More views from yesterday’s public visitation for Ted Lindsay in and around Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena. Above is Ottawa artist Tony Harris’ 2017 portrait of Lindsay, painted as part of the project celebrating the NHL’s centenary celebration of the 100 players judged to be the best in the league’s history. Below, a billboard tribute to Lindsay on the Arena’s west side and (on sale in the Arena store) a selection of socks bearing Red Wing faces — Lindsay, Yzerman, Probert — for any interested in styling those on their ankles. (Datsyuk currently out of stock.)
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.”
Gordie Howe was quite possibly the nicest man you ever met — supposing you ever met him. Wayne Gretzky did, and has said just that, many times, including recently, during the sad week following Howe’s death on June 10. “A special man,” said Dan Robson, someone else who encountered Howe in person. He met a lot of people, over the years, and their consensus has been clear: he was a softspoken prince of man, funny and friendly, gentle, generous with his time, humble and cheerful.
Except at work. On the job, he was a different man: cruel and nasty, pitiless, a danger to navigation. “Mean as a rattlesnake,” Paul Henderson said in memoriam. “Tougher than a night in jail,” according to Brian Burke. Carl Brewer: “The dirtiest player who ever lived.”
“Everybody,” reminisced Rod Gilbert, “was scared of him.”
You’d think he hated his work. You’d guess he’d been forced into it, made to keep at it, couldn’t wait to escape. But no, of course not, quite the contrary — everybody knows that Gordie Howe loved the game that he was so dominantly (and malevolently) good at.
The meanness was a piece of the goodness, integral. Which is to wonder, also: could he have been quite so very good if he’d maintained his civilian decorum on the ice without turning on the viciousness?
No. Or, well — who knows. We assume not. If we ask the question at all, that is. Mostly, we don’t. Mostly we — Canadians especially — understand that this is a game, hockey, that demands a certain savagery. He did what he had to do. Howe talked about this, in his way. “Hockey,” he used to say, “is a man’s game.”
The second time Howe tried an autobiography, with Paul Haavardsrud’s assistance, he talked about self-preservation. “Not only was it hard to make the NHL, but once you broke in, you also had to fight like hell to stay there,” they wrote in Mr. Hockey: My Story (2014). “When there were only six teams, every player in the league came prepared to claw over his best friend the second the puck dropped.”
“I play tough,” is something else Howe said, in person, in 1974, “but I never hurt somebody.”
Gordie Howe wasn’t the first hockey player to be cast as a peaceable Jekyll who, donning skates, stepping to the ice, transformed into a remorseless Hyde. Not at all: hockey’s narratives note split personalities going back to the beginning of the organized sport. A few years ago, when I was reading all the hockey books, it became a bit of a hobby for me, collecting up variations on the trope. In most cases it’s framed as both an apology for bad on-ice behaviour. It also usually carries an implicit reassurance that a given player’s tranquil off-ice self is the genuine and governing one.
Don Cherry had another theory, which he framed for George Plimpton. Tiger Williams, Bob Kelly, Dave Schultz, Dan Maloney — they were very much alike in their personalities, he explains in Open Net (1981):
“… quiet off the ice, soft-spoken, and semi-shy. I’ve never seen a tough guy off the ice who was a wild man on, nor have I seen a wild man on the ice behave the same way out on the street. It’s one or the other. I guess if you were wild both on and off the ice, they’d park you away in a loony bin somewhere.”
Included in the pages of my book I had a former Leaf hardman, Kris King, talking about how, in his unintimidating time off the ice, he liked to fish and do a bit of charity work. My thick file also features citations of:
• the late Bob Probert, one of the most fearsome fighters in NHL history, “a classic goon,” in one writer’s phrase, who also had enough of a scoring touch to twice record 20-goal season with Detroit. “He was a teddy bear off the ice,” Jeremy Roenick wrote his autobiography, J.R. (2013), “and a fucking animal on the ice.”
When I played against Probert, he seemed like a wild-eyed, vicious thug. But when I played one season with him in Chicago, my attitude about him changed. He seemed like a gentle giant, a pleasant man with a big heart. If you met him in the dressing room, he would strike you as the guy you would want as your neighbour.
• Dave Schultz, one of the heaviest implements in Philadelphia’s toolbox during the bullyish 1970s. Asked for his opinion of Schultz in early 1975, NHL president Clarence Campbell didn’t hesitate: “He denigrates the sport.” An Associated Press feature from that same spring called Schultz “a Teddy Roosevelt type” who “speaks softly and wields a big stick.”
Off the ice, Schultz is a pussycat. He’s not an arguer. As a matter of fact the so-called ‘hammer’ of the Philadelphia Flyers is more of a peacemaker. His blonde wife, Cathy, says so.
