but the rule came from way out west. While eastern Canada’s pre-NHL National Hockey Association had toyed with the concept in 1915, it was Frank and Lester Patrick’s Pacific Coast Hockey Association where the penalty shot made its official debut in 1921.

The PCHA faded away in the mid-1920s, of course; by 1934, Lester Patrick was running the New York Rangers while Frank presided as the NHL’s managing director.

“When a player is tripped and thus prevented from having a clear shot on goal, having no other player to pass than the offending player,” the new rule read, “a penalty shot shall be awarded to the non-offending side.” So: same as we know it now. But things were different then, too. For one thing, the penalty shot didn’t negate the penalty, which (until it was changed in 1941) the offending player also had to serve, whether the non-offender scored or not. The non-offender, I should say, didn’t necessarily have to be the offended player: a coach could appoint anyone to take the shot.

Also: from 1934 through to ’37, penalty shots were taken from a 10-foot circle situated 38 feet from the goal — so just in from the blueline, in what today we’d call the high slot. The shooter couldn’t make contact with the puck outside the circle, but otherwise he could do as he pleased, standing still and shooting, as though taking part in a future All-Star accuracy contest, or skating at the puck full tilt, as in the hardest-shot showdown. The goaltender, meanwhile, had to stay where he was: he wasn’t allowed to advance more than a foot off his line.

“A rule must have merit,” Frank Patrick said as the new season approached that fall. “Before introducing any new rule, Lester and I argued over it and looked at it from all angles, and if we considered that it was good for hockey, we put it in our rule-book. The rules had to meet with the approval of the public, the press, and the players, but we never found one of our rules unpopular. Hockey has a certain sameness to it, and all these new rules have been for the purpose of giving the public new thrills. This is why I consider the penalty shot so alluring. I think it will be hockey’s greatest thrill.”

The debate about who might excel at penalty shooting began immediately. A consensus was quick to coalesce: Art Ross and Leo Dandurand, Newsy Lalonde, Jack Adams all agreed that Howie Morenz (mostly of Montreal, but soon to head for Chicago) was the man you’d want doing the job for your team.

Him or Rabbit McVeigh of the New York Americans, who happened to have been the west’s best in the PCHA. Chicago Black Hawks GM Bill Tobin remembered that. “McVeigh,” he said, “had a spectacular style. He would dash full speed down the rink, swerve about and come at the puck at a great clip. When he was skating toward the circle and while he shot the atmosphere in the rink would become so tense one could almost hear a pin drop.”

In October, when teams convened for their training camps, coaches made sure their players put in some penalty-shot practice. In Winnipeg, the Montreal Maroons saw promise in what Jimmy Ward was doing, while among Leafs in Galt, Ontario, King Clancy and Busher Jackson were said, initially, to shine. As camp went on and the team started into intra-squad scrimmages and exhibition games, Bill Thoms emerged as the team’s best designated shooter.

Once the season launched in November, the Leafs were the first team to face a penalty shot, in their second game, home to Montreal at Maple Leaf Gardens. Thoms was the designated delinquent in this case, hauling down Canadiens’ Georges Mantha. Armand Mondou took the first NHL penalty shot and … well, the Leafs’ George Hainsworth saved it. An interesting note on that: Hainsworth changed sticks before facing Mondou’s attempt, preferring a lighter paddle for the occasion over the heavier one he regularly wielded.

Ralph Bowman, a.k.a. Scotty, took care of the history Mondou failed to make the following week in a game between his St. Louis Eagles and Maroons. Montreal’s Stew Evans tripped Eagle Syd Howe, and Bowman stepped up to face Alec Connell. Or, sped up: he took the full-tilt route. The St. Louis Dispatch:

Bowman saw on which side Connell, Maroon goalie, was holding the stick, and fired the puck at the opposite of the net. The disc travelled, ankle high, like a bullet and Connell had no chance for the stop.

