just a little is enough: hockey fit for a (soon-to-be) queen

princes 1951

Pleased To Meet You: Prince Philip greets Chicago Black Hawk captain Black Jack Stewart at Maple Leaf Gardens on the Saturday afternoon of October 13, 1951. At right is Conn Smythe; Princess Elizabeth, left, holds her program close. (Image: Archives of Ontario)

When you’re the queen, your schedule is hockey’s schedule. Actually, you don’t even have to be queen. You can be not-quite-but-almost-queen and the NHL will, not a problem, don’t mind a bit, bend its calendar to accommodate yours.

Well, maybe not now. Years ago, though, once upon a time, in October of 1951, when Canada’s own Queen Elizabeth was still a 25-year-old princess on a five-week tour of the Dominion with her husband, Philip, the NHL twice twisted its schedule on her behalf.

The royal couple saw the defending Stanley Cup champions first, Toronto’s own Maple Leafs — though not exactly fully and completely.

Next, 68 years ago last night, the royals stopped in at the Montreal Forum to watch the Canadiens. That was the last Canadian hockey Princess Elizabeth would witness before the death of her father, George VI, in February of 1952 and her succession to the throne.

It wasn’t all hockey during that 1951 tour: the royal couple did take in half of a football game, in all fairness to the gridiron, arriving at halftime to see a Western Football Union semi-final in November wherein the Edmonton Eskimos upended the visiting Winnipeg Blue Bombers by the meek margin of 4-1.

Icewise, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, who was 30, were in Toronto on Saturday, October 13, so they could, in theory, have caught the Leafs’ home opener against the Chicago Black Hawks that night.

But they were busy with a state supper at the Royal York that night. Instead, the Leafs and Hawks obliged with an afternoon exhibition game that doubled as a benefit for the Ontario Society for Crippled Children. Fourteen thousand (mostly young) fans packed into the Gardens for the three o’clock face-off, after which, at precisely 3:15, the royal party was supposed to leave to visit Riverdale Park.

Originally the park was going to have the Princess for 15 minutes longer than the rink, but in the end she didn’t get out of the Gardens for a full half-hour.

In The Gardens: Princess Elizabeth heads up the VIP parade at therein. Behind her, befezzed, is Reginald Shaw, acting potentate of the Ramses Shriners; Prince Philip; and Conn Smythe. (Image: Archives of Ontario)

I’m willing to take at face-value the notion that the royal schedule was the reason for truncating the game and that it didn’t have to do with hockey’s bigwigs, its Clarence Campbells and Conn Smythes, in a cold flash of self-abnegation, realizing that there was only so much hockey a serious person who’d never seen the game in full fig could be expected to endure the first time out. I’ll accept that it was a scheduling decision. Even so, it still raises the essential Shakespearean question of whether hockey is hockey which alters when it alteration finds.

Turk Broda seems to have worked the Toronto net, though he was, at 37, no longer the team’s regular goaler — indeed, over the course of the regular 1951-52 season, he’d appear in just one game in relief of Al Rollins. One other Toronto roster note: the Leafs were hitting the ice that fall without the man whose timely goal had won them the Cup back in April — Bill Barilko disappeared that summer, as the song goes. With his fate still unknown, the Leafs left his sweater, number 5, hanging in the dressing room as they headed out to the ice — “where it will stay, presumably,” the Canadian Press reported, “until its owner is found.”

The Globe reported next day on the festivities. The royal couple was “introduced to a new phase of Canadian life” and heard a sound “that must certainly have been unique in their experience.” The scream of an aggrieved Gus Mortson? Joe Klukay cursing out Rags Raglan? No. “The roar of a hockey crowd as a home player sweeps in on goal is different from any other sound in any other game. It builds up quickly to a crescendo and explodes when the shot is made.”

The VIPs sat in Box 50, west side of the Gardens, bookended by Gardens’ president Conn Smythe and Reginald Shaw, who wore the fez of the acting potentate of the Ramses Shriners. A large Union Jack adorned the front of the box. The regular seats had been removed, replaced with chairs. Before the puck dropped, they royal couple met the respective captains, Ted Kennedy of the Leafs and Chicago’s Black Jack Stewart. One witness rated Stewart’s obeisance as “markedly similar to his hockey technique. He bows, in other words, with a short and choppy motion in contrast to the deeper, more eloquent method employed by Mr. Kennedy.”

“Big time hockey is a thrilling game,” said The Globe, “and the Royal couple seemed to enjoy their first taste of it.”

