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, 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.”