rewriting the game: ken dryden on no hits to the head, no excuses

A version of this post appeared on page B11 of The New York Times on January 4, 2018 under the headline “Hall of Famer Says N.H.L. Must Put End To Head Hits.”

Awareness is important — people need to know and acknowledge and understand — but at a certain point, it’s time to act.

That’s what Ken Dryden decided two years ago when he started writing the book he published earlier this fall, Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador, and the Future of Hockey.

A Hall-of Famer and six-time Stanley Cup champion with the Montreal Canadiens, Dryden, who’s 70, was one of 15 goaltenders to be named earlier this year to the NHL’s pantheon of 100 Greatest Players. In the years since he retired from the Canadiens, he has served as president of the Toronto Maple Leafs and as a cabinet minister in Canada’s government. He’s never stopped thinking and writing about hockey. The book he wrote soon after he retired from the NHL, The Game (1983), may be the most insightful reflection on the sport ever published.

As the league continues to celebrate its centennial season this year, Dryden’s focus is now locked on hockey’s response to concussions and their devastating effects on the lives of its players. For too long, he believes, the NHL has failed to act decisively, content to let awareness be its watchword, and to treat brain injuries as issues to be rationalized and managed.

In Game Change, Dryden investigates the career of Steve Montador, a tough and capable, salt-of-the-ice journeyman defenceman who played for six NHL teams. “Hard-trying,” Dryden calls him, with respect; Montador prided himself on the importance of being “a good teammate.” Beloved by those who knew him, he saw his career ended by concussions —seven of them, at least, and probably more. After struggles with addictions, Montador died in 2015 at the age of 35. Post-mortem studies of his brain revealed that at the time of his death Montador was suffering from the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

The book also skates deep into hockey history: underlying Montador’s story is Dryden’s compelling and comprehensive case on just how, for reasons cultural and otherwise, the game has failed to adapt to its own evolution in pace and equipment and tactics. For Dryden, it all comes down to this: now is the time for hockey to eliminate hits to the head outright, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is the only man who can make that happen. He’s called it a “test” — for himself, for Bettman, for hockey. And so in September, Dryden flew from his home in Toronto to New York to carry that message, along with his book, to Bettman. They met for lunch.

In December, Ken Dryden sat down in Toronto to talk about Game Change and his vision for hockey.

How did it go, that meeting with Gary Bettman?

It was a good lunch. We’ve known each other for a long time, we’ve worked together. I think we each know how the other thinks, and does things. I introduced it as a serious book about a serious subject and the next few months will be a challenge for both of us. But a worthwhile challenge. I just told him about what was in the book. I told him that he was the first person to receive a final copy of the book. He said he would read it.

I came away feeling that he would. And that he would think about it very hard.

Why was Steve Montador’s story the right one to build your book around?

I wanted to write about somebody who was an Everyman player. I didn’t want somebody who was a superstar, who was too unique and unrelatable in that way. And I didn’t want somebody who was a fighter-goon, for the same reason. I wanted somebody who, when people read about Steve, they would see themselves, see their kids. Coaches would see their players. He was somebody a lot like them. And whose experience was a lot like theirs. He was somebody who was not dismissible.

You’ve talked about what you’re trying to say in your title: not just that the game needs to change, but how it has been changing, always, and keeps changing. Is that why you think this all so eminently do-able?

It’s one change that’s needed: no hits to the head, no excuses.

At the core of the problem of brain injuries is hits to the head. So you focus your attention there. The increased speed of the game generates more collisions and more forceful collisions. It’s not hard to see how this happens.

You can think about dealing with it as a revolutionary change, or you can think about it as an incremental and really evolutionary change. Right from the beginning of hockey, we’ve recognized the danger of hits to the head. We created high-sticking penalties, we created the elbowing penalty.

What we’ve come to understand better, with the force and the frequency of the collisions now, is that the dangerous instrument is not the stick or the elbow, it’s the body as a whole. So you don’t call a penalty for a stick or an elbow and not call one for a shoulder or a fist. It’s not the cause, it’s the effect. It’s not whether it’s intentional or accidental. The brain doesn’t distinguish. The brain is affected similarly. So you think of it in those terms, and you approach it in those terms. You connect it to the very set of understandings that is already in place, and to the penalties that are already in place. You just extend them to the changed circumstances of the game.

