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.

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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.”

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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.”

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

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roach clip: the case for the port perry poultry king

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The Years With Ross: John R. Roach early in his career as guard of Toronto’s NHL nets.

I understand now, but for a while there I assumed that

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would be followed up, and challenged, by subsequent lists from Heineken, Moosehead, Kokanee, and Sapporo, and thereby justice would be done for Dit Clapper, Aurèle Joliat, and Frank Nighbor.

Back in October, it was the Toronto Maple Leafs who revealed

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How would Home Hardware have done it differently? Included Greg Terrion, maybe, and Pete Langelle at the expense of (maybe) Gus Bodnar and Ed Olczyk?

Impossible to say. These lists, as I’ve noted already, are monuments to exemplary players, no more than that: admirable, arbitrary jumbles of skill and achievement, with next to no science to them. I’m all for them, if only for the opportunities they open up to agitate about their content for many winter weeks to come.

The NHL list, which isn’t ranked, was compiled by a Blue Ribbon Panel (capitals theirs, or maybe Pabst’s), 58-members strong. This eminent assemblage included retired players (Ken Daneyko, Guy Carbonneau) and legendary coaches and managers (Scotty Bowman, Harry Sinden), many broadcasters and print journalists (Pierre McGuire, Stan Fischler), an owner (Jeremy Jacobs), and NHL brass (Gary Bettman, Bill Daly). Everybody voted for 100 players, with each vote counting for one point.

The Leafs’ conclave of 30 counted mostly journalists, broadcasters, and writers. No players took part, though long-time Leafs’ equipment manager Brian Papineau did, along with the Leafs’ veteran organist, Jimmy Holmstrom. The three names that appeared on both NHL and Leaf panels were author and broadcaster Brian McFarlane; Sportsnet reporter Christine Simpson; and former Toronto Star columnist Frank Orr.

The Leafs decided to rank their players, which called for a bit more rigor in the process. They thought they’d throw in some democracy, too. “The One Hundred list is the result of rankings submitted by a 31-member committee made up of prominent members of the hockey community, including a public fan vote that counted as the 31st member,” the team explained.

“Each committee member submitted a ranked list with a first-place rank garnering 100 points and a 100th place rank receiving one point. 191 of 949 eligible players received at least one vote. Ten different players received at least one first-place vote from the committee.”

The ballot fans online saw offered up the names of 154 Leafs, divided up by decades. Some 300,000 votes came in that way.

After it was all over, I talked to a couple of the panelists, informally. I wondered what guidelines they’d been given. Were there players, say, of short duration who, dominant as they might have been elsewhere in their careers, were too brief as Leafs to be considered? No, I was told, absolutely nyuh-uh.

I don’t know, though. Maybe there was no official directive, but no-one was really going to make a case for Phil Housley, who played just four games of his 1,580 NHL games for Toronto, right? I mean, judged purely as a defenceman, Housley was a true great, as verified by the Hall of Fame. I think we can all get behind an objective determination that in terms of greatness his exceeded that of, say, Todd Gill, who features on the Leaf list at number 84.

Nothing against Gill. I wish him well. Peace be upon him and his people. I salute his workmanlike service, and recall his yeoman years grimly persisting in defence of the Leaf blueline with … not joy, exactly. But I remember. He was a Leaf, by god, and for all his subsequent peregrinations — to San Jose and St. Louis, to Detroit and Phoenix, back to Detroit, down to Colorado, to Chicago, and Lausitzer Füchse — he remained a Leaf in the same way that Housley, for all his late-career wanderings, will always be a Sabre.

Everybody understands this, if only in their bones, at a deep level to which language doesn’t reach. Nowhere but in Toronto was Todd Gill great; the greatness that Gill achieved in Toronto wasn’t like regular greatness they have elsewhere. It’s specific to the service Gill did in blue-and-white, suffering through the Harold Ballard years, playing for John Brophy, wearing that funny helmet he wore with a certain kind of dignity.