If you were introduced to Dave Schultz without knowing he is a hockey player, you’d probably never guess his vocation. He could be a school teacher, an insurance executive. He comes off a low-key guy.
A year earlier, Dick Chapman of Montreal’s Gazette noted that back home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Schultz filled the hours “with things like jigsaw puzzles, building model ships and golf.”
• Ron Harris, a teammate of Howe’s and of Paul Henderson’s in Detroit in the 1960s. “By far the toughest guy in the league,” Henderson wrote in The Goal of My Life (2012). And:
… just like a lot of tough guys — guys like John Ferguson, for example — he was one of the nicest people in the world off the ice. But put a pair of skates on him, and he would get that glaze in his eyes. It’s kind of like Jekyll and Hyde — guys like that become crazy!
The toughness Ronnie added to our team made him really valuable.
Let’s remember this, first: when Joey Kocur played in the NHL, he was a crossword king.
Teammate Darren McCarty said Kocur was the best he ever saw when it came to wordy puzzles. USA Today, New York Times, didn’t matter, he’d zip through them all. “He was amazing,” McCarty writes in My Last Fight, a 2014 memoir.
McCarty does acknowledge that as a hockey player, it wasn’t for wordplay that Kocur was so widely feared. One of McCarty’s first fights as a rookie for Detroit was with Kocur, then a Ranger, before they became teammates. “One of his punches cracked my helmet,” McCarty writes. “The momentum of his fist connecting with my head sent us both crashing to the ice. We were both tangled up, and we went down head first and we landed face-to-face.” Kocur asked if McCarty was okay. “Thanks for not killing me, Mr. Kocur,” McCarty said.
The late Bob Probert was another of Kocur’s belligerent teammates with Detroit. Look him up at the Hockey Hall of Fame’s online register of NHL players and the potted biography they have on file takes a fairly straightforward run at his legacy: one of the most feared enforcers in the NHL, it alleges, says he could have been another Mark Messier but for having been groomed to lean more toward fisticuffs than toward the development of his playing skills and so is most remembered for punching a wide swath across the NHL.
Kocur’s profile is, on the other hand, strangely muted. He was a hard-nosed right-winger who was a good checker and intimidating presence on the ice. Also: better at handling the puck than most people realized with a deceptively hard shot.
Nothing about the fighting. No testimonials of the kind that St. Louis Blues center Adam Oates once volunteered: “No one in our league punches harder. In that regard, Joe’s the absolute best at what he does.”
Kocur played 15 seasons in the NHL, retiring in 1999. He won three Stanley Cups as a player, another one as an assistant coach in Detroit. He was mostly a Red Wing, though he also skated for the New York Rangers and, briefly, the Vancouver Canucks. He scored some goals — 80 in 821 regular-season games, another 10 in his 118 playoff games — but that’s not, again, where he got his renown. Dropping the gloves was a thing he did well, freeing up his bare fists in order throw them at those heads, helmeted or otherwise, that needed punching. From the ruthless efficient and generally dispiriting tables at Hockeyfights.com, I know that he did that — punching heads — in at least 218 altercations over the course of his career.
I’d assumed that the internet’s hockey-punching headquarters would be able to help with some other numbers I was interested in: how many concussions did Kocur sustain along his painful way, and how many did he administer to others? But for some reason, Hockeyfights.com (powered by Violent Gentlemen) doesn’t track head trauma. When I typed “CTE” into the Keyword Search window, there was no delay in the answer I got: Not Found.
Newspaper archives don’t have a lot to report on what all those fights did to Kocur’s head, either. Maybe he was lucky, and was never concussed. I hope so.
But if there’s nothing much to read about Joey Kocur’s head, his hands — the right one in particular — are another story. Like Bobby Orr’s knees, Kocur’s hands have an extensive literature to commemorate — well, I was going to say their achievements, when really it’s the damage they’ve suffered. Over the years, Kocur’s much-mangled hands have fascinated writers, and Don Cherry, too. The power in them, yes, that’s proved of interest as a literary subject, but more than that it’s how all their punching has disfigured them. “You wouldn’t believe the hands on Joey Kocur,” he writes in Don Cherry’s Hockey Stories, Part 2 (2011). “It looks like he’s had a Ping Pong ball implanted under each knuckle.”
As for the writers, Johnette Howard took a long look in 1990 for The National Sports Daily at what was happening beyond Kocur’s cuffs. That’s a piece in which she quotes then-Red Wings GM Jimmy Devellano as saying he’d like to secure Kocur a job with the team after he retires because “he’s given his hand for the organization.”
She describes the one with he punched in fairly plain terms:
Along the back side of Kocur’s always bloated right hand, a three-inch red scar carves a crooked path from the middle knuckle toward the wrist.