Actually, Prince Philip had been to hockey games before, lots of them, in London; she’d only watched on television. That’s what the Princess told Conn Smythe, who later gave the Globe’s Al Nickleson a moment-by-moment account of sitting with HRH.

“The Princess asked me many technical questions,” Smythe said, “while the Prince, behind me, laughed heartily at the rugged play. Every crash increased the tempo of his laugh and he slapped his thigh in delight a couple of times.”

She wondered how fast the players could skate and what their sticks were made of. Were there special skates for hockey? “She asked,” Smythe reported, “if many players were injured, at the same time commenting because the padding would protect them.”

The Hawks had the better of the play. “Body contact was hard but no fights broke out,” the Globe’s sports reporter wrote. “The Princess betrayed her emotions by a wide-eyed look and an automatic jump of the royal shoulders when a player was hit hard.” The crowd divided its attention between the game and the royal couple.

Smythe: “She sensed right away that players were allowed to do practically anything in the way of checking with their bodies, but that they were governed in the use of sticks.”

Leaf defenceman Jim Thomson did what Leaf defenceman do, no matter era, coughing up the puck to Chicago. Noticing that Ted Kennedy was open and awaiting a pass, the Princess was displeased, Smythe said. “That was not good combination,” she confided.

Getting the royals into the rink and settled in their seats had taken time, and the teams had only been playing for five minutes when an aide alerted the Princess that she was falling behind on her schedule. “Surely,” she said, no question mark necessary, “we can stay and watch some more of this.”

They stayed, they watched. Alongside Kennedy, the Leafs had Tod Sloan and Sid Smith and Max Bentley skating that afternoon, while the Hawks iced Max’s brother Doug and Bill Mosienko, who’d finished the season as the NHL’s second-best goalscorer, after Gordie Howe. For all that firepower, no-one could put a puck past Turk Broda, the veteran back-up who took to Toronto’s net, or Harry Lumley in Chicago’s. Under royal scrutiny, no goals were scored.

Conn Smythe confided that the Princess said she felt sorry for the goaltenders and “didn’t fancy playing that position in hockey.”

“Or any other sport, I suggested, and she agreed wholeheartedly.”

At one point, after a heavy crash of bodies on the ice, the Princess asked Smythe: “Isn’t there going to be a penalty in this game?” Eventually there was: Chicago winger Bep Guidolin took the scrimmage’s only penalty, for holding.

We Are Amused: Princess Elizabeth shares a laugh with Conn Smythe. (Image: Archives of Ontario)

That night, when the Gardens returned to regular service, the Leafs unfurled their Stanley Cup banner. NHL president Clarence Campbell presented hometown goaltender Al Rollins with the Vézina Trophy he’d won as the league’s top goaltender. As they tend to do in Toronto, the pipes and the drums of the 48th Highlanders played the Leafs into the new season — whereupon the Hawks beat them, 3-1. Al Nickleson thought the home team was still dazzled from the afternoon’s exposure to royalty — they “appeared in somewhat of a trance” all evening.

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scrap heap: nadine arseneault’s portfolio of hockey punching

The fights went on and on. Night after night, Nadine Arseneault kept drawing. Month after month the fists flared; Arsenault kept going in her project to render a portrait of each and every fight that marred the 2018-19 NHL season. For all the talk that bare-knuckle combat is evolving out of hockey’s top tier, it’s not as if peace is exactly prevailing on NHL ice: by the time the regular season had wrapped up in April, Arsenault’s portfolio of punches included more than 200 images.

It’s a grim indictment of hockey’s arcane culture of punishment … unless, no, maybe does the collection amount, instead, to an unflinching celebration of the game’s deep traditions of warrior honour and rightful retribution?

Exactly. Therein lies the rub — and it’s the nub, too, of Arseneault’s interest in hockey violence and the arresting work that it’s generated. A Toronto editorial designer and illustrator with a deep and delightful creative imagination, Arseneault is engaged in an ongoing and wide-ranging project of unpacking the game’s vehement instincts and outcomes. She’s doing it on paper and tablet, in ink and paint and fabric and onscreen, manipulating photographs and textiles. In its many diverse parts, the work is fascinating, challenging, provocative, visually rewarding, and — often — beautiful.

“Hockey occupies a big part of my work and personal time,” Arseneault was saying recently, in an e-mail. Her background in editorial design includes work for magazines like Saturday Night, Maclean’s, and the University of Toronto’s Rotman Management magazine. Some of her past hockey-minded work is featured here and here and over here; you can browse her more recent interests and creations on Instagram, here.

