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.”
Who 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.
The legend as it’s been handed down goes something like this: the hockey game got so very testy that the Boston coach reached into the toolbox he happened to have on the bench with him, selected his sturdiest monkey wrench, and hurled it at his Toronto counterpart across the way.
That’s what writer and historian Eric Zweig knew, more or less, when he received the actual almost-lethal item itself as a gift this past summer, 90 years after it was flung. A week before NHL hockey begins in earnest, as beer-cans fly at baseball parks, maybe is it worth a look back at just what happened all those years ago?
Zweig, who lives in Owen Sound, is the esteemed and prolific author of novels along with many books of hockey history, including Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built The Bruins (2015). It was through his work on his definitive biography that Zweig ended up with his unique memento, which was presented to him earlier this year by the Ross family.
The story behind the monkey wrench has a little more mass than to it than the legend, and a finer grain. A short review of it might start with Ross himself. As Zweig deftly shows on the page, he was a complicated man. Before he became a superior coach, motivator, and manager of hockey talent, prior to his invention of the team we know today as the Boston Bruins, Ross was one of the best hockey players in the world.
The best, if you want to go by the obituary that was published in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1918, when the rumour went around that he’d been killed in a motorcycle accident: “Ross stands out as the brainiest, most consistently brilliant player, over a long period of years, that the game has ever known.”
That stood him in good stead for the decades he went on to live, most of which were taken up with the NHL team in Boston, which he more or less hatched and nursed and taught to walk, and definitely infused with his own uncompromising and often contentious personality. The man was tough, Arthur Siegel wrote in The Boston Globe on the occasion of Ross’ actual death, in 1964, when he was 78, though that wasn’t to say he wasn’t affable and loyal, too; he was a man of “tenderness and vindictiveness, of bitter anger and jovial courtliness.”
Along with the stars he shaped and the Stanley Cups he won, Ross’s feuds feature prominently in hockey history, and Zweig pays them their due in book. Most famous, of course, was his battle with Toronto’s own domineering majordomo, Conn Smythe; another, not so well known, was with Smythe’s lieutenant, Frank Selke, who once wrote an article in the Leafs’ game program calling Ross “a sourpuss.”
All of which is to say, simply, that it’s not impossible for Ross, given the tools for the job, to have heaved a wrench at a rival’s head in the middle of an NHL game. Since it’s December of 1926 we’re talking about here — well, that was just before Smythe’s hockey reign in Toronto began, so if Ross was going to be wrangling with someone there, Charlie Querrie was the man.
He’d been a lacrosse star in his younger years, and a sportswriter, not to mention manager of Toronto’s original NHL rink, Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. When the NHA vanished in 1917 only to be instantly re-invented as the NHL, Querrie was offered the chance to buy the Toronto franchise for $1,200. Instead, he ended up buying an interest in the team in 1920, paying $400. He was soon coaching, too, a job he continued on and off throughout the early 1920s, helping to steer the team that became the St. Patrick’s to its 1922 Stanley Cup championship.
On the bench again in 1926, Querrie was looking for a way out. Weary of the job, looking for a change — I don’t, exactly, the why of it, just that before Christmas he tried to buy forward Jack Adams from the Ottawa Senators to replace himself as coach. When that didn’t work out, he keep going. Not that Toronto’s team had long to live as the St. Patricks: in February of 1927, Smythe and partners would pony up and buy the team, changing its name and its colours in mid-season, and granting Querrie his freedom, which he took, along with a $50,000 profit on his $400 investment.
Back in December, though, Christmas coming, the team was still in green, still Querrie-coached, heading out on a three-game road trip. A dozen games into the season, Toronto was 3-8-1, lurking down at the bottom of the NHL’s five-team Canadian Division while the Boston, Toronto’s second stop, was just a little more respectable, fourth on the American side at 5-6-1.
The St. Pats won the game on December 21 by a score of 5-3 in front the Bruins’ smallest crowd of the year. Featuring that night was a stand-out performance from Toronto goaltender John Ross Roach, who stopped 73 Bruin shots. Of the three pucks he couldn’t stop, one was batted in by his own defenceman, Hap Day — a gesture of “true Christmas spirit,” as the Canadian Press logged it.