So that’s why Phil Housley isn’t on the list. Same, I guess, for Frank Nighbor, whose greatness resided somewhere beyond the 22 games he played as a Leaf. Brian Leetch (28 Leaf games) too. The list of elsewhere-great Leafs goes on: Ron Francis (24 games), Eric Lindros (33), Joe Nieuwendyk (73). Nobody needs to justify their absences.

I would take an explanation, if anybody’s offering one, regarding goaltenders. Nine of them made the Leaf cut: Johnny Bower, Turk Broda, Curtis Joseph, Harry Lumley, Terry Sawchuk, Lorne Chabot, Mike Palmateer, Ed Belfour, and George Hainsworth.

It’s a sterling cadre, no question, anchored by five Hall-of-Famers. What a crew! Hail to you all! Not one of them could I easily argue to oust.

I just wonder — well, Palmateer? I know, I know, he played a long time, was cheerful and beloved, put up manfully with Ballard & etc. I grew up watching him; he has my respect. I can, if I squinch my eyes shut, work out for myself why he rates ahead of, say, a Hall-of-Famer and positional trailblazer like Jacques Plante, who (by the by) played more games as Leaf than Terry Sawchuk, though Sawchuk (of course) won a Stanley Cup with Toronto, in ’67, which Plante never did.

I might just sit down here for a second, collect my breath. Not worth getting an ulcer worrying over this sort of stuff.

Though — um — sorry — what about Frank McCool?

He only played two Leaf seasons, just 85 games, it’s true, but one of them was spectacular. In 1944-45, with Turk Broda away at war, McCool not only won a Calder Trophy as the league’s outstanding rookie, he helped the Leafs to win the Stanley Cup. How does he not make the Leaf list?

Or John Ross Roach? If I were going to make a stand, he’s the one I’d be making. Let the record show that if push came to proverbial shove, I would be stood all over J.R. Roach. If I were to litigate the Toronto One Hundred, his would be the case I’d prosecute.

Nobody remembers him now, but his Leaf greatness is unimpeachable. I challenge you to impeach it. Well, mostly he was a St. Patrick; he only wore the maple leaf for two of his seven Toronto seasons. Same thing, though, right? And yet as accomplished and admired as he was in the hey of his day, his reputation failed to endure. It didn’t last.

It just didn’t have the — well, whatever it is that keeps memories of hockey players alive and healthy, he was lacking in it. It’s a long time since he played, it’s true: there’s plenty of natural fading involved. In some cases, I guess, it’s just a bit more thorough. So entirely has John Ross Roach been effaced from the Leafscape that he didn’t even make the ballot for his decade when the for the One Hundred.

I will say, as you gather your outrage to join it with mine, that while Roach wasn’t the first goaltender to backstop a Toronto NHL team to Stanley Cup championship, he was the second, after Hap Holmes got the job done for the Arenas in 1918.

Roach was the first — not to mention the only — Toronto goaltender to captain the club.

Before he was forgotten, he had lasting power, too. Pre-Roach, Toronto went tried out seven goaltenders in four years. Once he made his (slightly delayed) debut in 1921, he kept the Toronto net for seven years, playing 222 out of 226 regular-season games, along with a further nine playoff and Stanley Cup games. All told, he won 102 of these, registering 14 shutouts.

If his size — 5’5”, 130 pounds — didn’t seem to interfere with his puckstopping, it was constantly reflected in reports from the games he played. “The robust little Port Perry guardian” an Ottawa paper called him in 1923; before that he was “an infant prodigy,” which would seem all the more demeaning if it was attached to the phrase “the most spectacular net minder in the game.”

He hailed from Port Perry, Ontario, 80-odd kilometres northeast of Toronto, on the Lake Scugog shore. “I’m the only boy from that little town to play pro hockey,” Roach was saying in 1929, and it’s still the case today, NHLwise.

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first among veterans: chick webster, new york ranger

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Nick Knack: Chick Webster poses with New York Ranger teammates just before Christmas in 1949. That’s him standing second from left. Others pictured include Tony Leswick (to Webster’s right) and Pat Egan, to his left; Wally Stanowski (standing fifth from left); and captain Buddy O’Connor. Suited up as Santa is erstwhile Ranger Phil Watson, whose non-festive job had him coaching the EHL’s New York Rovers.

