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.

•••

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, 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.”

reggie-f-egg

Fry Guy: Reggie Fleming serves up breakfast to Chicago teammates (left) Stan Mikita and (possibly) Murray Balfour in the early 1960s. (Image: Chris Fleming)

Continue reading

naming rights, naming wrongs: brownies, montreals, defenders of the realm

mtl-24

Maroons-To-Be: The Montreals, 1924-25

Vegas Golden Knights is the name of the NHL’s newest franchise, as you know if you watched the big unveiling live this week from Toshiba Plaza, out in front of T-Mobile Arena, in hockey’s new Nevada home. Rumours of what the team might be called had been tumbleweeding around the internet for months. Nighthawks maybe? Desert or perhaps Silver Knights? Sand Knights, possibly? The announcement came with accents of fire and ice and, in keeping with hockey tradition, a crowd that booed NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who smiled his tight smile.

So. Las Golden Knights of Vegas. No — sorry: lose the Las. Vegas Golden Knights™ is what it is, as per official NHL pronouncements the following day. Team colours? Black, gold, steel gray, white, and red. Seems like a lot, but fine. “Our base colour, in my mind, really exudes strength,” the GK GM George McPhee is seen to say in a promotional video, referring (I think) to the gold. Team owner Bill Foley was the one to explain the thinking behind the name: “We selected ‘Knights’ because knights are the defenders of the realm and protect those who cannot defend themselves. They are the elite warrior class.”

How did these medievals make it from the realm over to the Sagebrush State? I’d hoped Foley would go on to that. That’s the story I’m waiting to hear. I’m sure it’s coming. Maybe in time for next June’s expansion draft?

In the meantime, let’s look back to an earlier NHL expansion. It was, after all, at this time of year in 1924 that another new NHL team announced its name, even as another did not.

The league grew by 50 per cent that fall, with Boston and a second Montreal team joining a loop that already included Canadiens, Ottawa’s Senators, the Toronto St. Patricks, and Hamilton’s Tigers.

Expansion had, it’s true, been brewing for a while — for the full story, I recommend Andrew Ross’ Joining The Clubs: The Business of the National Hockey League to 1945 (2015). Still, compared to today’s process, the whole thing looks hasty if not altogether last-minute: with the new season slated to start at the end of November, news of the new franchises didn’t appear in the press until mid-October. In 1924, Boston and Montreal each paid $15,000 to join in the fun, which amounts to something like $200,000 in modern dollars; Foley’s franchise fee sends the NHL $500-million.

In Boston, owner Charles F. Adams, the grocery-store tycoon, had hired wily old Art Ross to manage his hockey operation ahead of the team’s debut, December 1, at home to Montreal’s not-Canadiens. If the names of the initial Bruins players Ross gathered didn’t exactly soak into hockey history, men like Bobby Rowe and Alf Skinner and goaltender Hec Fowler were doughty veterans, and there was some young talented blood, too, in Carson Cooper and Werner Schnarr. Most of the players met up with Ross in Montreal. Together they took the train south to their new hockey home.

Friday, November 14, they arrived. They checked in at the Putnam Hotel on Huntington Avenue, walking distance to the Boston Arena, where manager George Brown had starting making new ice a day earlier: hockey was coming, yes, but public skating was opening for the season, too, Saturday morning at nine o’clock. He’d had to reduce the size of the ice surface to bring it into line with NHL norms, but in doing so, the Arena also gained 1,000 new seats for paying customers.

The hockey players had a hotel and a rink, and they got a name and colours in time for the weekend.

The Boston Daily Globe laid it all out for prospective fans. Uniforms would be brown with gold stripes around the chest, sleeves, the stockings. “The figure of a bear will be worn below the name Boston on the chest.” Yes, brown. That was, after all, the Adams hue in all things:

The pro magnate’s four thoroughbreds are brown; his 50 stores are brown; his Guernsey cows are of the same color; brown is the predominating color among his Durco pigs on his Framingham estate, and the Rhode Island hens are brown, although Pres Adams wouldn’t say whether or not the eggs they lay are of a brown color.

Bruins was the name Adams and Ross had agreed on, having considered and discarded Browns. The worry there: “… the manager feared that the Brownie construction that might be applied to the team would savor too much of kid stuff.”