Rabbit McVeigh got his chance to show his stuff against Montreal’s Wilf Cude soon after that. He scored, but the goal was disallowed: he’d pulled the puck outside the circle.

Back with the Leafs, George Hainsworth got the better of Bun Cook of the New York Rangers on December 8. Best as I can see, Hainsworth continued to get the better of penalty-shooters for another year-and-a-half, stopping seven in a row before he finally saw Bert Connelly of the Rangers beat him in January of 1936 in a 1-0 New York win.

December 11 the Leafs met the Rangers again, this time at Madison Square Garden. The visitors won the game 8-4, with the turning point coming (said The New York Times) in the second period. The Leafs were leading 2-1 when Ching Johnson tripped … well, that’s hard to say. The Times says Charlie Conacher, the Globe Hap Day, the Toronto Daily Star Busher Jackson. Either way, Johnson headed for the box and Conacher stepped up. His shot hit beat the Rangers’ Andy Aitkenhead, hit the post, went in. Not sure whether Conacher took a run at the puck, but there was some doubt about the puck crossing the line. Only after consultation with the goal judge was Conacher’s penalty shot, the first in Leafs’ history, deemed good enough for a goal.

Conacher thereby made himself the Leafs’ go-to shooter. He did, however, fail in both of his next two attempts that ’34-35 season. Foiled by Chicago’s Lorne Chabot and then by Roy Worters of the New York Americans, Conacher had to wait until this every day in 1936, when the Americans came by the Gardens in Toronto again.

Worters was again in the net for New York. This time, defenceman Red Murray closed his hand on the puck to trigger the penalty shot in the first period of what turned out to be a 3-0 Leafs’ win. Here’s the Globe’s George Smith on Conacher’s successful method:

Sweeping in on the disc with three strides, Conacher drove one that fairly hissed as it sagged the net behind Worters. We didn’t see it on its netward career and we have an idea that Worters didn’t see it. Anyway, he good little netminder at the enemy end didn’t jump for it, didn’t budge; he gave every evidence of never having had his eye on the dynamited disc.

Toronto’s 1933-34 Maple Leafs. Back row, left to right: Benny Grant, Buzz Boll, Bill Thomas, Alex Levinsky, Red Horner, Andy Blair, Busher Jackson, Joe Prime, Charlie Sands, Baldy Cotton, trainer Tim Daly, George Hainsworth. Front: Hec Kilrea, King Clancy, Hap Day, coach Dick Irvin, managing director Conn Smythe, assistant director Frank Selke, Ace Bailey, Ken Doraty, Charlie Conacher.

 

headfirst: a hundred years (and counting) of nhl concussions

Out-Cold Case: Boston Bruins’ winger Charlie Sands awaits attention at New York’s Madison Square Garden in December of 1938 after a collision with the Rangers’ Bryan Hextall knocked him unconscious. Cut in the head, carried from the ice, he played two nights later, wearing a helmet “to protect the bandage circling his head.” That’s the Rangers’ Phil Watson on the left, Jack Portland (8), Ray Getliffe (6), Babe Pratt (11), Jack Crawford (obscured, with helmet), Cooney Weiland (7), and referee Norman Shay.

(A version of this post appeared on page S4 of The Toronto Star on December 17, 2017 under the headline “Ghosts of NHL’s Past Still Haunt.”)

Hockey has changed in a hundred years, but it’s not that different.

True, as a modern-day hockey fan beamed back to the NHL’s opening night in December of 1917, you’d find Torontos (a.k.a. Blueshirts) opening the schedule rather than Maple Leafs, along with some strange rules, and dimly lit rinks so clouded with cigarette smoke that, at times, you couldn’t see the puck.

Still, the first game Toronto played in Montreal against the Wanderers featured plenty of familiar sights in terms of stickhandling, bodychecks, and goals. Given such eternal hockey constants as hard ice, heavy sticks, speedy skating, and male grievance, you might reasonably have expected to see the NHL’s first fight — though, in fact, that didn’t come until Toronto’s second game, two nights later.