George Vecsey of The New York Times consults his atlas for his 1992 survey of the same hand:
Joey Kocur’s right hand resembles a map of his native Saskatchewan. That bump is his boyhood town of Kelvington. That knob is nearby Nut Mountain. That long gash could very well be the Qu’Appelle River meandering its way into Mountain Lake. Those scars might be the Quill Lakes, and those over there could be Old Wives Lake. And that large bruise could certainly be the urban sprawl of Saskatoon.
Next up, Alec Wilkinson from The New Yorker. His “Examining Joey Kocur’s Hand” appeared in the magazine’s Talk of the Town pages on April 24, 1995. Wilkinson attends to some biographical preliminaries first —
He is six feet tall and weighs two hundred and ten pounds. His face is small, he has high cheekbones, a strong jaw, a gap between his front teeth, and a boyish and malevolent expression. Kocur grew up in Saskatchewan, on the Western Canadian prairie. He is of a physical type occasionally described in hockey circles as a hay baler; that is, he has the broad-back, slope-shouldered build of a farmer. On the Rangers, he occupies the position of enforcer, which obliges him to deliver the team’s response when one of its stars has been handled rudely by the opposition.
— before getting down to business:
Eleven seasons of hockey fights have built up sufficient scar tissue between the wrist and the knuckles that the skin there is taut and shiny and smooth. It feels like linoleum. Because of how tightly the skin is stretched, it can no longer be gathered and stitched. Here and there on his fingers and around his knuckles are dozens of small white scars, like the marbling in a piece of meat. Between the first and second knuckles is a long, thin surgical scar that was left after a tendon that had split down the middle was repaired. A crude, winding trenchlike scar begins between the two other knuckles and runs nearly to the wrist, the result of emergency surgery to control a staph infection. Kocur had cut his hand on another’s player’s teeth, and the doctor had stitched the wound without cleansing it thoroughly. ‘A day later, I woke up with my arm swelled to nearly the size of my leg,’ Kocur says.
George Vecsey talked to Tie Domi. Like McCarty, he’d played against and fought Kocur and skated with him as a teammate. “Joey’s still got the big bomb,” he confided. “I don’t come from the South Pole, like Joey does.”
One punch, Wilkinson wrote, was all that Kocur hoped to land:
He grabs an opponent with his left hand and tries to pull him nearer at the same time that he launches his right from somewhere down by his hip or behind his back. It is unusual for a player to be injured in a hockey fight, but it is not unusual for a player to be injured fighting Kocur. It is sometimes said of him, “When Joey hits people, they stay hit.”
“The hand has never been broken,” Kocur told Vecsey; “just a couple of scrapes here and there.”
Johnette Howard was reporting back in 1990 that doctors were already telling Kocur to expect arthritis and calcium deposits in his punching fist. “Put it this way,” he said, “I’ll never play piano.”Howard also told the fuller tale of the damage done in 1985, when Kocur ended up in the hospital bed pictured above:
He split the hand open during a 1985 minor league game in Halifax, when he knocked out a six-three, two-hundred-pound Nova Scotia defenseman named Jim Playfair.
In the dressing room later, a doctor needed forty stitches to close the gash. But when the rest of the team came off the ice, Kocur got some good news, too: The Red Wings had called him up to the NHL.
The next morning, Kocur took the first plane out and flew all day. He checked into a hotel in Detroit, then spent an excruciating, sleepless night watching his right arm balloon to three times its normal size. When sunrise finally came, he got to the rink early for the Wings’ morning skate. But a trainer noticed the new kid was wearing only one glove. The team doctor was summoned, then a hand surgeon, too.
“This was about 2 p.m.,” Kocur says, “and the next thing I knew, they got me a hospital room, got me an IV. I was in major surgery by five P.M.”
Because doctors in Halifax didn’t realize Kocur had cut his hand on Playfair’s teeth, they sewed the wound shut, preventing it from draining and allowing infection to take hold. Just a day and a half later, the poisoned tendons and tissue between Kocur’s third and fourth knuckles had already begun to rot.
When he emerged from a morphine-induced cloud two weeks after surgery, doctors explained what had happened. “If I’d waited even one more day, they might have had to amputate my whole right arm,” Kocur says.
And how did that make him feel?
“Well,” Kocur says, “it made me realize how bad I want to play hockey.”
Following, a chronological survey of some of the rest of the literature of Joey Kocur’s piteous hands: Continue reading
Q: Did you read Roenick’s book?
A: No, I didn’t. And I didn’t read Probert’s memories either. It’s not that interesting to me.
Q: Will you write a book?
A: I doubt it.
• former Detroit Red Wing Slava Kozlov in an interview with Sport Express, October 17, 2014, via Alessandro Seren Rosso at The Hockey Writers