As you point out, Gary Bettman never played the game. But he is surrounded in the NHL head office by plenty of smart, committed people who did play. Why haven’t they recognized the problems you’re identifying. What’s kept them from urging the changes you’re advocating?

They haven’t played this game. We know what we’ve learned, we’ve know what we’ve heard, and we tend to then apply both, as if everything else were constant. The myth and lore of a game like hockey is very difficult to undo and rewrite. And whether it’s in hockey, sports, or climate change — anything — we all have a certain set of understandings. We’re comfortable with them. We always believed in them, and believed deeply.

But it’s a question of going beyond what you know to what there is to see. We’ve stopped seeing what is there. We notice the speed of the game, we notice the frequency and the severity of the head injuries, but we haven’t quite made the connection that then generates the response that’s needed. There’s this gap that is almost always present in terms of decision-making.

In order to get somewhere and change circumstances, you have to undo a set of understandings that are already in place. All we need to do is just see, see the game that’s there on the ice. And it’s a game that’s played with far greater skill than was the case in the past. Players are faster, they’re using lighter sticks, which become precision instruments in their hands, so they’re developing a dexterity that in turn pushes their creative minds.

And in the game now, the idea is not to go in straight lines, you go to open ice wherever open ice is, and so the pass is more important than the rush. All of a sudden you’ve got this incredible freedom, this possibility. The excitement with which people talk about Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews — that’s how they play. That is the game that has emerged, and it’s the game that’s being developed and understood by 10-year-olds and 12-year-olds everywhere in the world.

You’ve been traveling with the book, talking about it across Canada. Do you get the sense that parents and coaches and the people who run minor hockey have an appetite for change? Is it coming from the bottom up, too?

Yes. But a bottom-up movement is not going to change things as much or as quickly as needs to happen. But I think that what it means to that decision-maker at the top is important: he can feel a kind of confidence that in fact a decision that he would make about hits to the head would be understood and accepted. The conditions are present.

You haven’t heard back from the commissioner yet. Not to doubt or pre-judge him, but what if he doesn’t see what you’re seeing as quickly as you’d hope for? Does the challenge — and your campaign for change — simply continue?

Something that’s been so powerful for me on my book tour has been talking to the hockey guys, the sports guys on the all-sports radio stations: a lot of them are thinking in these directions. This is not a matter of starting at zero and trying to argue or persuade your way to 100, they’re already at 60 or 70. They see the problem. And so do people in the game I’ve been hearing from.

So all of this just kind of builds. That’s not unimportant. It will be moving forward, a little faster or a little slower. Five years from now, the game will be extremely different. How much in advance of that the change happens is really up to Gary Bettman.


headfirst: a hundred years (and counting) of nhl concussions

Out-Cold Case: Boston Bruins’ winger Charlie Sands awaits attention at New York’s Madison Square Garden in December of 1938 after a collision with the Rangers’ Bryan Hextall knocked him unconscious. Cut in the head, carried from the ice, he played two nights later, wearing a helmet “to protect the bandage circling his head.” That’s the Rangers’ Phil Watson on the left, Jack Portland (8), Ray Getliffe (6), Babe Pratt (11), Jack Crawford (obscured, with helmet), Cooney Weiland (7), and referee Norman Shay.

(A version of this post appeared on page S4 of The Toronto Star on December 17, 2017 under the headline “Ghosts of NHL’s Past Still Haunt.”)

Hockey has changed in a hundred years, but it’s not that different.

True, as a modern-day hockey fan beamed back to the NHL’s opening night in December of 1917, you’d find Torontos (a.k.a. Blueshirts) opening the schedule rather than Maple Leafs, along with some strange rules, and dimly lit rinks so clouded with cigarette smoke that, at times, you couldn’t see the puck.

Still, the first game Toronto played in Montreal against the Wanderers featured plenty of familiar sights in terms of stickhandling, bodychecks, and goals. Given such eternal hockey constants as hard ice, heavy sticks, speedy skating, and male grievance, you might reasonably have expected to see the NHL’s first fight — though, in fact, that didn’t come until Toronto’s second game, two nights later.

