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, 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.
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)
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?
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.
(Top Image: “Henri Richard” by Aislin (alias Terry Mosher), January 26, 1974, ink and felt pen on paper, M986.286.179, © McCord Museum)
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)
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.”
As Toronto’s Maple Leafs skate out to face the Canadiens in Montreal tonight, would we note that this is the sixth time in the NHL’s 101-year history that a Toronto team has gone to Montreal on a February 9 to do battle with Canadiens? We would. And here’s some encouraging news for the visitors: only once has a Toronto team lost on this date in that city.
About those previous February 9 games, let’s note that they were played at four different rinks in Montreal, starting with the Jubilee Rink in 1918. The Mount Royal Arena saw two different games (in 1921 and ’24); the Forum (1985) and Bell Centre (2013) hosted the old rivals on one occasion each before tonight. Toronto’s team was the Maple Leafs for the previous two meetings, of course, but before that, in the ’20s, they were the St. Patricks. On that first February 9 game, during the NHL’s first season, they were the plain old Torontos, informally a.k.a. the Blueshirts. Four of the five games up have been played on Saturdays; in 1921, February 9 was a Wednesday.
Georges Vézina was Montreal’s goaltender the first three times Torontos and Montreals met, with (respectively) Hap Holmes, Jakie Forbes, and John Ross Roach guarding the far net. In 1918 (according to The Ottawa Journal), Montreal’s legendary backstop was “the saddest man in the rink.” His brother Pierre was in town, it seems, to watch the game, along with his Chicoutimi team, and Georges’ wife had made the trip, too, to watch her husband. But: “George [sic] fell down,” the Journal reported, “and played only a fair game.”
In 1921, when the St. Patricks skated to a 5-3 win, Babe Dye led the way with a hattrick that Reg Noble and Sprague Cleghorn padded with goals of their own. Newsy Lalonde scored a pair of goals for Canadiens.
Vézina finally got a February 9 win against Toronto in 1924; 5-3 was the score. Sprague Cleghorn got a goal in that one, but he’d switched teams since the last time, so it counted for Montreal, for whom Aurèle Joliat and Howie Morenz also counted. Babe Dye was still a St. Patrick, and he scored a goal in his team’s losing effort. Art Ross would soon have another job, managing, coaching, and generally inventing the Boston Bruins, but that was still in the future: on this night, he was the referee.
After 1924, it was 61 years passed before another Toronto team arrived in Montreal on February 9 to take on Canadiens, which gets us to 1985. Tim Bernhardt was in the Toronto goal that night, facing Montreal’s Doug Soetaert, as the Leafs won 6-2. Leaf winger John Anderson scored the decisive goal.
The last time the two teams met in Montreal on this date was in the lock-out marred 2012-13 season. The Leafs’ victory on that occasion was a lopsided one, 6-0. Three players who’ll feature tonight were on the ice back then, Carey Price and Brendan Gallagher for Montreal, along with Toronto’s Nazem Kadri. If you have a memory of that game, it may not be of James Reimer’s 37-save shutout; the big news, unfortunately, had to do with the allegation that Toronto winger Mikhail Grabovski bit his Canadiens counterpart Max Pacioretty.
Bruce Arthur wrote about the incident in The National Post, describing the “vigorous scrum midway through the third period, Max Pacioretty wrapped his ungloved forearm around the face of Toronto’s Mikhail Grabovski and for a second, it was just one of the writhing arms in the mess, which happens in pretty much every game. Grabovski allegedly opened his mouth and clamped down, which does not. The Canadiens have reportedly sent the NHL a picture of Grabovski’s dental work imprinted on Pacioretty’s arm.”
In the thick of it, Grabovski got a roughing penalty and a 10-minute misconduct for his troubles. The NHL looked into it, later, but nothing came of that: whatever it was that Grabovski was doing with his mouth, the league decided there was no conclusive evidence of a bite.
The Toronto Maple Leafs won a second successive Stanley Cup in April of 1963 when they rolled over Detroit in five games. They finished it off at home, beating the Red Wings 3-1 in the final game on two goals by centre Dave Keon and another (the winner) from left wing Eddie Shack. Afterwards, the Leafs poured champagne on one another, except for Carl Brewer, who was in Wellesley Hospital getting a broken arm tended to. Next day, the Leafs paraded through a crowd of 40,000 on their way up Bay Street to City Hall, where Mayor Don Summerville presented them with golden tie clips.
Then, next — it was the off-season, then, and the Maple Leafs dispersed to do what hockey players do when they’re not playing hockey. Some went to school, some on vacation. Many had jobs; a lot of them, then as now, played a lot of golf. They did not, in 1963, get an opportunity to invite the Stanley Cup to visit their various hometowns — several more decades would pass before that turned into a tradition.
How did the Leafs spend the summer of ’63?
Centre Red Kelly, one of the team’s elders, was the Member of Parliament representing the ruling Liberals for the Toronto riding of York West. Originally elected in 1962, he’d been re-upped the night before the Stanley Cup finals opened in early April, healthily defeating his Progressive Conservative rival, 30-year-old Alan Eagleson.
Kelly was a busy man. On top of the pucking and the politicking, he owned both a tobacco farm and a bowling alley back home in Simcoe, Ontario.
At the end of May, he gave his maiden speech in the House of Commons. Secretary of State Jack Pickersgill said it was one of the best performances he’d everseen in Ottawa; a Toronto Star editorial that didn’t go that far deemed it “sensible,” “well-considered,” and likely to put paid to the Conservative canard that the election of a hockey player had somehow lowered the dignity of the House of Commons.”