“Warmly contested throughout” was another CP drollery when it came to summarizing the proceeding. Boston captain Sprague Cleghorn was a key figure, as he so often was during his unruly career. Central to the drama for Toronto was the rookie Irvine (Ace) Bailey, usually recognized for his finesses rather than fisticuffing. He was going through a rowdy stage, apparently: in the St. Pats’ previous game, he’d fought Lionel Conacher of the New York Americans, for which they’d both been summarily fined in the amount of $15 apiece.
In the third period, Boston’s Percy Galbraith scored a goal that referee Dr. Eddie O’Leary called back for offside. Fans booed, tossed paper, tossed pennies. That stopped the game for ten minutes while the ice was cleared. Continue reading
O for the failures of Leafs yesteryears.
Heading into a new season in October of 1955, the Toronto Maple Leafs were just five years removed from their last Stanley Cup championship. That didn’t keep president and managing director Conn Smythe from an apologetic address to fans on this day, 61 years ago, as he presided over a Maple Leaf Gardens open house to show off a brand new set of escalators. Rest assured, Smythe told the gathered masses that day, the new hardware was not a ruse by management to distract from the Leafs’ lack of recent success.
Maple Leaf Gardens was 25 years old that year. To celebrate the anniversary, the Leafs invited Torontonians to a Wednesday-afternoon wander through the corridors of the home arena. Why not? The following day they’d be opening the season in Montreal against the Canadiens. Fans would be welcome to browse the dressing rooms, the press salon, hospital, ice plant, and engine room. Most of exciting of all: those who showed up just after noon would witness the solemn ceremony with which the Gardens’ four new escalators would be inaugurated.
They’d gone in over the summer at a cost of $200,000, two on the west side of the main Carlton Street entrance, two on the east, to raise fans up to the second-level seats. Captain Sid Smith was on hand to snip the ribbon, and he was joined by six of his predecessors, Ted Kennedy, Syl Apps, Bob Davidson, Red Horner, Charlie Conacher, and Hap Day, along with other Leaf alumni: Joe Primeau, Ace Bailey, Turk Broda, Andy Blair, and Busher Jackson.
“I hope the team goes the same way as the escalators — up,” Conn Smythe said, as you’d guess he might, to some of the estimated 20,000 people came through the doors that day. He couldn’t know, of course, that another seven years would pass before the Leafs won another Cup, and he was bullish about his team’s immediate prospects.
“We have spent a minimum of $100,000 on hockey players in the last five years,” he told Rex MacLeod of The Globe and Mail. “This year I think we’ll get some of that back.”
It was MacLeod’s article, and he gave himself the last word:
The Gardens’ escalators, by the way, are reversible. It is too early to say if Leafs are too.
Trade your skipper across the province to your bitterest cross-province rival? It happens, every once in a while, as Dion Phaneuf recalls. In October of 1930, Frank Clancy was captain of the Ottawa’s (original) Senators, one of the best players in the National Hockey League, when Toronto’s irrepressible Conn Smythe came calling with his chequebook. As today’s Leafs continue to prepare for the new season — they were skating in Halifax earlier this week, awaiting coach Mike Babcock to finish up with the World Cup — maybe would we revisit how it happened that the man they called King ended up donning the blue 86 years this fall? Answer: yes.
Going into his tenth NHL season, Clancy was, by then, one of the NHL’s brightest stars. Montreal’s formidable Howie Morenz said he was the hardest defenceman to get around. Andy Lytle of The Vancouver Province watched him skate as a guest of the Vancouver Lions in April in a post-season exhibition versus Boston’s touring Bruins. “Clancy is the greatest hockey player in the game today,” he pronounced, rating him “vastly superior” to Eddie Shore.
There is no theatrical by-play to Clancy’s work. Once that whistle blows, he forgets the crowd and all else, except that there is ice under his feet, a puck to be followed, and that he possesses a pair of super strong legs, a hockey stick, an eagle eye, and a vision that functions every second.