What you would have witnessed on December 19, 1917, was the league’s inaugural concussion. Not that anyone at the time, or since, logged that unfortunate first, including (most likely) the trailblazer himself, Montreal’s Harry Hyland. He would have other things on his mind, no doubt: he did, after all, almost score two hattricks on the night.

Celebrating its centennial this year, the NHL is, as you might expect, spotlighting the best players from its rich history, the greatest goals, the coolest sweaters. But this is an era, too, in which the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is as much a hockey term as coach’s challenge or Scotiabank NHL100 Classic. As today’s NHL continues to struggle with the realities of head injuries and their long-term effects on players’ brains, it might be also be time to note some grimmer landmarks.

In a couple of years, the Toronto would transform into Arenas before turning into St. Patricks and then, in 1927, Maple Leafs. While they would go on to win the first Stanley Cup of the NHL era in 1918, they didn’t start out so smoothly that first December night. In a foreshadowing of years of future woe, they had goaltending issues.

“Torontos Weak In The Nets,” the Star headline lamented next morning, “Wanderers Won By 10 To 9.”

The crowd at the Montreal Arena was sparse — just 700 spectators, by some reports. According to next morning’s Star, it wasn’t a particularly rough game, though the players were “irritable.”

A speedy 28-year-old winger who’d end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, Hyland notched a first-period hattrick before adding two more goals later in the game.

Harry Hyland, in a pre-NHL incarnation when, c. 1912,  he suited up for New Westminster, champions of the PCHA.

None of the accounts of the game mention a concussion, as such. They say only Hyland came away with a black eye. At some point, he was in Montreal goaltender Bert Lindsay, who deflected a shot Hyland’s way. And there it was: the puck, said the Star’s report, “struck him a terrific smash fair in the eye, knocking him out.”

It’s not much to go on, but looking back to a land beyond YouTube highlights, it’s what we’ve got. No-one at the rink that night was concussion-spotting or enforcing league-mandated protocols in quiet-rooms. Hyland may well have returned to the game, and he was in the Wanderers’ line-up two nights later when the Canadiens overwhelmed them 11-2.

The Wanderers didn’t last the season, but the NHL was up and going. As the goals piled up, the legends grew, great players found their way to the ice to win famous Stanley Cups. But as the goals and the championships were logged and transformed into lore, head injuries remained mostly unseen as an issue for the NHL.

In 1928, a New Jersey pathologist named Dr. Harrison Martland did write about the hidden damages that a career’s worth of punches to the head was inflicting on the brains of boxers. Fans knew all about seeing their heroes “punch drunk,” Martland noted, staggering around the ring in a “cuckoo” or “goofy” state, but medical literature mostly hadn’t paid attention.

“I am of the opinion,” he wrote, “that in punch drunk there is a very definite brain injury due to single or repeated blows on the head or jaw which cause multiple concussion hemorrhages in the deeper portions of the cerebrum.”

If today it reads like an 89-year old primer on CTE, Dr. Martland’s report didn’t change much in the 1920s. Boxing enthusiasts weren’t, for the most part, interested. And if anyone made the connection to the blows being sustained by hockey’s heads, they weren’t writing about it much less trying to adjust the game.

That doesn’t mean that trainers and doctors and teams ignored concussions, but a blow to the head was, in many ways, just another injury in a sport that, by its very nature, featured a whole painful lot of them. In hockey’s prevailing shake-it-off, everybody-gets-their-bell-rung, get-back-out-there culture, that’s what you did. Paging back through old newspapers, you’ll come across accounts of players trying to revive stricken teammates with snow from the ice they’re lying on. When the word “concussion” appears, it’s usually qualified by a “mild” or a “slight.”

December of 1933 marked a watershed in hockey’s concern for its players’ heads, if only temporarily. With Toronto visiting Boston, Bruins’ star Eddie Shore made a mistaken beeline for Leafs’ winger Ace Bailey (he was mad at Red Horner). Bailey had his back turned when Shore hit him, and he went down hard, hitting his head with a thud that was said to frighten spectators throughout the rink.

Two brain surgeries saved Bailey’s life; he never played another hockey game in his life. But if hockey was chastened, its players alarmed, the caution didn’t last long. As the league and its owners discussed whether Shore should be banned for life, players across the league tried out a variety of what they called at the time “headgears.”