Bruin brown, c. 1924

Bruin brown, c. 1924

Was it Art Ross’ secretary who came up with the name? That’s what Brian Macfarlane says in The Bruins (1999), drawing on (I’m guessing) a few terse newspaper accounts from the late 1960s — I can’t find any earlier source. So Bessie Moss from Montreal, the story goes, was Ross’ assistant, handling the mail before he headed south, and once she heard that the team would be clad in brown suggested Bruins. Could be. Why not? The name wasn’t unknown at the time in U.S. sports, it’s worth noting: in college sports, it’s the Brown’s Bears were widely known as the Bruins, as were baseball’s Chicago Cubs.

Saturday the hockey team practiced for the first time. “I appreciate the fact,” said Ross, “that we don’t have too much time to get ready, and I’ll have to work fast with the amateurs.” The word from the rink over the course of the next ten days was that Ross was driving his men at a terrific pace and that no team that has made Boston its headquarters has ever been sent through such vigorous workouts. Ross had two players for every position other than goal, a correspondent for The Boston Daily Globe advised. “This double shift of men in good condition means hockey of the thrilling type.”

Thanksgiving night the new team lined up for its first and only pre-season game against the Saskatoon Sheiks of the Western Canadian Hockey League. A formidable professional crew, they’d just beaten the world-champion Canadiens twice in three exhibition games in southern Ontario. Manager Newsy Lalonde also played on the defence, and he had former NHLers Harry Cameron, Corb Denneny, as well as future stars Bill and Bun Cook skating for him, along with George Hainsworth in goal.

There were lots of possible reasons why only 5,000 spectators showed up. It was a holiday, and football season hadn’t quite wrapped up, and nobody knew the hockey players who’d just arrived. “Thrills were almost lacking,” was The Boston Daily Globe’s verdict on what an unfull house witnessed on Arena ice, “the crowd becoming enthusiastic only over an occasional clever stop by a goaltend.”

Sheiks won, 2-1, on a Bill Cook winner set up by Lalonde. The home team might have had a second goal, but referee Lou March rescinded it:

Late in the first period a mix-up in front of the Sheiks’ goal heaped half-a-dozen players on the ice, and when the tangle was straightened out by referee Marsh, the puck was in the net. Saskatoon, with two men serving out penalties on the side-lines, had five men on the ice.

Furthermore, there was an extra puck on the playing surface.

Marsh could not find the explanation, so he reduced the Sheiks by one and disallowed the goal.

On to the regular season. For their first NHL game, the Bruins faced Montreal’s newest team, known mostly in those infant months as “the new Montreal team.” Under the managerial eye of Cecil Hart, they’d been getting themselves up to seasonal speed in Montreal and Ottawa. Clint Benedict was the goaltender; notable skaters included Punch Broadbent and Canadian Olympic star Dunc Munro. Continue reading

this week + some others: the game’s fast, sometimes guys go into the boards wrong

Embed from Getty Images

“Mon captain,” Yvan Cournoyer said this month, tearfully, “mon captain. Bon voyage.”

With Jean Béliveau’s death on December 2, the country remembered, and paid homage.

“Like a prince, like a king,” said Sportsnet’s Stephen Brunt. “Our royalty.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman: “For all the feats he has accomplished and all the accolades he has received, Jean Béliveau has always symbolized the little boy whose only dream was to play for the Montreal Canadiens. Hockey is better because of the realization of this dream.”

“In all of my thoughts about Jean Béliveau,” wrote TSN’s Dave Hodge, “I hear Danny Gallivan’s voice.”

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau stood in the House of Commons. “Mr. Speaker,” he said,

I had an extraordinary childhood during which my father introduced me to kings, queens and presidents, but he was never more proud than when he was able to introduce his eldest son to Jean Béliveau.

Every time I met Mr. Béliveau thereafter and shook his hand, I saw what an impact he had not just on me, but on everyone around him. He was a man who epitomized dignity, respect and kindness.

Jean Béliveau was a man of class, of strength, who demonstrated the kind of leadership that inspired not just players but all who watched and met him. He will be greatly missed, but he will continue to inspire generations of not just young hockey players but of Canadians across this great country.

“Beyond being one of the greatest players in NHL history, Jean Béliveau was class personified,” said Mario Lemieux. “He was a hero to generations of his fellow French Canadians and hockey fans everywhere. Our sport has lost a great ambassador. He will be missed.”

