hockey’s mr. clean

Born in Montreal on this date in 1936, a Tuesday, Reggie Fleming played professional hockey for nearly 20 years, a fearsome force for six NHL teams. Montreal was his first, and it was there that Henri Richard gave him the nickname “Mr. Clean” because he thought Fleming resembled the avatar for the popular Proctor & Gamble cleanser. The name stuck with when Fleming moved on to Chicago, where he helped the Black Hawks win a Stanley Cup in 1961. Later, he played a prominent role for the New York Rangers. That included scoring some goals and working effectively on the penalty kill, but mostly it played out with punches and sticks swung in anger.

Reflecting on Fleming in 1963, NHL referee Red Storey told Maclean’s this: “He may never be a great hockey player, but he probably works harder than anyone else in the league. He reminds me of what Leo Durocher one said of the ballplayer Eddie Stanky: ‘He can’t run, he can’t field, he can’t hit, but he’s a hell of a ballplayer.’ If every team in the league had a Reggie Fleming, they’d all be better teams.” Stu Hackel’s overview for the New York Times of Fleming’s career, published after his death at the age of 73, is worth your while — you can find it here.

Mention is made there of Earl McRae’s searing 1975 profile of Fleming and the cheerless end of his career, in which McRae introduces his subject as “one of hockey’s most brutal, meanest players; short on talent but long on the stick, a bully who carved his notoriety in the flesh of opposing players.” Read that, too, along with everything else you can find that McRae wrote about hockey, some of which is between the covers of his 1977 collection Requiem For Reggie.

The final, devastating chapter of Reggie Fleming’s story is the one that’s been written posthumously: late in 2009, researchers at Boston University disclosed that he was the first hockey player to have tested positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). I wrote about that, and him, in a 2017 feature for The Story of Canada in 150 Objects, published jointly by Canadian Geographic and The Walrus. That’s here. 

(Image: HockeyMedia & The Want List)

henri richard: a reader’s companion

16 + 9: John Taylor’s 1960 still life with skates and sweaters, left behind by brothers (and Canadiens legends) Henri and Maurice Richard.

“Henri Richard, the Pocket Rocket, doesn’t want to be a little gale in the wake of a rumbling hurricane. He wants to swirl through the National Hockey League under his own power, creating his own storms, if any, and reaping the respect of his rivals strictly on his own merits.”

That was the opening to a Vince Lunny cover story for Hockey Pictorial in March of 1956, towards the end of the younger Richard’s rookie season in the NHL. It didn’t take long, of course, for Henri, who died on Friday at the age of 84, to skate up a storm of his very own alongside Maurice, 14 years his elder. It was only two years later that Milt Dunnell took to Hockey Pictorial’s columns with Maurice’s take on how Henri was faring in the league. “The Rocket gives the opinion faster than he breaks over a blueline,” Dunnell wrote in April of 1958: ‘Henri is a better skater than I ever was. He’s a better stickhandler, he’s a better puck-carrier. Henri is a better hockey player.”

Rocket’s view wasn’t, perhaps, universal at the time — Canadiens’ coach Toe Blake, for one, wasn’t yet willing to declare Henri supreme among Richards. All these years later, the question of which brother was the more valuable player might well still start a debate that wouldn’t necessarily finish. What we do know is that Henri played 20 seasons with Montreal, amassing 1,175 points in 1,436 games, regular season and playoffs, winning an unmatched 11 Stanley Cups along the way. He captained the Canadiens from 1971 through to his retirement in 1975. The team retired his number, 16, that year; he was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1979.

It’s true that Henri’s literary legacy doesn’t measure up to Maurice’s. A quick check of the bookshelf tells the tale: the elder Richard’s life and riotous times have been the focus of at least 12 books over the years, from Gerry Gosselin’s Monsieur Hockey (1950) to Jean-Marie Pellerin’s Maurice Richard: L’Idole d’un Peuple (1998) to The Rocket: A Cultural History of Maurice Richard (2009) by Benoît Melançon. No-one (to date) has published Henri’s biography or devoted a volume to his place in hockey or Quebec history.

That’s not to say the younger Richard doesn’t figure in more general histories of the game. Stan Fischler’s 1971 Hab history The Flying Frenchmen, for instance, delves into the brothers’ relationship during Henri’s early days in the NHL and offers up this telling anecdote:

The Canadiens were in the midst of a workout when Henri rounded the net at full speed from one side and Maurice approached on the same track from the other direction. They collided violently and both fell to the ice unconscious. When they were finally revived, both were escorted to the first-aid room where Maurice needed 12 stitches to close his wound and his kid brother, six stitches.

