(© Arthur Griffin Courtesy of the Griffin Museum of Photography. Photograph may not be reproduced in any form per the copyright holder. All rights reserved.)
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.
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.”
I understand now, but for a while there I assumed that
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
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.
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.
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.”
(All images courtesy of Rob Webster)