The Boston Bruins honoured their late captain, coach, and GM Milt Schmidt this week with a video tribute ahead of Thursday’s meeting with the Edmonton Oilers. On their sweaters, Bruin players wore a patch blazed with Schmidt’s 15 to commemorate the man they call the Ultimate Bruin.

With Schmidt’s death on Wednesday at the age of 98, the oldest living NHLer is Chick Webster, who’s 96. He lives in Mattawa, Ontario. If his hockey CV is 848 NHL games shorter than Schmidt’s and also lacks its Stanley Cups, it’s long and varied and entirely commendable in its own right. Born John Webster in Toronto in 1920, his NHL career spanned all of 14 games, all of which he played with the New York Rangers during the 1949-50 season.

On Friday, I exchanged e-mails with Rob Webster, Chick Webster’s son. He’d just spent the afternoon visiting his dad who, he said, had been saddened to hear about Schmidt. Never one to seek attention, he’s been taking this week’s sudden burst of interest in his brief stint in the NHL in stride.

“As far as his career goes,” Rob Webster wrote, “I think he just never really got the breaks at the right time.” Chick Webster was in his early 20s as the Second World War was metastasizing and just as his hockey career was getting going, he joined the Canadian Army. He had no regrets there, his son says. “He wanted to go. Not skating much for over two years was hard … so I guess still making it to the NHL original six was somewhat of a nice goal to achieve.”

As a teenager, Webster senior played for teams in Toronto called the Stockyard Packers and (as an OHA junior, with Baldy Cotton as his coach) the Native Sons. He wasn’t big, 5’11”, 160 pounds, but he was a good skater and a proficient playmaker.

As a 19-year-old in the fall of 1940, he took his trade to the Boston Bruins’ training camp in Hershey, Pennsylvania. That’s where he skated on a line, for as long as it lasted, with one of the team’s young veterans: Milt Schmidt. Webster told didn’t make the cut, but The Boston Daily Globe noted that he was a “simon pure” (i.e. amateur) coveted by all six NHL clubs. He played the year with the Baltimore Orioles of the Eastern Amateur Hockey League, leading the team in scoring. (Update: having talked to Chick Webster himself this week for a piece in The Hockey News, Eric Zweig reports that at one of Webster’s Bruin camps, he took Kraut duty, centring Bobby Bauer and Woody Dumart when Schmidt went down with an ankle injury. I recommend Eric’s full account of Webster’s career , which is here.)

Like Schmidt and many other hockey players during, Chick Webster decided he had another job he’d better do. Enlisting in the Canadian Army, he ended up skating for the Army’s Petawawa Grenades before shipping out for deployment overseas. Serving with the 13th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artlliery, he saw duty in England, France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany before the war’s end.

Chick Webster, Ranger winger

Chick Webster, Ranger winger

Back in hockey, he returned to the EAHL before graduating to the AHL’s New Haven Ramblers. It was from there that he launched into the NHL, called up by the New York Rangers in December of 1949. Coached by Lynn Patrick, the Rangers were up with Detroit and Montreal at the top of the league standings. Edgar Laprade and Buddy O’Conner featured bright among the team’s forwards that year, and Fred Shero was on the defence. In goal, Chuck Rayner was backed up by Emile Francis.

Webster played his first game in Boston, helping the Rangers to beat Schmidt’s own Bruins 3-1 in a game distinguished by … well, no, according a local report, the game was as undistinguished as they come, “sluggish,” “sleepy,” “boring:” all in all, “one of the dullest exhibitions of hockey played on Garden ice in quite a spell.”

Christmas Day, in Toronto, he left a game against the Leafs charley horse’d. In mid-January, in a game with Detroit at Madison Square Garden, he broke a couple of bones in his left hand — unless someone else broke them for him. (Another Ranger winger, Ed Slowinski, also finished the game with a fractured hand). Either way, it was Webster’s 14th and final appearance on NHL ice. Playing left wing, he’d recorded no goals or assists while sitting out two minor penalties. When he’d healed a bit, he returned to the New Haven ice wearing a soft cast, finishing the season in the AHL while the Rangers went on to defeat in the Stanley Cup finals at the hands of the Red Wings.