They wore them for a while, but helmets were cumbersome and hot, and most of the players who donned them in the months after the Bailey hit would soon return bareheaded to the ice.

And that’s how hockey continued, mostly, right through to 1968, when Minnesota North Stars’ winger Bill Masterton died at age 29 as a result of untreated concussions aggravated by one final on-ice head injury. That’s when the league set about (eventually) to make helmets mandatory.

Meanwhile, back in the winter of 1917-18, those pioneer NHLers went about their business.

Ahead of Toronto’s first game, coach Charlie Querrie had issued a remarkable 15-point manifesto to his players. Directive number four: “Remember that it does not require bravery to hit another man over the head with a stick. If you want to fight, go over to France.”

It was a noble effort, even if it didn’t really take the temper of the game made it hard. At the end of January, when the Canadiens visited Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, Toronto beat them 5-1.

That was the least of the action, though: late in the game, Toronto’s Alf Skinner butt-ended Montreal’s Joe Hall in the mouth, whereupon Hall knocked Skinner to the ice. The ensuing scene ended with Hall cracking (a possibly already unconscious) Skinner over the head with his stick.

Toronto police arrested both players on charges of common assault. Both had been find already by the referee, $15 a man, and at court that was enough for the magistrate: he said they’d been “amply punished.”

A century later, hockey is a faster, better-lit, less-smoky, more thrilling spectacle than ever. that seems toll of hockey head injuries is coming clearer as the hockey struggles to adapt. In Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey, Ken Dryden’s latest book, the Hall-of-Fame former Montreal Canadiens goaltender argues that hockey has no choice but to change its way, directly challenging NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to do whatever it takes to eliminate hits to the head.

Not so widely noticed as Dryden’s, The Pepper Kid is another book new to the hockey shelf this fall. Exploring the life and times of his largely forgotten grandfather, Peterborough, Ontario writer Shayne Randall reveals a hardy, highly talented, and extremely unforgiving defenceman who happens to have been both Toronto’s very first NHL captain and a great-uncle to Doug Gilmour, the 24th player to war Toronto’s C.)

Ken Randall took most of the penalties called that opening night in 1917. He’d win a second Stanley Cup with Toronto in 1922, and continued on in the league through the 1926-27 season.

He died in 1947 at the age of 58. “He was really beaten up,” his grandson was saying this week. “There were lots of fist fights, but there were lots of stick fights. I mean, the stick fighting was brutal. My dad said, at the end of the season, it would take him a month to recover. He’d be in bed for two weeks. He really took a lot of punishment.”

Shayne Randall has no way of knowing how many concussions Ken Randall sustained in his “stormy” 26-year hockey career, but of the sombre conclusion he reaches in his book he has no doubt: the blows he took to his head “left him in a traumatic state near the end of his life and hastened his demise.”


waiting on gary bettman

Pre-Authorized: Ken Dryden back before he went into the book business, circa 1971.

“It is so extremely doable.”

That was Ken Dryden talking in December when I met him near his home in Toronto to discuss his book Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador, and the Future of Hockey. He was talking, as he was across Canada all through the fall, about the necessity of shifting the culture of hockey to eliminate hits to the head. An account of our conversation appears on the page in today’s New York Times — the online version is over here.

What’s not included in that exchange is a wider discussion of why Game Change and its careful reasoned, and eminently reasonable argument for urgent action isn’t at the fore and the front of the hockey conversation this winter. That’s not to say the book and its powerful message has been ignored: it’s been prominently amplified in The Globe and Mail and Maclean’s along with plenty of other Canadian media, and Game Change finished the year well up the list of national bestsellers. Others, too — TSN’s Rick Westhead is a notable and necessary follow, for one — are working hard to track hockey’s concussion crisis. But because the NHL continues to carry on as if all that were someone else’s business, it’s entirely possible that you could follow the league, with all the colour and excitement and history it broadcasts across all its many platforms, without hearing a serious mention of any of this. As Ken Dryden says, it all comes down to one man. Over to you, Gary Bettman.


hockey players in hospital beds: no more will I put my face in front of the puck

Plante Show: Jacques Plante indicates where a puck hit his mask in May of 1970. Visiting is Mrs. Ruth Frohlichstein, a St. Louis neighbour of the goaltender’s who was also described by some contemporary newspaper captioneers as Plante’s “favourite bridge partner.”

