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

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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.

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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.”

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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, 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.”

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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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Heir Time: Charlie Gardiner and son Bobby defend the Chicago net circa 1930. (Image: Classic Auctions)

The Chicago Black Hawks got a new goaltender to start the 1927-28 season. The only problem, for him and his team? When he tried to enter the country from Canada, American immigration officials refused to let him in: the United States had already taken in its annual quota for hockey netminders.

Well, not quite. But something like that. Charlie Gardiner did sign on with Chicago in 1927, and did find himself refused entry into the U.S., not because of his profession but due to his Scottishness.

Sounds like a tale for these times. Here’s how it went:

The year Chicago debuted in the NHL, 1926-27, they got their goaling from man known as “Eagle Eye,” long considered one of the best in the puck-thwarting business: Hughie Lehman. At 41, he was the league’s oldest goaltender, though that didn’t seem to slow him down: he played all 44 regular-season games that inaugural Chicago season, as well as both playoff games before the Hawks bowed out to Boston.

The season over, Chicago’s coach, Pete Muldoon, handed in his resignation to Chicago’s energetic owner, Major Frederic McLaughlin. Muldoon’s  replacement, soon found, was Barney Stanley, erstwhile star of the Western Canadian Hockey League, and a man who also had a Stanley Cup championship to his name as a member of the 1915 Vancouver Millionaires.

Stanley’s previous job was as playing-coach of the Winnipeg Maroons of the American Hockey Association. That may have had something to do with the shopping Major McLaughlin did in the spring of 1927. In April, he paid $17,000 for Maroons’ stalwarts Cece Browne, Nick Wasnie, and Charlie Gardiner. The first two were left and right wingers, respectively, 31 and 25 years old. Gardiner, 22, addressed Chicago’s pressing need for a new goaltender.

“As it is well known,” The Winnipeg Tribune advised in reporting the transaction, “Hughie Lehman has had much trouble with his eyes. He is also anxious to retire from the game.” Not that the rookie would be left on his own: Lehman would stay with the team until Gardiner found, quote, his feet in the big time.

Along with the former Maroons, Chicago’s roster featured veteran captain Dick Irvin, speedy  ’When the fall came, Barney Stanley convened his players in WinnipegThis  towards the end of October for three weeks of pre-season training at the Amphitheatre. That didn’t go as smoothly as it might have: the team’s most dangerous scorer, Babe Dye, broke his leg and was forced to stay on in hospital when the team packed up to head south. November 15 they were due to open their season away to the Bruins, but they had a pair of exhibition games scheduled ahead of that, in Minnesota. They’d have just a day’s stop in Chicago before carrying on to Boston.

But before the Black Hawks could cross the border, the word from Washington came that Charlie Gardiner wouldn’t be admitted. I’m fairly certain that’s how it happened — from what I can glean from contemporary press reports, he wasn’t actually turned back at the frontier.

The trouble for the goaltender, as opposed to the rest of the Canadians on the Chicago roster? Though he’d grown up mostly in Winnipeg, he was born and spent his first seven years in Edinburgh, in Scotland. The Chicago Daily Tribune reported the hitch that had federal officials halting his migration:

Gardiner is a Scotchman, and the Scotch immigration quota has been exhausted for the next five years. Major Frederic McLaughlin, president of the Black Hawks, however, is trying to have Gardiner admitted under a six month permit. Gardiner has lived in Canada several years but he hasn’t become a citizen there.

While McLaughlin pursued the pertinent paperwork, the rest of the Black Hawks went on to Minneapolis to take on the AHA Millers. Tiny Thompson was the goaltender there, and he outduelled Hugh Lehman at the other end as the home team won by a score of 1-0.

Meanwhile, McLaughlin tried his case with Washington. His argument was that Gardiner should be admitted under the same conditions that applied to singers and (quote) other foreign entertainers under the provisions of the U.S. Contract Labor clause. Commissioner of Immigration Henry Hull took a look and it wasn’t long before a board of review determined that the goaltender had intended no fraud in trying to enter the U.S. The Black Hawks paid a $500 bond and Gardiner promised to renew his status at the end of the hockey season.

So he was in. No longer an alien, the goaltender who would soon enough be beloved in Chicago made his way to Duluth. His first NHL action on American ice came on Friday, November 11, 1927, when the Black Hawks met AHA defending champion Hornets in an exhibition. Gardiner’s NHL career would be outstanding, of course, though fleeting. He’d play just seven seasons, captaining the Black Hawks to their first Stanley Cup in 1934, before, weeks later, dying of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 29.

But on this night, in Duluth, he was just getting started. Dick Irvin scored a goal for Chicago in a game that ended in a 1-1 tie. Gardiner’s work was brilliant, said the man from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and his covering deft.

the usual sort of squabble

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The Chicago Black Hawks weren’t supposed to make the playoffs in 1938, and when they did, no-one really expected them to go far, let alone win the Stanley Cup, as they did later on that April.