Don Webster, Chick’s younger brother by four years, had his own NHL stint: he played 32 games for the Toronto Maple Leafs across the 1943-44 regular season and playoffs, scoring seven goals and 13 points. Don Webster died in 1978 at the age of 53.

I asked Rob Webster to ask his dad who were the players he’d admired in his playing days and the answer that came back included Gordie Howe, Rocket Richard, and teammates Laprade, O’Connor, and Rayner.

The latter years of his hockey career took him around the minor-league map — Tacoma, Cincinnati, Vancouver, and Syracuse (where he played, unhappily, under Eddie Shore) — before he made his return to the Toronto area. He continued to play after he went to work for de Havilland Aircraft of Canada, before retiring, in 1969, to Mattawa.

“Been there ever since,” Rob Webster wrote, and skating all the while: he organized an oldtimers team with the Mattawa Legion and played until he was nearly 80. The nickname? From the gum Chiclets, his son says. “He always chewed gum as a kid. He thinks his aunt was the first to give it to him. As long as I can remember he always chewed when he played.”

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In The Army Now: Chick Webster (that’s him in the front row, third from right) poses with the Petawawa Grenades, circa 1943-44.

(All images courtesy of Rob Webster)

gump agonistes

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They’re just a few of them, Canadians we feel we know so well (and maybe even revere) that just their first names will do. Most of them are singers, Drake and Shania, Joni, Neil, Leonard, but we also now have a prime minister now, Justin, first-name basis we recognize in the same way. Hockey has Gordie, Wayne, Mario, Sid — and now I guess Connor, too.

Also? Gump.

That one, of course, is an older vintage, and maybe doesn’t have the currency it once did. Still, it does retain a certain power, as a byword for the audacity and sheer foolery old-time NHL goaltenders, one that conveys not all the awkward dignity of the man himself but also the fall-down, scrambling valor of a whole nervy puckstopping generation of maskless men, long before Tom Hanks was cast in the role of a slow-wit hero from Alabama.

Not that the surname isn’t just as good as the first: Worsley is Dickensian in its perfection, up there with Gradgrind, Cheeryble, Pickwick, Pecksniff. Paired, Gump Worsley not only sounds like a character from a story, one from whom you could figure out the gist of the plot just by looking at the man: oh, yes, right, so this is the one about the kind-hearted London orphan, bit of a sad case, all alone in the world, at the behest of his anonymous benefactor, without any training or apparent aptitude, has to take up goaltending in the six-team National Hockey League in order to prove himself and find his destiny.

John K. Samson once told me he carried a glorious old Gump-faced hockey card with him wherever he went. We were talking at the time about Reggie Leach, Riverton’s own Rifle, but then the talk turned as the Winnipeg singer explained that a lot of his admiration for Gump was based, like mine, on just how unlikely a goaltender he seemed, accidental, almost, and how amiably he seemed to bearing up in the situation into which he’d been thrust.

That’s in the song Samson wrote, of course, “Elegy for Gump Worsley,” that he sang with his erstwhile band, The Weakerthans. The words go like this:

He looked more like our fathers, not a goalie, player, athlete period. Smoke, half ash, stuck in that permanent smirk, tugging jersey around the beergut, “I’m strictly a whiskey man” was one of the sticks he taped up and gave to a nation of pudgy boys in beverage rooms. Favourites from Plimpton’s list of objects thrown by Rangers fans: soup cans, a persimmon, eggs, a folding chair and a dead rabbit. The nervous breakdown of ’68-’69 after pant-crap flights from LA, the expansion, “the shrink told me to change occupations. I had to forget it.” He swore he was never afraid of the puck. We believe him. If anyone asks, the inscription should read, “My face was my mask.”

He played 21 years in the NHL, mostly for the New York Rangers, most successfully for Montreal, finally for the Minnesota North Stars. He died at the age of 77 in 2007.