Then, in a masterful understatement, Maurice intoned: “You’d better watch yourself. Henri. You might get hurt.”

Henri rates a chapter in Michael Ulmer’s Canadiens Captains (1996). And he’s a voice throughout Dick Irvin the Younger’s 1991 oral history, The Habs. That’s where you’ll find Henri doing his best to explain his infamous 1971 outburst wherein he called Al MacNeil the worst coach he’d ever played for:

“I didn’t really mean it, but it came out because I was mad. Al was a good guy. But I was just mad, and they made a lot of things about that in all the papers. Even Guy Lafleur, in his book. He said I said to MacNeil that he shouldn’t coach the Canadiens because he didn’t speak French, and all that shit. I never said that in my life.”

Trent Frayne’s Henri essay in his 1968 anthology of hockey profiles, It’s Easy, All You Have To Do is Win is worth seeking out. While you’re arranging that, maybe settle in with the inimitable Frayne’s 1958 Maclean’s Henri profile, which is archived here.

So far as odes and obituaries published in the days since Henri’s death, recommended readings would start with this piece by Dave Stubbs at NHL.com, which includes reflections from Lafleur and Yvan Cournoyer.

Tom Hawthorn’s Globe and Mail obituary is deftly done and deserves a read, along with Roy MacGregor’s reminiscence, also in the Globe, which is here.

If you read French, take a look at Gaétan Lauzon’s coverage in La Presse, ici. Richard Goldstein wrote a New York Times obituary, published Saturday — that’s here.

If you missed Friday’s broadcast of CBC Radio’s As It Happens, you can download the March 6 podcast here (and should) to listen to Carol Off’s conversation with Henri’s Canadiens teammate Ken Dryden. It gets going at the 37.40 mark.

On Saturday night, Hockey Night in Canada opened with Ron MacLean’s conversation with Dick Irvin, which includes his thoughts on the origins of the nickname Pocket Rocket. There’s tape of that here, and worth your attention, if you didn’t catch it on the night.

One more? That would be Michael Farber’s Richard tribute at TSN, which you can find over this way.

(Top image: John Taylor, about 1960, silver salts on film, gelatin silver process, MP-1999.5.5032.4, © McCord Museum)

can’t beat a canadian bulky for style, said henri richard

You can argue, go ahead, that the 1970s marked the golden age of hockey players styling handsome sweaters: you’ve got Bobby Hull, after all, to stand up and make your case, and John Ferguson, too. For me, though, I’m stuck in the ’60s, which is when Montreal’s Highland Knitting Mills were spinning their own marvels (below), even as (above) Henri Richard joined with Portland, Oregon’s own Jantzen International Sports Club to tout their newest wool cardigan in colours spanning the … “masculine range.” Can you see that the “stripes are newly designed in richer, muted tones,” or maybe not so much? No, me neither. Do real pros (and good amateurs, too), leave their flashiness on the ice, but never their flair? So many questions. All I know is that when it comes to sweaters, necklines rise and fall as knits and patterns adjust for tastes and times. I get that: styles shift. But can we agree that it’s just plain wrong that in the year 2020 we all can’t go out and get fitted for our very own Canadian Bulky?

16

He wasn’t the first Canadien to bear the number 16 on his sweater in the NHL, just the last: a few months after a 39-year-old Henri Richard retired in 1975, the number he’d worn for all 20 of his magnificent seasons in the league was raised to the rafters of the Montreal Forum in his honour. In December of ’75, Richard, who died today at the age of 84, was joined at a pre-game ceremony to mark the occasion by former Hab greats (from the left) Elmer Lach, Butch Bouchard, and Toe Blake. Lach wore number 16 for 12 seasons before the Pocketful Rocket made the team as a 19-year-old in 1955. Blake was a 16, too, when he played for Canadiens, though only for a single season, whereafter he switched to 6. (Bouchard was briefly numbered 17 before he settled his more familiar 3.) Right winger Gus Rivers is generally named as the man who first wore 16 for Montreal, though maybe it was just for a game or two when he first came to the team in 1930: for most of his short stint with Canadiens he had 15. A total of 26 players wore 16 before Richard’s greatness took it out of circulation, including Jean Pusie, Gizzy Hart, Red Goupille, and goaltender Paul Bibeault. To date, Montreal has honoured 18 numbers (including Lach’s 16, in 2009), but in 1975, Richard’s 16 was just the fourth in team history to be raised aloft, following Howie Morenz’s 7, brother Maurice’s 9, and Jean Béliveau’s 4.