“Mr. Speaker,” Kelly began, “I am not sure whether or not it is because I do not have on my skates, but it feels much more slippery here than it does on the ice.”
It was a wide-ranging debut, lasting ten minutes, and delivered without notes. Kelly made light of his having waited a year to speak, and he likened the Speaker to a referee. He talked about his riding and gave some views on flags and anthems. Hearing “O Canada,” he said, before a game in place of “God Save The Queen” made him very proud. “My chest stood out a little more.” People wondered why he’d decided to run for Parliament and he said he told them it was because of how excited he was about where Canada was headed. He wanted to be a part of that, and to help the country grow.
Also, the Liberal leader and prime minister Lester Pearson? Such a great guy. The more Kelly got to know him, the more he thought he might just be “the tonic Canada needs.”
“I felt he could do a whale of a job for the future of Canada,” Kelly said.
Other Leafs who were working on the country’s future included left winger Frank Mahovlich and his wife, non-winger Marie, who had their first child in the summer ’63, a son, Michael Francis. Sylvia Harris and her husband, centreman Billy, welcomed twins.
Left winger Dick Duff, the team’s last bachelor, golfed in Florida for a while before flying north to enroll at the University of Toronto for courses that would lead him towards an undergraduate degree. When he wasn’t hitting the books, he had a job selling cars at Gorrie’s on Gerrard Street at Yonge. It’s possible that while on campus he ran into teammates: both Brewer and centre Billy Harris were both pursuing B.A.s that summer too. Brewer, his arm in a cast, was taking French courses while also working part-time as a car salesman.
Leafs’ defenceman Bob Baun was in the car business, too, as was trainer Bobby Haggert. The latter took a vacation at the Calgary Stampede in July before returning home to work the lot at Ron Casey Motors in Newmarket. The Leafs’ rented a house in Florida that players used, and Baun spent time there before getting back to work; he also had a gig as host at George’s Spaghetti House on Sherbourne at Dundas.
Eddie Shack and his wife had their own Florida getaway before Shack returned to join with the NHL All-Star team that toured Ontario through July and August playing softball. Centre Bob Pulford spent part of his summer working in the ticket office at Maple Leafs Gardens. Right winger John MacMillan already had an engineering degree to his name; he spent the summer working on an education degree at the University of Denver in Colorado.
In March, when Richard, Dave Keon’s 18-month-old son died, died of pneumonia, the Toronto papers took a respectful step back. I think that’s what it was; it did mean that their muted mentions in the local papers explaining why the Leafs’ centreman missed the final two games of the regular-season was filed in as awkwardly as possible alongside tidings of Frank Mahovlich and his flu, and John MacMillan’s injured elbow.
Keon returned for the first game of the playoffs, wherein the Leafs beat Montreal 3-1, and he contributed two assists to that. Leaf fans were outraged, in April, when Keon wasn’t named to the NHL’s 1st or 2ndAll-Star teams — Stan Mikita and Henri Richard were elevated above him — but he did win the J.P. Bickell Cup, which used to be awarded to the Leafs’ team MVP. Keon and his wife flew to Hamilton, Bermuda soon after the Stanley Cup paraded, so he didn’t learn until later that he’d also won the Lady Byng as the league’s most gentlemanly player.
“The Hamilton paper,” he explained later, “only carries cricket and soccer results.”
The rest of Keon’s summer involved golf (he caddied for an American pro at the Canadian Open in Scarborough, Ontario) and chocolate bars (he worked for a candy company, promoting their product). He also travelled to his hometown with another native son, Leafs’ defenceman Kent Douglas, to be fêted by friends and old neighbours in Noranda-Rouyn, Quebec.
Goaltender Johnny Bower passed most of his summer on the ice in British Columbia, working with 119 eager youngsters at George Vogan’s Nelson hockey school alongside Detroit centre Norm Ullman and the former Red Wing Metro Prystai. The Leafs’ second goalkeep, Don Simmons, was back home near Boston running the real estate and insurance business he owned there. Defenceman Allan Stanley went prospecting in north Ontario, near Blind River.
In August, the list of 62 players that Leafs’ coach and GM Punch Imlach was inviting to training camp in Peterborough, Ontario, in early September included the names of defencemen Don Cherry and Terry Clancy, King’s son.
Most of the late-summer Leaftalk in the papers had to do with the team’s seniormost citizens, Kelly and Stanley and Bower, whether they’d be retiring, what that would mean for the team’s prospects. Stanley was 36 and Bower was — well, hesaid he was 39, though the newspapermen in Toronto thought it was more like 42.
Kelly, who was 35, was thinking that hockey might have to give way to politics, though he hadn’t quite made up his mind. The commute, he said, was killing him.
(All three, in the end, kept playing, helping the Leafs to defend their title in the spring of 1964. And they were all still on the job, of course, when the Leafs won the Cup again in 1967.)
Imlach’s letter in August of ’63 was like others he sent in those years. Winter is coming, was the gist of it, be ready. He asked players to report to camp weighing no more than seven pounds over the weight they usually played at. He said that they should be prepared to show him 25 sit-ups, 25 push-ups, and 30 knee bends, “on command.” Young and old, Stanley Cup champions or not, the Leafs should expect to be awoken at 6.15 in the morning; lights-out was 11.15.
There would be golf, but no golf carts. And as far as getting from their downtown digs at the Empress Hotel to the ice at the Memorial Centre, two kilometres — they’d be walking that, too.