With an eye on turning her talents to teaching, she’s also pursuing a masters degree at Toronto’s York University. That’s where the chronicle of last season’s NHL assault and battery fits in. “Hockey and design,” she says, “came as a natural selection of my interests. My research focusses on the visual representation of violence in the history of the NHL,” she says. “The title of my thesis is Reflective Punch: A graphic design examination of the violence in the 2018-19 season of the National Hockey League.”

As her academic work continues, Arseneault is renewing her fight-by-fight chronicle for the 2019-20 NHL season. She’s also starting to introduce her work to the wider world. This very afternoon, in Quebec City, she’s presenting an overview of her hockey vision at the fall meeting of the Society for International Hockey Research.

In the summer gone by, Arseneault also agreed to submit to an interview by e-mail. The questions I asked follow, along with her answers.

How did you decide to draw a season’s worth of NHL fights?
I wanted to see how the fights started, how violent they were, and how they ended. I’ve always been the type of person who watched hockey fights with my hands covering my face while peeking through my fingers to catch glimpses. I thought that if I forced myself to watch them, I might be able to understand them a bit better.

Did you indeed end up drawing every fight from the 2018-19 season?
Yes, all 226 fights. Forgive me, the Jets versus Predators game on October 11, 2018, had two fights in one frame, so I only did 225 actual drawings.

What was the process? Was it a matter of scouring the NHL schedule every night through the season, then sitting down to draw next morning? How did you decide on composition? Looking at a particular fight, what sources did you draw on? How long would it typically take you to complete a drawing?
I watch a lot of hockey, but not every game, so during the 2018-19 hockey season, I started my day with coffee and hockeyfight.com. I checked to see if I missed any fights from the previous evening. Then I watched the fight a few times and finally in slow motion, where I was looking for something interesting to draw. I sketched them using my digital tablet and pen. They took anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour to complete, depending on the number of details. Oddly, it became a very meditative process, bordering on obsessive.

For a while you were posting the images as the season went along on Instagram. You didn’t frame them or series there with much (if any) explanation or commentary. Was that on purpose? 
Yes, I wrote very little on Instagram because I didn’t want to disclose any of my views. I hoped to offer something different from a photo or video and maybe tempt some reflection. The journal format of the project is even simpler. I designed the information almost like a wedding invitation, with date, the name of the players and teams. The journal was my way of representing a sort of formal agreement between the players.

Looking through the series, I was thinking about my own reactions to hockey violence and how, abstracted from the game, accumulated on the screen, how absurd these clutching/grappling/sneering figures can seem. At the same time, you have elevated these otherwise inglorious moments to works of art. My reaction, of course, won’t be everybody’s. Fans of fighting might see them quite differently — which I’m guessing is a point of yours?
They are totally absurd. Some will see that, but I suspect most won’t. Before starting this project, I thought a lot about the movie Slap Shot and the huge cult following it has among players and fans. Slap Shot was written by Nancy Dowd, who took inspiration from her brother, who played minor-league hockey. What many don’t realize is that Dowd’s objective was to point out how gruesome hockey could be. It’s a comedy, but really it’s a very dark drama. I don’t think she intended to glorify hockey fights. The irony is heavy on how the public digested that movie, and it demonstrated to me how firmly rooted hockey violence is inside hockey culture.

The irony was additionally confirmed to me when in September of 2017, Georges Parros was named head of the Department of Player Safety for the NHL. When he playing in the NHL, Parros was, of course, a fighter, and far from being a model of safety. This left me wondering whether the NHL had any worries at all about players safety when it comes to hockey fights. Adding to the paradox is Parros’ involvement with the clothing line Violent Gentlemen. This is a brand that describes itself as “forged from steel and bound by a code: Respect. It runs deep and courses through the veins of a Violent Gentleman …. From the ice to the Octagon, from the ring to the field we honor the fight, the art, the opponent and the sport. Blood paints a path to the heart. Sweat, a river to the soul.” Violent Gentlemen makes no excuses on how their brand romanticizes “The Code” and idealizes enforcers. That seemed to conflict with the mandate of player safety.

Long explanation. I think most will see me as an artist who idolizes hockey fights. What this offers me is a quick way to uncover people’s opinions about hockey violence by listening to their reactions to the illustrations.