It’s possible that I saw him play, later on in his career, staying up late to watch Hockey Night In Canada in the early ’70s. If so, I don’t remember. I loved his memoir, They Call Me Gump (1975), which he wrote with Tim Moriarty’s aid, and not just because he devotes Chapter 21 to his recipe for pineapple squares. Okay, well, yes, that’s where a lot of the love is centred. Also with his affable way of looking at the world, and that if there’s a joke in his playing NHL goal, then it’s a joke he’s very much in on, and enjoying as much as the rest of us.

If Gump looked helpless, if he seemed hapless, well, of course, he was anything but. You don’t need to go and stand in front of his plaque in the Hockey Hall of Fame (elected in 1980) to know that he was one of the best of his era. Traded to Montreal for Jacques Plante, he went on to play his part in four Stanley Cup championships. He was a First All-Star Team and twice had a share (with Charlie Hodge and Rogie Vachon, respectively) in a Vézina Trophy. Of all the goaltenders to have defended NHL nets, he stands 22nd when it comes to regular-season wins (335). He had 40 more in the playoffs, which is more than Johnny Bower and Bernie Parent and lots of other Brahmins of the crease.

I don’t know where he slots in when it comes to the all-time index of pain and suffering. In his book, he mostly makes light of the wear and tear of being worn and torn. “The main occupational hazard is trying to stay alive while facing up to 40 and 50 shots a game,” he writes. “We’re not well, you know,” he says elsewhere, “or we wouldn’t be playing the position.” And: “It helps to be nuts.” If he were in the business of hiring goaltenders, his prerequisites would include “a hard skull to deflect flying pucks, plus a thick skin to absorb the abuse of coaches and fans.”

Like a lot of hockey memoirs, They Call Me Gump reads like a medical file. It’s longtime Ranger physician Dr. Kazuo Yanagisawa attending, mostly, dropping in every few pages to consult on the tendons in Gump’s hand that Bobby Hull’s skate severed, or to remove cartilage from his knee. Gump pulls hamstrings, tears thigh muscles, sprains knees. He devotes another entire chapter (without going too deep) to the stress and fear of flying that fuelled the nervous breakdown he suffered in 1968.

The injuries would have contributed to that, too, though Gump doesn’t really make much of the connection. For all the damage he chronicles, there’s relatively little mention of concussions. One that features is famous in its way — a “mild” one that knocked him out of a 1967 game at Madison Square Garden when he was back in playing for Montreal. Others he leaves out entirely or tosses in with what passes for trouperly bravado:

[Boom-Boom] Geoffrion hit me right between the eyes with a slapshot in the Forum one night, and the puck ricocheted 40 rows into the stands.

Gump finally put on a mask in 1974, but only for the last six games of his career. “Hated it,” he said in 1984, looking back. “Sure I got knocked out a lot. I got knocked out oftener than Joe Palooka. But there was only one goalie to a team at that time, so they’d revive you and sew you up and you went back on.”

That’s all in keeping, I guess, with hockey’s historical nonchalance when it comes to head injuries. Getting your bell proverbially rung was just part of the game; you shook it off, headed back out on the ice. Knowing what we know now about head trauma and the long-time devastation of CTE casts a grim shade on those old attitudes, even as the modern-day NHL refuses to acknowledge the connections.

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Worsley Out: Montreal teammates Ted Harris and Bob Rousseau aid training staff in getting Gump off the ice in Chicago in April of 1968 after he hit his head on a goalpost.

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jacques plante’s new face-saver

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Mask + Man: Before he added his famous mask to his game equipment one night in 1959, Jacques Plante was protecting his face in practice. After having both cheekbones broken in training mishaps in 1954 and ’55, he first tried a welder’s mask donated by a fan. He later switched to the plexiglass apparatus he’s holding above, the creation of a St. Mary’s, Ontario, inventor by the name of Delbert Louch. “Louch’s New Head-Saver” had its shortcomings: it left a goaltender’s forehead vulnerable and tended, too, to fog over on the ice. Plante modified his, as shown above, by cutting out eye-holes. (Image: Library and Archives Canada)

You can guess, maybe, the species of shot that truly distressed Jacques Plante. “Oh brother, that damned slap shot!” he wrote, to the point, in 1971. “You have no idea what an effect the slap shot has had on goalies.” Heading into a game against Chicago, he said, knowing he was gong to facing Bobby Hull, his nerves would start their rattling two days before the teams hit the ice.