 

henri richard, 1936—2020

 

(Top Image: “Henri Richard” by Aislin (alias Terry Mosher),  January 26, 1974, ink and felt pen on paper, M986.286.179, © McCord Museum)

pocket watch

Born in Montreal on a Saturday of this date in 1936, Henri Richard turns 84 today. He only ever played for the Montreal Canadiens during his 20-year NHL career, captaining the team while aiding in the winning of 11 Stanley Cups — or course he landed in hockey’s Hall of Fame. The man they came to call the Pocket Rocket was 14 years younger than his rocketing, riotous brother, Maurice.

The great Trent Frayne profiled the younger Richard in 1958, noting that while Henri bore “a certain facial resemblance to his brother — a long jawbone, an angular chin, and a small rather pinched mouth,” they had their own distinct sizes and hockey styles. Maurice stood a strapping 5’11,” Henri was four inches shorter, “along the lines of a middleweight fighter,” but still one of the smallest men in the league. Henri’s attributes on the ice, in Frayne’s appraisal, included extreme dexterity, a quick, hard wrist-shot, and some of the fastest skates in the NHL. “In fact,” Canadiens’ coach Toe Blake said, “he’s the fastest skater I’ve ever seen in hockey.” Frayne was surprised to hear that:

“Faster than Morenz?” his interviewer enquired with the surprise of one who had always heard the the late Howie Morenz of the Canadiens was hockey’s fastest.

“I didn’t see too much of Morenz,” parried Blake, who broke into the NHL with the old Montreal Maroons in 1934, three years before a broken leg ended Morenz’s career, “but from what I saw of him, yes, I’d have to say that young Richard is faster. Certainly there’s not a player in the league today he can’t pull away from — carrying the puck, too.”

(Image: Taken 27 December, 1958, Weekend Magazine / Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada / e002505651)

no ordinary joe

Red Fisher said that Claude Provost was the Bob Gainey of his day. “He wasn’t as big, probably didn’t have as much skating talent, and maybe didn’t hit as hard as Gainey,” the Montreal Gazette’s longtime columnist enthused, “but he was terribly effective. He had to be to stop somebody like Bobby Hull the way he did … and he was definitely a better scorer than Gainey.”

The question of whether Provost deserves a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame may or may not be answered this coming Tuesday when a new class of inductees is named. Provost, who only ever played for the Montreal Canadiens during his 15-year NHL career, certainly has a bevy of Stanley Cup championships to endorse him: he helped the Habs win nine in his time. Renowned as a right winger for his prowess as a checker, he also led the Canadiens in goalscoring in 1961-62, when he scored 33 in a line-up that included Bernie Geoffrion and Jean Béliveau. In 1964-65, he was named to the First All-Star Team, ahead of a pretty good right winger from Detroit named Gordie Howie. Provost also won the first Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy in 1968 in recognition of his dedication, sportsmanship, and perseverance.

After Provost’s death at the age of 50 in 1984, Tim Burke of the Montreal Gazette remembered him as “one of the best-liked guys ever who ever wore CH on his chest and the premier defensive forward of his time.” Toe Blake assigned him to shadow Bobby Hull whenever Montreal played Chicago during the 1960s, and he had some success in (to borrow Burke’s phrase) trussing up the explosive left winger. Provost wasn’t always convinced that he was winning that duel, though. “I used to have pretty good success in checking,” he said of Hull in 1964, “then I got caught twice and scored two goals. What am I supposed to do, sit on him?”

Henri Richard was his roommate in junior and throughout his Montreal career. “He had very little talent,” he said, fondly, “but he made up for everything with hard work. … He even became a goalscorer by just getting in front all the time. We used to kid him that more goals went in off his ass than his stick.” He’d anchor himself in the slot with a distinctive bow-legged stance, digging his skates into the ice so hard that, as Canadiens’ equipment manager Eddie Palchak recalled, “he needed his skates sharpened after every period.”

“That’s why we started calling him Cowboy Joe,” Richard said, “those bow legs of his. He was the perfect guy to room with. You couldn’t stay down in the dumps with him around. He was always fun and a great team man.”