What you would have witnessed on December 19, 1917, was the league’s inaugural concussion. Not that anyone at the time, or since, logged that unfortunate first, including (most likely) the trailblazer himself, Montreal’s Harry Hyland. He would have other things on his mind, no doubt: he did, after all, almost score two hattricks on the night.

Celebrating its centennial this year, the NHL is, as you might expect, spotlighting the best players from its rich history, the greatest goals, the coolest sweaters. But this is an era, too, in which the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is as much a hockey term as coach’s challenge or Scotiabank NHL100 Classic. As today’s NHL continues to struggle with the realities of head injuries and their long-term effects on players’ brains, it might be also be time to note some grimmer landmarks.

In a couple of years, the Toronto would transform into Arenas before turning into St. Patricks and then, in 1927, Maple Leafs. While they would go on to win the first Stanley Cup of the NHL era in 1918, they didn’t start out so smoothly that first December night. In a foreshadowing of years of future woe, they had goaltending issues.

“Torontos Weak In The Nets,” the Star headline lamented next morning, “Wanderers Won By 10 To 9.”

The crowd at the Montreal Arena was sparse — just 700 spectators, by some reports. According to next morning’s Star, it wasn’t a particularly rough game, though the players were “irritable.”

A speedy 28-year-old winger who’d end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, Hyland notched a first-period hattrick before adding two more goals later in the game.

Harry Hyland, in a pre-NHL incarnation when, c. 1912,  he suited up for New Westminster, champions of the PCHA.

None of the accounts of the game mention a concussion, as such. They say only Hyland came away with a black eye. At some point, he was in Montreal goaltender Bert Lindsay, who deflected a shot Hyland’s way. And there it was: the puck, said the Star’s report, “struck him a terrific smash fair in the eye, knocking him out.”

It’s not much to go on, but looking back to a land beyond YouTube highlights, it’s what we’ve got. No-one at the rink that night was concussion-spotting or enforcing league-mandated protocols in quiet-rooms. Hyland may well have returned to the game, and he was in the Wanderers’ line-up two nights later when the Canadiens overwhelmed them 11-2.

The Wanderers didn’t last the season, but the NHL was up and going. As the goals piled up, the legends grew, great players found their way to the ice to win famous Stanley Cups. But as the goals and the championships were logged and transformed into lore, head injuries remained mostly unseen as an issue for the NHL.

In 1928, a New Jersey pathologist named Dr. Harrison Martland did write about the hidden damages that a career’s worth of punches to the head was inflicting on the brains of boxers. Fans knew all about seeing their heroes “punch drunk,” Martland noted, staggering around the ring in a “cuckoo” or “goofy” state, but medical literature mostly hadn’t paid attention.

“I am of the opinion,” he wrote, “that in punch drunk there is a very definite brain injury due to single or repeated blows on the head or jaw which cause multiple concussion hemorrhages in the deeper portions of the cerebrum.”

If today it reads like an 89-year old primer on CTE, Dr. Martland’s report didn’t change much in the 1920s. Boxing enthusiasts weren’t, for the most part, interested. And if anyone made the connection to the blows being sustained by hockey’s heads, they weren’t writing about it much less trying to adjust the game.

That doesn’t mean that trainers and doctors and teams ignored concussions, but a blow to the head was, in many ways, just another injury in a sport that, by its very nature, featured a whole painful lot of them. In hockey’s prevailing shake-it-off, everybody-gets-their-bell-rung, get-back-out-there culture, that’s what you did. Paging back through old newspapers, you’ll come across accounts of players trying to revive stricken teammates with snow from the ice they’re lying on. When the word “concussion” appears, it’s usually qualified by a “mild” or a “slight.”

December of 1933 marked a watershed in hockey’s concern for its players’ heads, if only temporarily. With Toronto visiting Boston, Bruins’ star Eddie Shore made a mistaken beeline for Leafs’ winger Ace Bailey (he was mad at Red Horner). Bailey had his back turned when Shore hit him, and he went down hard, hitting his head with a thud that was said to frighten spectators throughout the rink.