Plante was 41 by then, playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs — with another three seasons to go before he’d wrap up his 21-year professional career. He was wearing a mask by then, of course — had been for 11 years, ever since the night in 1959 when Andy Bathgate of the Rangers moved in on him in early minutes of a game in New York.

You know the story. It was this week, 57 years ago, November 1. It wasn’t a slapped shot that did the damage and launched a Heritage Minute. No, Bathgate’s effort was a malign backhand. He told Plante biographer Todd Denault that he’d done it on purpose, vengefully — Plante had tripped him into the boards, he was bleeding, and mad. “I gave him a shot right on his cheek,” he said.

The puck struck Plante to the left of his nose. Dave Anderson: “He toppled face down on the milk-white ice at the right side of the net.” Red Fisher, covering the game for The Montreal Star, would describe Bathgate rushing in and lifting Plante’s head.

Plante stayed down for 15 seconds. He got up with a towel fixed his face, skated off under escort by Maurice Richard and Dickie Moore. A pair of Garden policemen helped him to the medical room. Rangers’ doctor Dr. Kazuo Yanagisawa sewed in seven stitches. After 20 minutes, Plante was ready to return. There are varying versions of the conversation that took place between coach and goaltender before Plante rejoined the game. In his biography Behind The Mask, Raymond Plante (no relation) has Plante lying on the medical table, seeing Blake, saying I want to play with my mask on. Blake: We’ll see, we’ll see.

Dave Anderson wrote a Plante feature for The Saturday Evening Post in 1960. As he tells it, Blake is the one to mention the mask, tell Plante he can put it on. Good, Plante told him, because I wouldn’t go back without it.

Todd Denault’s biography is Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey (2010). He has a stricken Plante departing the medical room, heading back out to the ice (where — a superior detail — the New York fans sang “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow”), then on the Canadiens’ dressing room where he had it out with his coach. Continue reading

the thing about ulf

 Date: April 24, 1977 Heading: Hockey 1964-1979 Caption: Ulf Nilsson Call Num: PC 18-6669-001neg

“The thing about Ulf is that he seldom, if ever, misses a play. The reason we come out of our own end so easily is because Ulf gets himself into position to get the puck and then never gives it away. Anders and I work ourselves into position and he always finds a way to hit us with the pass.

That was Bobby Hull talking, back in 1976, about his Swedish linemates with the Winnipeg Jets, centreman Ulf Nilsson (seen above in 1977) and over on the right wing, Anders Hedberg. It was May of the year and the Jets had just beaten the Houston Aeros by a score of 6-3 to move closer to winning the WHA championship and the Avco World Trophy that went with it. Nilsson had a hat trick in the game and (as the Associated reported) he’d “also glared steadily into the eyes of Aeros’ players, prepared to drop the gloves if necessary.” Jets’ coach Bobby Kromm couldn’t ask for any more. “He played super hockey, offense and defense, scored goals and hit people. What else is there to do?”

Forty years later, the NHL Jets are set to honour Nilsson and his wingers: tomorrow, at a luncheon ahead of the weekend’s Heritage Classic, the trio will be the first players to be ushered into the team’s new Hall of Fame. The Swedes will be there in Winnipeg, but not Hull: as Paul Friesen of The Winnipeg Sun advises, Hull is staying away because — well, “it’s believed he’s upset with media references to his past legal trouble, which involved claims of spousal abuse from his former wives and his daughter.”

Nilsson was 24 when he first arrived in the Manitoban capital in 1974, Hedberg 23. They hailed from Nynäshamn and Örnsköldsvik, respectively. Nilsson had starred for AIK and Hedberg at Djurgårdens IF; both were stalwarts of the Swedish national team.