Hockey, meanwhile, carried on.

Connor McDavid mentioned that he had a favourite Canadian Tire memory.

Dave Bidini took issue with a newspaper’s use of the word “belted” to describe a puck propelled by Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf that ended up in Carolina’s net.

“If you can build off a game we lost, we can keep our heads high,” Philadelphia captain Claude Giroux told CSN Philly after his team lost a fifth game in a row.

Though goaltender Steve Mason had a different take. “We’re all tired of moral victories,” he told Ryan Dadoun from NBC Sports. “The team played a good game but you don’t win it. It’s not good enough. Enough of the moral victories. We got to go out and start winning hockey games. Everybody is frustrated and ticked off, but it’s a matter of going out and winning now.”

“Belted” was James Mirtle’s word, in The Globe and Mail:

… Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf belted in his second goal of the season with three minutes left in the second.

Legitimate usage or no? Bidini felt that it belonged on baseball grass and dirt, not ice.

Sidney Crosby the latest NHL player to have the mumps

was a headline, this month.

Another was:

Kevin Klein Loses Part of an Ear, Helps Rangers Down Pens

“Say what you want about hockey players,” mused New York coach Alain Vigneault after that particular game, “but they’re tough SOBs.”

Toronto is likely to miss the playoffs, a professor of economics at the University of Waterloo suggested this month. Dr. Phil Curry is his name, and he works with a group called the Department of Hockey Analytics, gathering up and crunching advanced statistics to (quote) better understand the game. Using a model that incorporates both points and Score Adjusted Corsi, he contends that Toronto will be on the outside looking sadly in when the post-season gets going next spring — oh, and the Calgary Flames are due for collapse, too. Continue reading

john branch: derek boogaard and the damage done

boy on ice branch

The saddest sentences in John Branch’s biography of the late Derek Boogaard come one after another, on page 138, following an account of an NHL fight of workaday brutality:

The announcers shared a hearty laugh. The crowd cheered.

Although: there’s also a very sad sentence on page 87:

Derek wanted to be famous for the glory of goals, not the fury of his fists.

It wasn’t to be. Fists, of course, prevailed in Boogaard’s story, as they do in Branch’s devastating Boy on Ice, an unflinching chronicle of hockey damage that’s as shocking as it is familiar. Which may be the saddest part of all: how well we know the ugly side of the game.

A San Francisco-based reporter for The New York Times, Branch first wrote about Boogaard’s life in 2011, not long after the beloved New York Rangers fighter died at the age of 28 of an overdose of painkillers and alcohol. Meticulously reported, Boy on Ice goes deeper into the personal story that Branch started so powerfully to tell in “Punched Out” about the Saskatchewan-born left winger who lived the Canadian dream of making it to the NHL, where he died trying subdue the loneliness and pain he found once he got there.

There’s a lot to think about here, from the serious questions Branch raises about painkillers and prescriptions in the NHL and oversight of the league’s substance abuse program. There are the frightening facts that the posthumous examination of Boogaard’s damaged brain revealed to neurologists and how their ongoing studies into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) might affect the way the game is played.

And there are, of course, many furious fists, enough to fill a terrible thesaurus. Boogaard belts Andrew Peters and bombs Shawn Thornton (with three right hands). He himself is bashed and bitten. He drops Brendan Yarema (then pulls him back to his feet to punch him more). Assails Wade Brookbank (with a flurry of punches to the head. Clocks Trevor Gillies (in the face), whom he also, another time, deconstructs. Fells Brian McGrattan, mauls Jody Shelley, pops Colton Orr (in the face).

(With his right fist.)

If the book doesn’t explicitly indict the hypocrisy of a league that talks about player safety while continuing to pretend that fighting is a natural and necessary part of a game so fast and kinetic and contained, it doesn’t have to. For hockey, Boy on Ice is a devastating document that lays bare the violence that the game has institutionalized and continues to promote and celebrate while chronically pretending that it really isn’t much of a serious problem at all.

Can a biography change a sport? I don’t know. It’s not for me to say, anyway. Let NHL commissioner Gary Bettman read Boy on Ice and give us his review. We’ll wait.