Two brain surgeries saved Bailey’s life; he never played another hockey game in his life. But if hockey was chastened, its players alarmed, the caution didn’t last long. As the league and its owners discussed whether Shore should be banned for life, players across the league tried out a variety of what they called at the time “headgears.”

They wore them for a while, but helmets were cumbersome and hot, and most of the players who donned them in the months after the Bailey hit would soon return bareheaded to the ice.

And that’s how hockey continued, mostly, right through to 1968, when Minnesota North Stars’ winger Bill Masterton died at age 29 as a result of untreated concussions aggravated by one final on-ice head injury. That’s when the league set about (eventually) to make helmets mandatory.

Meanwhile, back in the winter of 1917-18, those pioneer NHLers went about their business.

Ahead of Toronto’s first game, coach Charlie Querrie had issued a remarkable 15-point manifesto to his players. Directive number four: “Remember that it does not require bravery to hit another man over the head with a stick. If you want to fight, go over to France.”

It was a noble effort, even if it didn’t really take the temper of the game made it hard. At the end of January, when the Canadiens visited Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, Toronto beat them 5-1.

That was the least of the action, though: late in the game, Toronto’s Alf Skinner butt-ended Montreal’s Joe Hall in the mouth, whereupon Hall knocked Skinner to the ice. The ensuing scene ended with Hall cracking (a possibly already unconscious) Skinner over the head with his stick.

Toronto police arrested both players on charges of common assault. Both had been find already by the referee, $15 a man, and at court that was enough for the magistrate: he said they’d been “amply punished.”

A century later, hockey is a faster, better-lit, less-smoky, more thrilling spectacle than ever. that seems toll of hockey head injuries is coming clearer as the hockey struggles to adapt. In Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey, Ken Dryden’s latest book, the Hall-of-Fame former Montreal Canadiens goaltender argues that hockey has no choice but to change its way, directly challenging NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to do whatever it takes to eliminate hits to the head.

Not so widely noticed as Dryden’s, The Pepper Kid is another book new to the hockey shelf this fall. Exploring the life and times of his largely forgotten grandfather, Peterborough, Ontario writer Shayne Randall reveals a hardy, highly talented, and extremely unforgiving defenceman who happens to have been both Toronto’s very first NHL captain and a great-uncle to Doug Gilmour, the 24th player to war Toronto’s C.)

Ken Randall took most of the penalties called that opening night in 1917. He’d win a second Stanley Cup with Toronto in 1922, and continued on in the league through the 1926-27 season.

He died in 1947 at the age of 58. “He was really beaten up,” his grandson was saying this week. “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.”

Shayne Randall has no way of knowing how many concussions Ken Randall sustained in his “stormy” 26-year hockey career, but of the sombre conclusion he reaches in his book he has no doubt: the blows he took to his head “left him in a traumatic state near the end of his life and hastened his demise.”

 

concussion number one

No-one was spotting for concussions when the NHL first skated into being a hundred years ago: that’s not how hockey worked in 1917. But just because nobody was keeping track back then doesn’t mean that hockey-player brains weren’t being jarred with as frightening a regularity then as now. Hockey history doesn’t have much to say about early head injuries, beyond a few, famous, frightening incidents, like the night in 1933 that Toronto’s Ace Bailey nearly lost his life. For all we’ve read about the NHL’s inaugural two games on December 19, 1917, and about the first goal scored in league history (Dave Ritchie of the Montreal Wanderers got it), have you ever seen a reference to the league’s maiden concussion? I wondered about that, and about who might have been first. As I wrote for The Toronto Star over the weekend — the article’s online here — the best evidence we have points to Harry Hyland’s head. The Wanderers’ winger scored the NHL’s first hattrick that night, and ended up with a total of five goals in Montreal’s 10-9 win over Toronto. But the puck wasn’t going his way all night, as it happened: late in the game the Montreal-born future-Hall-of-Famer would also feel its bite.