“Did you ever see how they kill cattle?” Jacques Plante said. “They use a sledgehammer and the cattle just drop dead. That’s how the shot felt when it hit me. Without the mask I wouldn’t be here today.”

He was in the Jewish Hospital in St. Louis by then, early May of 1970. Eleven years had passed since he’d first donned his famous mask and started a hockey revolution. At 41, with seven Stanley Cup championships to his name, he was nearing the end of his playing days, but he wasn’t there yet. In his second year with St. Louis, he was a favourite of fans, and had helped the Blues reach their third consecutive appearance in the Stanley Cup finals.

Coach and GM Scotty Bowman had used three goaltenders through the early rounds of the playoffs. As the Blues prepared to face Boston in the finals, Bruins’ coach Harry Sinden said, “We recognize Plante as their number one goalie, and I never want to see him in the nets against us.” Bowman didn’t oblige: Plante was the starter on Sunday, May 3, as the Blues opened the series at home at The Arena.

Boston’s Johnny Bucyk scored in the first period, Jim Roberts tied the score for St. Louis early in the second. Then, as recalled next day in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “The 41-year-old Blues goalie was struck on the fiberglass mask above the left eye on a deflection of a shot by the Boston Bruins’ Fred Stanfield.” Another correspondent from the same paper had him “felled by a puck.”

UPI: “nearly had his head torn off Fred Stanfield’s screamer.”

Stanfield’s “brow-bender,” was Harold Kaese’s contribution, in The Boston Globe.

“The Boston player’s drive, which started out low, glanced off Phil Esposito’s stick and smashed into the veteran goalie’s mask, cracking it.” (Post-Dispatch)

He fell facedown. For two minutes he lay unconscious on the ice. Blues’ doctor J.G. Probstein and trainer Tommy Woodcock “worked on” him, the AP said. After about five minutes, they got him to his feet. He wobbled. They brought out a stretcher, but he wanted to skate off.

Ernie Wakely, 28, was the Blues’ back-up. He came in and did his best, but the Bruins kept coming, and won by a score of 6-1 with the aid of Bucyk’s hattrick.

Later, Dr. Probstein said it was a concussion and that while Plante’s condition was “satisfactory,” he’d be hospitalized “for an indefinite period of time.”

Plante’s first words (“after his head cleared”) were said to be: “The mask saved my life.”

He phoned his wife Jacqueline in Montreal. “She was relieved to hear from me,” he said later. She made a habit of not watching her husband on TV, but his children had the game on that night. It was almost when she passed through the room and noticed that Plante was absent from the net. Only then did the youngest son calmly mention what had happened.

Monday, a reporter among many visiting Room 223 at Jewish Hospital described the patient: “He had a whelp over his left eye and a slight cut and he smiled very little for his audience.”

Plante: “My head hurts every time I move it.”

Joe Falls was there, sports editor of The Detroit Free Press.

“Hockey writers,” he’d write, “happen to like old Jacques.”

He’s a good guy and always good for a story and so before we went up to see him I chipped in two bucks with a couple of Montreal writers and we bought him some flowers.

Jacques, he like that very much. He is a very sensitive man and was moved by the sentiment.

“Merci beaucoup, merci beaucoup,” he kept repeating.

Of course we’d signed the card: “From Fred Stanfield, with love.” He pretended not to notice.

Did Plante change rooms? Also Monday, Boston Globe columnist Fran Rosa found him asleep in 219. Barclay Plager had spent the night at the hospital, too, and he was the one to wake Plante up. The Blues defenceman was admitted after passing out on the Blues’ bench during the third period of Sunday’s game; now he was being released.

Plante talked about his future. “I don’t think I’ll be here next season.” With Buffalo and Vancouver coming into the league, summer would see an expansion draft. Plante didn’t think he’d be protected.

“Look,” he said, “Hall is three years younger than me and Wakely is the goalie of the future so what do they want with me?”

Plager had injured himself trying to hipcheck Boston’s Johnny McKenzie, damaging ribs when he bounced off and hit the boards. “The doctor didn’t exactly call it a fracture,” he confided. “He seems to think it was a separation. He said he hadn’t seen anything like it before and he’s going to write a paper on it.”