Before they got around to upsetting the favoured Toronto Maple Leafs in the finals, Chicago first had to get by the New York Americans in a contentious semi-final. The teams had each won a game by the time they met to decide the series on April 3, 1938. Under the watch of some 16,000 spectators at New York’s Madison Square Garden, the underdog Hawks prevailed, 3-2.

The night didn’t pass without drama, of course. The Hawks’ Johnny Gottselig, for instance, felt that the bloody nose that New York’s Johnny Gallagher inflicted on him should have been punished with a penalty. When referee Ag Smith didn’t call one, Gottselig remonstrated so violently that (The Chicago Tribune reported) the dispute “threatened to produce open warfare.”

In the second period, Chicago centre Jack Shill skated in for a shot on New York goaltender Earl Robertson. He saved but the rebound fell to Chicago defenceman Alex Levinsky. Lots of contemporary accounts allude to his lack of scoring prowess: The Globe and Mail called him “one of the least potent marksmen in the league.” Nevertheless, he was quick to shoot. “The puck hit inside the top crossbar,” Joseph Nichols wrote in next morning’s The New York Times, “and bounced right out, causing Robertson to declare emphatically that it did not go in at all, but his argument went unheeded by the referee.”

Clearly, the argument wasn’t Robertson’s alone. That’s what we’re looking at here, above: the quarrelsome aftermath of Levinsky’s goal, which gave Chicago a 2-1 lead. If the principals aren’t front and centre in this photograph — you can just see referee Smith’s back, in behind the net; Robertson, all but hidden behind a teammate at left, obscures the poor beleaguered goal judge behind the screen — it’s as fine a visual exemplar of mid-century hockey brouhaha as you’re going to going to see today.

Harold Parrot penned a slightly less clinical account for The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “If the Amergs’ [sic] swan song turned out to be a dirge,” he wrote, “their last gasp was a stream of invective aimed at the referees. It was the usual sort of squabble, involving astigmatic referees and a Black Hawk goal that never did hit the twine, according to the Amerks and the goal judge.”

Parrott named him as Dr. Albert Surpre, from Montreal. That’s not right, I think, or at least it’s only partly right: Montreal’s Gazette and others identified him as Dr. Albert Surprenant.

In any case, his part would seem to be a little nuanced than the local correspondent made it out. Parrott was, remember, on the Americans’ beat, and I don’t think I’m besmirching his name when I say that he may have tended to take their part over a rival’s. That’s not to say he wasn’t telling it like it was, just that other accounts varied significantly regarding the goal judge’s conduct. The one favoured by the Gazette was in line with this one, from the Associated Press, that The Chicago Tribune ran:

Levinsky picked up Shill’s rebound in a scramble around the Americans’ cage and lifted the puck home. The Americans protested, pointing out the goal judge’s light had not gone on, but it was discovered that two spectators had been holding the gentleman’s arm. The goal was approved and Chicago was in front to stay.

Harold Parrot’s telling is, once again, the more picturesque. When Dr. Surpre refused to light his lamp, “referee Ag Smith skated over angrily, and ordered him to.

 He refused, later turned on the bulb.

 “Then you’re overruling the goal judge?” asked Capt. Art Chapman of the A’s.

 “I am,” said Smith.

The Globe went with the fan-interference version, quoting the goal judge himself. With sympathy, too. These officials were sorely tested at Madison Square, The Globe’s man noted, recalling an incident from the Americans’ first-round series with the Rangers:

A girl back of the Amerks’ net twice flashed the light when she thought the Rangers deserved a goal, and the fans and officials alike were bewildered. The ambitious young lady, you’ll recall, was escorted some five rows back.

black hawks at training camp, 1929: wrapped up in woolen sweaters and trunks of hockey

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Field Force: The Chicago Black Hawks on the Notre Dame field, October 25, 1929, lending an ear to new coach Tom Shaughnessy. Back row (from left): Assistant trainer Hayden, Johnny Gottselig, Ralph Taylor, Cy Wentworth, Frank Ingram, Charlie Gardiner, coach Dick Irvin, Stew Adams, trainer Tom Dyer. Front row: Vic Ripley, Tom Cook, Ty Arbour, Lolo Couture, Art Somers, Bobby Burns, Earl Miller, Mush March.

The Chicago Black Hawks shuffled through coaches after the coffee baron Major Frederic McLaughlin bought them into the NHL for the 1926-27 season. When Tom Shaughnessy’s turn came up in the spring of 1929, he was the fifth man to take the job. He wasn’t like the rest, all of whom were Canadians, all of who had played the game at the highest level (three of them ended up in the Hall of Fame). Shaughnessy was American-born, a Chicago lawyer, and the hockey he’d played was back in college at Notre Dame, though he was active, too, in Chicago’s amateur leagues. He’d played Fighting Irish football, too, as a teammate of the legendary Knute Rockne.

And maybe he was just what the Black Hawks needed. They’d finished each of the last two seasons sunken down at the bottom of the ten-team league. And Shaughnessy did have a plan, which he put into motion in early October of 1929 when he took his team, 15 players strong, for 12 days of pre-season training on the football fields of his alma mater at South Bend, Indiana. For an assistant he had Dick Irvin, just retired as a player, who’d also coached the Hawks from the ice at the end of the 1928-29 campaign. To crack the whip, the new boss looked to trainer Tom Dyer, a former British Army sergeant-major.