John Branch was on the road this week when Puckstruck tracked him down to ask about the book and what it has to say about the game that Derek Boogaard loved so fatally well. From Branch’s keyboard, five answers for five questions:

What did Boy on Ice allow you to do that you felt you hadn’t done in the Times with “Punched Out”?
A lot of things. I’d like to think that the Times series portrayed Derek as fully as possible in a newspaper story, but — as many writers will tell you — the difficult part in storytelling is deciding what to leave out. I had a lot of material and a lot more questions, and I wanted to colour in the corners of Derek’s life. I felt he deserved that, and that the extra content and context would help explain him better to readers. The Times story made a lot of passing mentions to critical aspects of his life that I wanted to explain further — everything from his father’s work as a Royal Canadian Mounted Police member to his life with billet families, from his time in juniors to the final days of his life.

The newspaper story, for example, barely mentions his two long-term girlfriends and skips over most of his three-year career in minor-league hockey. It is focussed largely on his concussions, less on his prescription painkiller addiction. It mentions the tradition of fighting in hockey, but does not explain it in detail. There are love letters that Derek wrote as an adult and notes from the substance-abuse counsellors who treated him. While I could not be more proud of the newspaper story, I feel the book has the depth and nuance that wasn’t realistically possible there.

The facts of the Boogaard case are, on their own, an indictment of the NHL and hockey’s culture of violence. In your 2011 interview with commissioner Gary Bettman, he mostly deflects and downplays questions of the league’s responsibility for the safety of its players as well as those of the broader issues to do with the league’s permitting and promoting of fighting. Has that shifted at all, in your view? Have you had any reaction to the book from the NHL or NHLPA?
I have had no reaction, but I didn’t expect any. Both the NHL and NHLPA knew I was writing the book, just as they knew I was writing the newspaper story previously. What would they say? The league is now involved in lawsuits, which will only grow in size and scope in the coming years. And, frankly, I did not set out to write this book to explain the state of the NHL in 2014, but to tell readers a narrower tale of a boy who worked his way through the hockey apparatus to get everything he ever dreamed, only to die a lonely death at age 28. I wanted the book to be personal both personal and timeless, to explain an era in our sports culture that may change by the time someone picks up the book, now or many years from now.

Your portrayal of Derek Boogaard’s transformation into a fighter in the WHL casts a harsh light on the realities of Canadian junior hockey. Writing the book, did you feel like you gained a particular insight into the culture of the country where hockey means so much?
Of course, I wonder if the story would have been different had it been reported and written by someone either closely tied to junior hockey in Canada or, conversely, by someone with little understanding of hockey at all. I’d like to think that my background made me well-suited for the examination; I covered the NHL for a few years, but not much recently, and I’m an American. It’s my job as a newspaper reporter to learn, almost every day, about things and people I may not know well, and be able to explain them to a broader audience with both fairness and accuracy. Junior hockey is fascinating — rich in tradition, but filled with so many potential pitfalls. It’s not unlike the NCAA in the United States — teenagers enticed to move far from home for the promise of, at worst, an education, and, at best, a professional career. But the hockey players are a few years younger, so the risks might be greater.

It’s interesting that I’m answering this question at a time when we’re learning of a $180 million class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of junior players in the Canadian Hockey League, arguing that their compensation falls below minimum-wage laws.

With all that we’re learning about head trauma and CTE, do you think that hockey is headed into the territory in which NFL finds itself now, where the morality of watching and cheering for a sport that does such damage to its players is increasingly in question?
I do. At minimum, I think hockey will follow the arc of football, where increasing numbers of former players question the treatment they received, and parents of young players question the value of playing the game at all. The NFL, by its own testimony, estimates that close to one-third of its former players will suffer from effects of brain damage. The damage may not be so severe in hockey; we don’t know, frankly. But we now live in a time where we know enough to be worried, and, perhaps, not enough to know what to do. But if you knew that you had a one-in-three chance of having life-altering brain damage, would you still play? What ratio would be acceptable for professional athletes paid millions? For minor leaguers trying to crack the majors? For children?

Has the way you look at sports changed over the past four years?
I don’t think so. None of this comes as a great surprise, unfortunately. I learned a long time ago that the profit-making entities in sports will not always make decisions in the best interest of the safety of their athletes until such decisions are foisted upon them — perhaps in the guise of lawsuits, or a decline in popularity, or in an increasing number of brain examinations.

Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard
John Branch
(W.W. Norton, 372 pp., $32.99)

This interview has been edited.

pas un pays

Media baron Pierre Karl Péladeau announced this week that he was resigning his position as chairman of the board of Hydro Québec to run for the Parti Québécois in Quebec’s April 7 election, which isn’t a really a hockey story, except insofar as the former president and CEO of Quebecor is an enthusiastic backer of building a new rink in Quebec City that might, possibly, fingers crossed, lead to a return of the NHL to the provincial capital. Which is why commissioner Gary Bettman found himself answering a Péladeau question at the league meetings in Boca Raton, Florida, on Wednesday in that way Bettman has of not really answering the question. Yes, Quebecor has expressed interest in an NHL franchise, Bettman said. “I wish Mr. Péladeau well in his next endeavour, but to the extent that Quebecor or somebody in Quebec City might or might not be interested, that didn’t change.”

Meanwhile, back on the election trail, Liberal MNA Sam Hamad suggested that Péladeau’s sense of the people’s priorities were all mixed up. “Les gens de Québec,” he told reporters, “veulent une équipe de hockey, pas un pays.”

this week: a mix of molasses, beaver, and oatmeal

true sportFinally. The way the hockey-book writers cheered one of their own this week, you’d think the whole entire clan of them had been honoured by the Canadian chapter of the Jewish National Fund for their collective achievement in hockey scholarship rather than just the author of A Great Game. Forgive them their pride — these writers work alone, most of the time, shrouded in archival shadows. And if they want to step into the glow given off by the newly announced Stephen J. Harper Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary Visitor and Education Centre in Israel’s north, near the Golan Heights — well, why not? This is their time, now — the birds can have theirs, later.

In Florida, Tampa Bay forward Steven Stamkos strolled into a press conference two weeks fracturing a shin. He was limping a little, to be sure, but he was “positive and hopeful” — and not ruling out a return in time to play for Canada at the Sochi Olympics in February. Was he shoved on the play, by Boston defenceman Dougie Hamilton? Yes, he thought so. But in time he’d realized: it was “a hockey play.” He hadn’t heard from Hamilton, but Bruins’ captain Zdeno Chara had texted him and the coach, Claude Julien, visited him in hospital.

Also looking this week to the Olympics was Brian Burke, who talked to Eric Francis of The Calgary Sun. If Canada’s the favourite to win in Sochi, according to Burke, another team that unnerves him is Russia. Sorry, that’s not quite right: Russia scares “the living hell” out of him:

“Because it’s their home soil, it’s going to be crazy there, and we hear rumours of huge bonuses for players if they win gold.”

At The Hockey News, Matt Larkin was counting, this week, and that’s how he determined that as of Monday, in the 82 games Sidney Crosby played over the past three seasons, he had 123 points to his name.

Profiling David Booth, Dave Ebner of The Globe and Mail told of the Vancouver winger’s love of the hunt:

For a show on a niche network, Wild TV, Booth killed a black bear with a bow in Alberta after luring it with a pile of bait, a mix of molasses, beaver, and oatmeal. Bear baiting is illegal in British Columbia and numerous U.S. states. Booth broadcast his exploits on Twitter.

Gary Bettman’s week included a big headache and a big deal. Head first: in Washington, former players with lawyers launched a lawsuit citing the NHL’s negligence when it comes to its handling head injuries over “the past decades.” From a statement by Mel Owens, one of the lead lawyers:

In 2004 the NHL introduced a series of updates to the rule-set to encourage a faster, more exciting, and ultimately more marketable product. As a result, the number of violent in-game collisions and occurrence of head trauma have increased. When coupled with the NHL’s refusal to protect players by banning full-body checking or penalizing on-ice fist fights, the league has created a dangerous atmosphere for players. The complaint alleges that the NHL either ignores or consistently lags behind other hockey leagues in adopting protections for players in accordance with current medical knowledge of concussions. Instead, the NHL continues to glorify and empower players known as “enforcers” — players with the singular intention of injuring the opposing team.

Bettman’s response was terse: “We believe this is a lawsuit without merit.”

He was much happier to talk about the massive deal he did, the 12-year, C$5.232-billion media rights agreement that all but wiped TSN off the hockey-broadcasting map; threw Hockey Night in Canada’s long-term future into doubt (not to mention the CBC’s), and united the country’s curiosity around the vital question: what about Don Cherry?