Monday, the Bruins held a light practice. Towards the end, coach Harry Sinden called the players together and led them in an off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Fred Stanfield was turning 26.

Plante said he’d never been hit so hard. From his Montreal days, he recalled a tough night against Toronto: “Red Kelly shot and hit me in the face and the rebound went to Mahovlich. When I dove for the puck, it hit me where the mask protects my eyes. All I had that time was a nosebleed. No cuts.”

Dan Stoneking of The Minneapolis Star phoned Plante on Monday, said he sounded “groggy.” He also noted his “unmistakable French-Canadian accent.”

Another report from Plante’s bedside noted his “slight French accent.”

Joe Falls from Detroit’s Free Press opened his column with this:

Monsieur Jacques Plante, he leaned back on ze pillow in ze hospital room and he say: “Le masque m’a sauve la vie …”

“It only hurts when I laugh,” Plante told Dan Stoneking.

“I’ve got the world’s biggest hangover,” was another quote in another paper.

“Nothing ever felt like this,” Joe Falls heard. “My head, it is still spinning. I feel like I am floating. I feel like I want to throw up all the time.”

“I can still feel it in my head,” was another thing Plante said on the Monday. “The way I feel right now, I don’t feel like playing any more. That’s today. I don’t feel like eating or anything. Then I know as I get better I’m sure I’ll play again. But I do not know I will play in this series. I just don’t know.”

Also on Monday, Mrs. Ruth Frohlichstein dropped by. That’s her, above. The newspapers who ran photographs of her visit described her variously: as “a neighbourhood friend” and “Plante neighbour and favourite bridge partner.”

St. Louis coach and general manager Scotty Bowman had yet another goaltender waiting in the wings, 37-year-old Glenn Hall. Originally, Bowman had said he’d wanted to see how Plante played in the first game before he made any decisions on later starters. “He doesn’t play well in Boston,” Bowman said, “Glenn Hall plays well there.” With Plante out, the coach didn’t waver from that: Wakely would keep the net for Game Two in St. Louis before giving way to Hall when the series moved to Boston.

plante down

Bodycheck: St. Louis defenceman Al Arbour arrives on the scene in the moments after Fred Stanfield’s shot laid Plante low.

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


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.”


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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Ted Green wasn’t much for the pre-season. “I never liked exhibition games,” the long-serving Boston defenceman wrote (with Al Hirshberg’s help) in a 1971 memoir, High Stick, “because of the chances of getting hurt before the regular season started.” As for shaping himself up for the long campaign ahead, he took care of that on his own time in the summer — late in August of 1968, for example, above, just ahead of his ninth year on the Bruins’ blueline.

“I kept myself in condition during the off-season at my home in St. Boniface, just outside Winnipeg, Manitoba,” he wrote. “The only reason I cared about training at all after I made the club was to get into skating shape, which never took more than a few weeks.

It was a year later, September 21, 1969 in Ottawa, that Green got into a grievous stick fight with Wayne Maki during an exhibition game with the St. Louis Blues. When it was over, Green went to hospital with a life-threatening compound skull fracture. After three brain surgeries and a year’s gruelling recovery, Green spent the summer of 1970 facing the law and his hockey future. Ottawa Police had charged both players with assault causing bodily harm, though after Maki was tried and acquitted, Green’s charge was reduced to common assault, of which he, too, was cleared.

Back in Boston, he went to work with a personal trainer, a Hungarian who’d trained Olympic boxers, and a new regime: “running on a treadmill, operating wall pulleys, riding a stationary bicycle, doing deep knee bends, push-ups, high kicks, chin-ups, arm stretching, tossing the medicine ball, forward and backward somersaults, 60-yard sprints, and working on a devilish contraption called the Swedish wall ladder.”

Training camp was in London, Ontario, that September. “I went,” Green wrote later, “not knowing if I could play hockey again or not.” He could: helmeted, now, he played another two seasons for the Bruins before jumping to the WHA, where he skated a further eight.

(Photo used with the permission of the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, Winnipeg Tribune fonds, PC 18-3786-001neg)

this week: are you a hockey player or are you just someone who plays hockey?

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Forty-three years ago this week, visiting Moscow with a Canadian rep team, a right winger, Waterloo-born, in Ontario, went shopping. The Minnesota North Stars’ Bill Goldsworthy that is, seen above: he bought a balalaika.