the almost leafs

The Toronto St. Patricks team up in 1926-27, the season they turned into the Maple Leafs. Back row, left to right: coach (short-lived) Mike Rodden, unknown. Middle: Bert McCaffrey, Ace Bailey, Bill Brydge, Danny Cox, coach and manager Charlie Querrie, John Ross Roach, Butch Keeling, trainer Tim Daly, unknown. Front: Bill Carson, Carl Voss, Hap Day, Bert Corbeau, Corb Denneny, Leo Bourgeault.

born with a black eye: one more requiem for reggie fleming

reggie-f-helm

Hat Trick: A hospitalized Reggie Fleming poses with Chicago policemen in his Hawk days in the early 1960s. In all his 14 years as a hockey professional, he never wore a helmet on the ice. (Image: Chris Fleming)

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.

Reggie Fleming as a Hawk, c. the early 1960s

Got To Knock Them Down: Reggie Fleming as a Hawk, c. the early 1960s.

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, 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.”

reggie-f-egg

Fry Guy: Reggie Fleming serves up breakfast to Chicago teammates (left) Stan Mikita and (possibly) Murray Balfour in the early 1960s. (Image: Chris Fleming)

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leaflet: george patterson scores a goal

g-pattersonWho scored the first Leaf goal? If you answered Tyler Bozak, well, yes, true enough, last night against the Florida Panthers he did do just that — but what about the first goal ever by a Leaf? Not this month, not this season — we’re talking here about 1927, when Conn Smythe and friends bought the team mid-season, transforming the club from one February day to the next from the St. Patricks they were to Maple Leafs we know today. If the name George Patterson doesn’t leap to mind — well, exactly.

Let’s review: the St. Patricks were 30 games into their 44-game schedule in mid-February of 1927 when Smythe did the deal that changed the complexion of hockey in Toronto. The Irish, as they were sometimes called, went to Detroit for their final game, which they lost by a score of 5-1 to the (pre-Red Wing) Cougars. It wasn’t much to see, judging by contemporary dispatches. Corb Denneny scored the St. Pats’ goal that night, the last in their history, in what sounds like an all-around dismal showing by both teams.

Other Toronto high(ish)lights: (1) Ace Bailey’s ongoing feud with Detroit’s Duke Keats was finally broken up by policemen on the penalty bench and (2) a winger by the name of George Patterson almost scored on a long shot at Cougar goalkeep Herb Stuart before stickhandling through to very nearly score another.

If Bailey remains a Maple Leaf legend, the same can’t be said of Patterson. Kingston, Ontario filmmaker Dale Morrisey is looking to change that with a new documentary, Hockey’s Lost Boy, which is just now making its way into wide release.

Patterson, who was 20 that winter and a Kingston boy himself, was in the first year of what would turn out to be a modest if incident-filled NHL career. His main claim on fame came two days after that dismal loss in Detroit when the newly minted Maple Leafs stepped out on home ice to take on the New York Americans.

In new duds, The Toronto Daily Star’s Bob Hayes wrote, “they looked like a lot of galloping ghosts in white;” more important, the home team didn’t let an early New York goal get them down, roaring back to win the game by a score of 4-1. And the very first Leaf goal, the one that started both the comeback on the night and a new era in Toronto hockey? George Patterson scored it, on a pass from Bill Brydge. “Lovely,” The Star rated it, with The Globe going a little deeper: Patterson’s “drive on the goal was so fast and well placed that [goaltender Jakie] Forbes hardly saw it.”

Morrisey’s thorough accounting of Patterson’s life and times includes interviews with former Leafs Doug Gilmour and Jim Dorey along with a host of distinguished hockey historians, including Bill Fitsell, Kevin Shea, Paul Patskou, and Mike Wilson. For more on Hockey’s Lost Boy, there’s a Facebook page, here.