Could we talk about one of the drawings in detail? I was looking at the one of Paul Byron of the Montreal Canadiens, from last March. I remember watching that game and the fight, in which Byron was clearly concussed. You’ve depicted him in the staggering aftermath of that. What do you see in the image when you study it?
In general, I found most fights to be very theatrical — almost to the point of looking rehearsed —with spins, hugs, swinging arms, pulling on jerseys, and missed punches. I also realized how difficult it is to land a decent hit on an opponent. Most ludicrous are the punches with a bare fist on a hard helmet. A lot of the fights felt performed, with qualities of a circus or carnival event.

But some were very difficult to watch, like that fight between Paul Byron and Mackenzie Weegar of the Florida Panthers on March 26, 2019. It didn’t last very long. Byron received a hit and fell immediately to the ice. When he got back on his feet, you could tell he was hurt and struggling to keep his balance while leaning on one of the linesmen. He was escorted off the ice and went directly to the dressing room with the help of a member of the Canadiens medical team and a fellow teammate. Byron is a small player, 5’8”, and weighs only 158 pounds. He was mismatched with Weegar, who’s 6’0” and 212 pounds. Any fight where there’s a significant difference in the size of the players makes me cringe.

What have reactions been from people who’ve seen the series?
As expected, on Instagram, I get a lot of fist-pump emojis. But the best reactions are from the non-hockey fans. My thesis advisor, a non-hockey fan, immediately saw homoerotic artwork, but I think many in creative fields often see some sensuality in my work. After she said that, I tried to look for poses to encourage that thought. I’m not sure how many will detect it, but I did sneak them in there.

Did your perspective change from beginning to end, either on the project itself and what you wanted to achieve and/or on hockey violence? 
The short answer is yes, my perspective changed a lot, but my feelings about hockey fighting did not. The difference is in my explanation of why I find hockey violence troubling. It also opened up many more questions about the reasons why the fights are so popular amongst fans. Most stunning was the lack of consideration from the fans who like hockey fights: they seem to possess zero concerns for any potential injuries. On January 29, 2019, Trent Frederic played his first game for the Bruins and got into his first NHL fight with Brandon Tanev of the Winnipeg Jets. The camera scanned the reaction of Frederic’s parents standing in the stands and showed them smiling and clapping. I’m still troubled by watching that type of response from parents.

I’m often surprised by things I didn’t include in the illustrations: the reaction of the crowd, especially from small children. I observed a mom and son sitting in the front row looking very upset by the fighting on the ice. Their expressions were what you would expect from people witnessing a fight outside the walls of an ice arena. Watching them at that moment made the violence feel very real to me. Another instance was when I saw a young boy and girl sitting next to each other. The boy was jumping in excitement while the little girl seemed disturbed by the fight. In a split second, her expression changed, and she joined in the smiling and jumping. It made me wonder about peer pressures when attending games and how the roar of a crowd can be confusing. All the fights had countless of people filming with their smartphones while watching through their tiny screens. I wonder if any of them even watched the video afterwards and if so, what they thought about it.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

in new york, on this night in 1937: the mother and the father of a rage

Enlivened By A Free-For-All: This scene at Madison Square Garden on this night in 1937. While the Leafs’ Turk Broda watches from the comfort of his crease, policemen try to quell the second-period uprising. That’s Sweeney Schriner with a patrolman at lower left, as New York goaltender Alfie Moore looks on, with referee Mickey Ion nearby. The Amerks’ Roger Jenkins, wearing 10 in white, does his best to restrain a Leaf who’s swinging at Hap Emms, 15. Joe Lamb is 14 in the foreground; I don’t know that I can see Red Horner.

Charlie Conacher broke his wrist in the fall of 1936, in an exhibition game the Toronto Maple Leafs played against the Detroit Red Wings. Turk Broda and Syl Apps both made their Leafs debut that night, and Conn Smythe was pleased with what he saw from them. Of Apps he said, glowingly if unkindly, “He’s a better player than Joe Primeau ever thought of being.”

But the Conacher news was bad. As it turned out, he’d still be recovering come late February of 1937 when the Leafs welcomed the New York Americans to Maple Leaf Gardens. Rivals in the NHL’s four-team Canadian Division, they were battling for the last playoff spot. This was a Saturday night, and the Leafs won 4-3, which put them nine points ahead of Red Dutton’s team. Catching a train after the game, the two teams headed for a return date in New York the following night — 81 years ago tonight.

Conacher wouldn’t be ready to return for a few more games, but he was travelling with the team. In his spare time, he was putting his name to a newspaper column for The Globe and Mail, which is how we know that the Leafs wandered down to the docks in New York, to look at the Queen Mary. Conacher’s take? “What a ship! It certainly is one of the modern seven wonders of the world.”