Frank Patrick was alleged to have said he was in a class by himself. Even the Bruins concurred, inviting to join them as they barnstormed down to California.
The New York Rangers had tried to buy him during the 1929-30 season. And even as Clancy kicked up his skates on the west coast, the rumour simmering back on the east was that Montreal Maroons were in with an offer.
Clancy’s contract was expiring: that was the thing. Plus (the other thing): the Senators were in a rocky financial straits. By August, Clancy’s availability was front-page news in the capital.
“It is well known that the team here has been operated at a loss for a number of years past,” was what Major F.D. Burpee was saying, the president of the Auditorium Company that owned the team. “This company cannot refuse to consider the sale of one or two of its super stars, providing the price offered, whether it be cash or cash combined with players, is sufficiently attractive. So far that has not been the case.”
The strength of the team was paramount, he said. But: “At the same time, the Auditorium cannot afford to continue a losing team, and must see that it at least carries itself if the club is to remain in this city.”
Clancy’s price was high. Maroons were said to be willing to offer $40,000. The season started in November in those years, and as fall came on, the Bruins were said to be in the mix too.
And Toronto. Leafs supremo Conn Smythe was desperate to improve his team. The team he’d bought and transformed in 1927 had yet to raise a Stanley Cup, and it was coming on ten years since the old St. Patricks had done it. Smythe’s problem as a shopper was that his board of governors was only willing to spend up to $25,000. Another potential hitch: Clancy was said to have vowed that Toronto was the one team he’d never play for.
Smythe wasn’t a man easily fazed.
First, in September, he went to the races. He owned an underperforming filly, Rare Jewel, that he’d entered in the first race of the season at Toronto’s Woodbine racetrack, the Coronation Stakes, where the rank outsider won. Smythe’s take on the day was more than $14,000. As Smythe tells it in his 1981 memoir, he had one thought as he collected his winnings: Now we can buy Clancy. Now we are going to win the Stanley Cup.
Next: he sent his assistant manager, Frank Selke, to Ottawa to ask Clancy about playing for the Leafs. Love to, Clancy said, if you pay me $10,000.
For the defenceman, it was a simple enough calculation. As he writes in Clancy (1997), the memoir he wrote with Brian McFarlane, his Senators salary paid $7,200 with a $500 bonus for serving as captain. He had a full-time job at the Customs Department and that paid $1,800, which brought his annual earnings up to $9,500 a year.
Smythe told him that he could only pay him $8,500 — but that if the Leafs had “any kind of year at all,” he’d add a bonus of $1,500.
As he considered the deal, Smythe sought other counsel, too — via prominent ads in Toronto newspapers, he polled everybody in town: what do you think?
Fans answered, by telephone, telegram, they dropped by in person at Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, where more than 2,000 letters also showed up. The consensus? Go get Clancy.
The deal went through in October, and it was a blockbuster. The Globe suspected “that the reason Boston, Montreal and the New York Rangers did not take definitive action was because they did not believe that any other club would pay the price demanded by Ottawa. In this they erred, but Conny Smythe always did have the habit of crossing up the guessers.” Continue reading
Birthday Bruin: There was a party today in Boston for Milt Schmidt, who’s turning 98; Kevin Paul Dupont of the Boston Globe has all the cake-and-candle news here. Born in Kitchener, Ontario, in 1918, he went on to star at centre for the Bruins. After a 16-year career as a player (he also missed parts of three seasons serving in the RCAF), Schmidt went to serve as Boston coach, and GM. The oldest living NHLer will have his TV tuned to the TD Centre tonight when the modern-day Bruins host the Washington Capitals. Schmidt first played for Boston in 1936. When he showed up for training camp that fall, aged 18, the talent on hand included Nels Stewart, Bun Cook, Eddie Shore, Dit Clapper, Bill Cowley, and Tiny Thompson. That’s Shore with him here, of course, one-skated, in locker-room repose in the old Garden in 1940 or so. Alongside is long-time Bruins physician (and proud spats-wearer) Dr. Marty Crotty, one of the men credited with saving Ace Bailey’s life in 1933 when Shore knocked the Toronto winger to the ice and he fractured his skull. (Photo: courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)