Was Nilsson maybe the toughest Swede ever to play big-league hockey in North America? Murray Greig says so, in Big Bucks and Blue Pucks (1997), a history of the WHA. Like Borje Salming and Inge Hammarström, who’d crossed to the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs a year earlier, Nilsson and Hedberg found themselves … not exactly warmly welcomed the North American game. They were hacked and insulted — “took their initiation lumps,” as Mark Goodman later put it in Weekend Magazine.

It didn’t keep them from scoring. They both scored goals in the first game of the season and with Hull’s assistance, they kept on going. Nilsson finished the regular season with 94 assists and 120 points, while Hedberg (who also took home the league’s rookie-of-the-year trophy) notched 53 goals and 100 points.

Hull had seen enough of what he called “goon hockey” by the fall of the following year that in October of 1975 he staged a one-man wildcat strike, to protest hockey violence. “It’s been buggin’ him for a long time,” Jets GM Rudy Pilous said, “last year as well as this year.”

He was back after sitting out a single game. Did anything change? Hard to say. A few years later, in 1979, Anders Hedberg looked back on the nastiness he and Nilsson suffered when they first got to the WHA. “It’s always a problem when you let in anyone strange,” he told Goodman. “When something is established, you don’t want it to change because there’s no good reason to change it.” It made him think about Jackie Robinson. “Maybe we were a little bit like that when we first went to Canada. Through the press, guys would say, ‘Don’t come and take our jobs.’ But I think it enriches a sport for people from all over the world to play it. I like to think we bring something new to the game.”

Hedberg looked like he belonged in a Viking movie, Goodman said, and he had more speeds than a racing bike. Nilsson resembled “an American high school senior;” he handled the puck “like a Thai stick juggler.” By the time they left Winnipeg, they’d scored 376 goals between them in four seasons.

They jumped to the NHL in 1978. There was talk that they wanted to go to the Leafs, but they ended up as the New York Rangers’ best-paid players. They prospered in Manhattan, even though their production did decline (as yours would, too) without Bobby Hull on the wing.

The NHL wasn’t a whole lot easier on them than the WHA had been. Asked why referees didn’t call more penalties on players who attended the star Swedes with sticks and elbows and unpleasantries, Rangers’ coach Fred Shero thought about it for a moment.

“Well,” he said, “if we went and played in Sweden and Russia, we’d get the same treatment. I imagine the world is the same all over. Nobody likes a foreigner. What can you do? When it comes to foreigners playing here, we got to almost murder them before they call something.”

Ranger goaltender John Davidson sparked a brawl at Madison Square Garden in December of 1979 when he went after the Bruins’ Al Secord, whom he accused of “cheap-shotting Nilsson.”

A subsequent Associated Press report was careful to explain to its domestic readership: “Swedish players, because they prefer a finesse game, often attract rugged play.”

Davidson was happy to elaborate after the game. “They have so many welts on their bodies it looks like they’ve been barbecued,” he said of Nilsson and Hedberg. The AP dispatch went on to include the sentence fragments “several Bruins entered the stands and fought with spectators” and “four fans were issued summonses for disorderly conduct.”

“The two Swedes are considered among the league’s most polished players,” Dave Anderson noted a few days later in The New York Times. “Ulf Nilsson is the Rangers’ leading scorer with 37 points (nine goals, 28 assists). Anders Hedberg, the Rangers’ other Swedish import, is second with 35 points (19 goals, 16 assists).”

He had a larger point to make about the game with the Bruins, too:

Instead of acknowledging the European style and accepting the imports, NHL machos prefer to continue testing their toughness.

Following the melee, the Garden needed city policemen to disperse 200 spectators who threatened to overturn the bus.

Al Secord justified tripping the 165-pound Nilsson because, he said, the Swedish center had blind-sided him early in the third period, as if the Bruin defenseman had never been blind‐sided before. John Wensink, another Bruin, later called Ulf Nilsson “a little wimp,” but the NHL, even the Bruins, would be better with more little wimps like him.

(Image: University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, Winnipeg Tribune fonds, PC 18-6669-001neg)