American press reports were only too pleased to declare Shaughnessy’s innovations that October, one of which was said to be the notion of putting hockey players under “military discipline” — even though Conn Smythe had his Leafs in Toronto under command of Corporal Joe Coyne a year earlier.

Among the Hawks at Notre Dame were veterans Cy Wentworth, Mush March, Johnny Gottselig, and goaltender Charlie Gardiner. Newcomers included Tom Cook, Taffy Abel, Helge Bostrom. Only captain Duke Dukowski was absent — he’d stayed back home to tend to his wife’s illness.

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Blocking Party: Black Hawks at work in South Bend. From left, Taffy Abel, Ralph Taylor, Cy Wentworth, Ty Arbour, Johnny Gottselig.

Harland Rohm was on hand to report on the preparatory proceedings for The Chicago Tribune. The labour was hard, he said, but the hockey players had reported in fair to good condition. “The weight sheet for the first five days shows no man to have lost more than two pounds and several of them have put on a pound or two.”

The camp was ice-free: the daily routine featured a three-hour field workout, with calisthenics, medicine balls, wind sprints. “A few dashes the length of the field and the boys are dropping on the grass, panting for breath — which isn’t unnatural, considering they’re wrapped up in woolen sweaters and trunks of hockey.”

Later, in the afternoon, they took to the softball diamond where two teams — Dick Irvin’s Shadows and Shaughnessy’s Plugs — vied for a $50 prize put up by coach Shaughnessy. (Irvin’s team won the first game 22-21 and the second 5-2, with Lolo Couture and Mush March distinguishing themselves.)

After lunch, those who wanted to golf headed out to the green (Ralph Taylor and Vic Ripley were among the keenest), while the rest of the team went for a walk.

Supper was at 7, followed by “a roundtable conference on hockey plays and rules” and lights out at 11.

Harland Rohm proved to be a serious scout:

Moving over to the shower, a casual server gets a surprise. Frank Ingram, rookie wing from St. Paul, weighs 172 pounds and has a physique a Big Ten coach would like to see among his candidates for back field. Art Somers, another rookie, a center from Vancouver, is like him, only twenty pounds lighter. Big Abel, who always looks fat when dressed, hasn’t a sign of any fat around his waist and appears ready to step on the ice. He weighs 224 now and is usually over 220 in playing condition.

Finishing up in Indiana, the team entrained for Tulsa, Oklahoma, where they started the season’s exhibition schedule against the local Oilers, champions of the American Association. Once the regular season got underway in November, Shaughnessy had his new and improved Black Hawks ascending the NHL standings. By the new year, he had them sitting second in the American Division, just back of the mighty Boston Bruins.

When the two teams met in mid-January, Chicago became the only team to beat the Bruins twice. Dousing the joy of victory somewhat was the news, next day, that Tom Shaughnessy was resigning. The official word was that he needed to devote more time to his law practice, but I’m going to venture here that there more to it than that, and that it just might have been that he and Major McLaughlin didn’t see eye to eye.

What we do know is that for the next several years Shaughnessy laid steady siege to the Major’s hockey dominion in Chicago. In the summer of 1930, he bought the American Hokey Association’s Minneapolis franchise for $60,000 and talked it about moving it west to the Lake Michigan shore. With James Norris’ backing, he also looked into buying the beleaguered Ottawa Senators and shifting them. McLaughlin was able to veto that, though Shaughnessy did eventually fall in with the upstart American Hockey League and get a team, the Shamrocks, into Chicago Stadium. As Bruce Kidd writes in The Struggle For Canadian Sport (1996), the Shamrocks actually outdrew the Black Hawks in 1931.

That was the year the AHL challenged the NHL for the Stanley Cup and the NHL refused, declaring they’d prefer to forfeit than face the “outlaws.” J. Andrew Ross has a full and fascinating account of this in his book Joining The Clubs (2015), which I recommend. The short version: the AHL and Tom Shaughnessy lost, and the league disbanded.

welcome to ᑲᖏᖅᖠᓂᖅ

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Tootootown: Visitors to Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, high up on the western coast of Hudson’s Bay, pass this monument on the way into town from the airport. Born in nearby Churchill, Manitoba, Tootoo, who’s 33, now spends most of his off-ice hours in Kelowna, British Columbia. According to Mark Lazerus of The Chicago Sun-Times, that’s where neighbours (and Hawks defencemen) Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook helped to convince him to sign a one-year contract in early July to play for Chicago. “First and foremost he’s a good teammate,” Keith volunteered. “He’s a good guy to have in the locker room, and the energy that he brings — I know playing against him, I don’t like going back for pucks when he’s on the ice. You always have to be aware when he’s on the ice because he’s going to finish every hit.”

“Every team needs a little sparkplug,” is what Tootoo said. “I’ve been around the game a lot of years now, and I just want to add that little piece.”