At Madison Square Garden, the Leafs went down with “all the honours of war.” That was George Currie’s view, expressed on newsprint next morning in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Other dispatches described “a torrid match,” (the Associated Press), “climaxed by fisticuffs,” and (from the United Press) a second period “enlivened by a free-for-all.”

The Leafs got the first goal, from Gordie Drillon, assisted by their leading scorer, Syl Apps. Also featuring in the first: New York’s Nels Stewart earned a a ten-minute misconduct for insulting referee Mickey Ion. “It seems that Stewart was pretty saucy to Irons and hurt that worthy’s feelings pretty badly,” was how George Currie wrote it, muddling the referee’s name. “So into the dungeon he was cast.”

Most of the fuss, some of which is depicted here, came later, when Ion whistled for a penalty shot after the Leafs’ Jimmy Fowler tripped Hap Emms. As that was unfolding, Toronto defenceman Red Horner parleyed with New York forward Joe Lamb. Horner had the NHL’s leading collection of penalty minutes at this time, so talking was never going to settle it. He later said that Lamb had high-sticked him. “I told him to keep that stick down and he said he’d shove it down my throat,” he explained. “So I let him have it.”

With his stick, Horner meant, about the head, as Lamb was turned to talk to Ions. “The blow landed on Joe from behind,” George Currie wrote, “and he flew into the mother and the father of a rage. He raised his stick and if Horner hadn’t ducked, there might have been a serious carnage. As it was the blade landed on Horner’s heavily padded shoulder. The issue was joined and the air was filled with flying fists.”

“Hockey,” wrote Joseph Nichols of The New York Times, “was forgotten.”

George Currie:

With a glad whoop, the crowd egged them on. Americans streamed on to the ice, a silent but bland Dutton holding the dasher door wide open, lest his janissaries be delayed even a split second. Connie Smythe, the mercurial Leaf pilot, ran out on the ice, thereby making himself very illegal though not felonious. It developed that Connie for once was not bent upon leading his cohorts into a battle-royal. He simply wanted to coax the angry Horner off the ice before his team in the Polyclinic Hospital or the W. 47th St. police station.

Policemen, as you can see, did intervene. Fifteen minutes the affray went on, with everybody but goaltenders Broda and New York’s Alfie Moore joining in. “Amerks and Leafs paired off,” Currie reported, “and looked with an elegant bellicosity at each other but swapped only menacing gestures and tall words” before something like peace was restored.

It didn’t last. As he skated to the penalty box, Horner went after Lamb again, who raised his stick. Horner was stickless, so he stopped, whereon his teammate Busher Jackson stepped in. They fenced, Nichols wrote, “while somebody held the huge Horner.”

Aftermath: Headline from the sports pages of a St. Louis newspaper, February 23, 1937.

When it came to doling out penalties, Mickey Ion went with the simplest math he could muster: Horner and Lamb each got 20 minutes and a game, meaning they were banished and the teams had to play four-on-four for the duration of a period. Everybody else was forgiven their sins. And, I guess, simmered down: Ion called no more penalties for the rest of the night.

Emms scored on his penalty shot, and teammates Eddie Wiseman and Sweeney Schriner later followed his lead, giving the home team a 3-1 win. The Americans didn’t make it into the playoffs that year, and while the Leafs did, they were gone in two games, losing to the New York Rangers.

Charlie Conacher returned to the line-up a couple of nights after the fracas in New York. In the meantime, he wrote it up, cheerfully, for his Globe column:

Although Joe Lamb put plenty of weight behind his stick when he walloped “Red” Horner Sunday night, Horner doesn’t look a bit the worse for it. “Red” always could take it. The Leafs say the only thing wrong with the crack “Red” took at Lamb was that it wasn’t half hard enough. Lamb doesn’t rate very highly in their popularity league.

 

dave semenko, 1959—2017

d semenkoThe Edmonton Oilers have this morning announced the death of Dave Semenko. He was 59. Wayne Gretzky, who often during their careers together skated to Semenko’s right, contributed a foreword to his teammate’s 1989 autobiography. “When I think of Dave Semenko now, and I often do,” 99 wrote to begin Looking Out For Number One, “I don’t picture the piercing glare that caused other heavyweights to look down or up or anywhere but back at Dave. I remember instead the little smile, the quick wink, and the words, ‘Don’t worry, Gretz.’ And you know what? I never did.”

(Image, from 1984-85: The Want List, hockeymedia)

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.”

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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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