Fast forward to this past week, when an NHL deputy commissioner was talking about newly enhanced security measures at all 30 of the league’s rinks. Fans going to games will now have to walk through magnetometers — those metal detectors you know from airports.

“For better or for worse,” Bill Daly said, “we live in an uncertain world, and it has to be of paramount importance to us, the health and safety of our fans. An extra precaution that might take an extra 30 seconds for each fan I think is more than worth it if it means you’re creating a safer environment for your fanbase.”

A right winger, meanwhile, sat down to read a statement to a gathering of reporters on the opening day of the Chicago Blackhawks’ training camp in South Bend, Indiana.

“I am confident,” Patrick Kane said, “once all the facts are brought to light, I will be absolved of having done nothing wrong.”

Anything, he may have meant. Accused of sexually assaulting a woman in August, he’d arrived to play hockey while a New York state grand jury considered whether or not he’ll be indicted.

Chicago management said they saw no problem with having Kane attend camp as though nothing had happened. Fans cheered when he stepped on the ice for the first time.

Up north and over the border, a former centreman — the greatest ever to have played the game? — was surprised, this week, by just how excellent this collection of “better casual clothing” is that Sears Canada is selling in his name.

The new No 99 Wayne Gretzky Collection will (and I quote) keep men looking neat, handsome and fashionable this Fall.

20150909_C7711_PHOTO_EN_493076These are polos we’re talking about, t-shirts, knit jackets, hoodies. Mercerized cottons, cashmeres and merino wool give this collection a luxurious feel, offering men a complete look: I have this on good authority. “The long-sleeved 100% cotton shirts come in a variety of patterns, including plaid, printed and checked.”

“Sears got my style down when they created this collection,” Gretzky confided in a press release. “I had the opportunity to wear all the pieces, from the t-shirts and sweaters to the jeans and dress pants, and the style, quality and value is excellent. I thoroughly expected it was going to be good, but I didn’t know it would be this good.”

At that Blackhawks press conference, Kane took questions from reporters.

Q: Patrick, how tough is it to focus on hockey with so many things going on right now?

Kane: I’m focussed. I’m happy to be here at camp. It’s an unbelievable venue here at Notre Dame. There’s a lot of history in this venue. I know we’ve had some success coming back here the last couple of years. It’s good to be back here again. I’m happy to see all my teammates and get done with our fitness testing today. It seems like we have a fun weekend ahead of us, so I’m looking forward to enjoying that. I’d like to keep to hockey questions only.

Q: Are you going to stop drinking?

Kane: Hey, Mark, I appreciate the question. I wish I could answer those questions right now, but there is a legal matter going on that I can’t answer that.

Q: Patrick, to all the people who believed this stuff was behind you, do you feel like you let them down, do you feel like you let the organization down this summer?

Kane: I appreciate the question, David. I’d like to answer that, but at this time with the legal process ongoing it’s just not a question I can answer. I appreciate it. I’m sorry I can’t answer it and thank you for the question, though.

PR Man: Thank you very much. We’ll excuse Patrick here.

Kane may be more important than ever to the Blackhawks, said someone, a pundit, referring to the vital cogs the defending Stanley Cup-champions lost over the summer.

“It doesn’t look like any of it has affected him,” said another Chicago winger, Bryan Bickell, asked about Kane and possible distractions. Also, sic: “He feels comfortable and when he left he was a happy Patrick Kane from when he left is what he is now.”

A Montreal defenceman pledged C$10-million over seven years to the Montreal Children’s Hospital Foundation who, for its part, unveiled The P.K. Subban Atrium last week. The man himself was on hand to say a few words, including several to Elise Béliveau about how he hoped that this was something that would have made her late husband Jean feel proud. Also:

“Sometimes I try to think, ‘P.K., are you a hockey player, or are you just someone who plays hockey?’

“I just play hockey. Because one day I won’t be a hockey player anymore, I’ll just be someone who played hockey. So what do I want people to remember me for other than being a hockey player? Well, every time you walk into this hospital, you’ll know what I stand for.

“In life, I believe you are not defined by what you accomplish, but by what you do for others. That’s how I live my life.

“This is not about hockey or about how many goals I score next year or even how the team does.” Continue reading