Who, of course, spoke up on Saturday night, between periods. The lawsuit is, as far as he’s concerned, a moneygrab; nonsense; a moneygrab; ridiculous; a disgrace and — did he mention? — a moneygrab.

As for what might happen to Coach’s Corner, Cherry was clear in comparing himself to Bobby Orr and demanding something else that involved a … turnip truck, which he hadn’t fallen off. Continue reading

strach’s gretz

gretz sweater

Number of sticks Strach says Wayne Gretzky gave away each year of his career: 700

According to Strach, autographs Gretzky signed each day during that same career: 200

Strach? Gretzky’s pal Al Strachan, former sportswriter for The Globe and Mail and Toronto’s Sun, whose new book, 99, contains many pieces of information that you didn’t know not to mention all the quotes you’ve never heard

How many pieces? Thousands, Strach says

Quotes? An equal number

Number of sticks all those giveaways add up to, mathwise, over Gretzky’s 30-year professional career: 14,000

Autographs: 1,460,000

Assistance Gretzky gave to Strach over the years: Virtually limitless

Frequency with which Strach says he’s made fun of Gretzky face-to-face: Often

And in print? Never

Number of temper tantrums Gretzky has had, ever, it says here: Zero

Number of jabs, digs, and/or sneers, both head-on and side-swiping, of which NHL commissioner Gray Bettman is the target: 6, at least

Vertebrae Gretzky injured in his career: T6, C5

Age at which he started skating: 2 ½

Number of goals he scored in his first year playing organized hockey: 1

Number of goals he scored in his fifth year: 378

Number of chin-ups Gretzky can do: 2

Unflattering references herein to former NHL president John Ziegler: 1

Plenty of disdain for, also: Stan Fischler, Brian Burke, the media sharks, Andy Murray, Pat Quinn, Ed Snider, Chris Gratton, Marc Crawford, Bob Nicholson

Price Gretzky paid for his first car, a used Pontiac Trans-Am, in 1978: $3,800

Amount of Gretzky’s signing bonus that year from the Indianapolis Racers of the WHA: $25,000

Amount Toronto GM Cliff Fletcher offered Gretzky in 1996 to sign with the Leafs: $3 million a year

Guy who nixed the deal: Leafs’ owner Steve Stavro

Other team Gretzky was willing to sign with, except for they blew it: Vancouver

Blame: Pat Quinn

What anyone who knows Gretzky at all knows about the notion that he’d risk his reputation for a relatively small endorsement fee from a stick manufacturer, or ever get involved in sports betting: He never would

What Marty McSorley used to let other teams know: “You go after Gretz and you’re going to get hurt. You may get hurt so bad that I’ll get suspended, but I don’t care. You should, though.”

Dave Semenko’s preferred method to deliver the same message: “A stony — and scary — glare”

Cost, per person, to participate in Gretzky’s summertime Las Vegas fantasy camp with which he raises money for the good causes supported by his foundation: $11,999

The craziest thing about pro sports, according to Gretzky: “If you don’t play with confidence, you can’t play.”

Theoren Fleury’s (possibly derisive) thoughts on the 1998 Olympic semi-final in which Canada lost in a shoot-out to the Czech Republic: “Perhaps next time, they can set up a Scrabble board at centre ice and we’ll play Scrabble to see who wins.”

Whether he admits it or not, guy responsible for not selecting Gretzky to shoot in that crushing loss: Marc Crawford

What Gretzky says: “I really don’t believe I would have made any difference.”

According to Strach, number of goals/points Gretzky would register in a season if he were playing in today’s NHL: 130, 300

Gretzky’s Q score: the highest of any hockey player

His impression of Queen Elizabeth II? “Really nice.”

Number of days he works as a spokesman for TD Bank: 10/year

Does he favour enlarging hockey’s net, to help with scoring? “No chance. That would be criminal.”

Thoughts on head hits and the scourge of concussions? Not included

Whether there’s a place in the game for fighting? No comment

Number of times it should be mentioned (and is) that Gretzky is a better human being than he ever was a hockey player: Twice

99 
Gretzky: His Game, His Story
Al Strachan, assisted by Wayne Gretzky
(Fenn/M&S, 324 pp., $32.95)

(Photo courtesy of The Want List http://www.flickr.com/photos/hockeymedia/)