riverton’s rifle

Born in Riverton, Manitoba, in 1950 on a Sunday in April of this date, Reggie Leach is 70 today. Just why he still hasn’t been voted to hockey’s Hall of Fame remains a mystery, but the oversight does nothing to diminish what he accomplished as a goalscorer in the NHL. Best known as a Flyer, Leach was never better than he was in the spring of 1976, which is when he scored five goals in a decisive Conference-Final game against the Boston Bruins in the Conference Finals on his way to notching 19 goals in 16 playoff games. Though Philadelphia fell to the Montreal Canadiens in the finals, Leach was named winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy that year, as playoff MVP, the only non-goaltender in NHL history to win the award as a member of the losing team.

With an assist from Randi Druzin, Reggie Leach published a memoir in 2015, The Riverton Rifle: Straight Shooting on Hockey and on Life. I had a chance to talk to him at the time, on assignment for Slapshot Diaries. I asked him about goaltenders; here’s what he told me:

Q: You scored a lot of goals in the NHL. Was there one goaltender who gave you particular problems?

A: You mean one goaltender I couldn’t score on? Gerry Cheevers. I did score some goals on him, but he was one of the hardest goaltenders for me to score on. I couldn’t figure him out.

When I played, I used to watch the warm-ups all the time and practice shooting from different spots. Where I was dangerous was top of the circle, and out farther. I wasn’t that great inside, I don’t think. Kenny Dryden: the easiest goaltender, for me. Yep. Because Kenny was scared of my shot. And I beat him high all the time, always over the shoulder.

Gerry Cheevers, I’ll tell you a story. When I was in Boston, I remember going to practice as a rookie and as a rookie you just go all-out, you just shoot it, and I go in there and I put one past Cheevers and I thought, Yeah, I beat him. But Gerry, if you hit him with a puck, he’d chase you down the ice. I hit him one time in his chest, he chased me with his stick, and the guys were all laughing, they didn’t tell me that. Gerry Cheevers would stand, no lie, all he did was stand in net, stand there, wave his stick. Right? And that was his practice. And if you hit him, he’d chase you down the ice.

But goaltenders are really strange. Our thing with Bernie Parent, we’d say, Bernie, you weren’t that goddamn good, you only had 18 shots a game. He was funny. One time in Vancouver he comes in — he always smoked the cigar, right — he’d come in with the cigar and say, Boys, I feel good, give me one goal today, that’s it. And guys would be smiling, great, yeah, we only have to get the one goal. And 99 per cent of the time, that’s all we needed, the one goal. That’s the way he was. And Bernie actually stayed out to practice his angle-shots all the time. I would shoot the puck at him and I’d tell him, Bernie, just move over a bit more, and he’d say, Just shoot the puck, I’ll do the moving. He would have everything all angled out, left-handed shots versus right-handed, he would work on that, the only goaltender I ever saw who worked on something after a practice was Bernie. All the other ones I played with never did.

swede + sourpuss

Born in Sundsvall in Sweden on a Tuesday of this date in 1948, Inge Hammarstrom turns 72 today. Featured here on the cover of a Maple Leafs program from Febraury of 1974, Hammarstrom was 25 when he and his 22-year-old compatriot, Borje Salming, joined Toronto Maple Leafs for the ’73-74 NHL season. Celebrated in Toronto, where Hammarstrom’s speed and left-wing wile made an early impression on a line with Darryl Sittler and Rick Kehoe, the Swedes were not so kindly welcomed in other NHL markets. The Leafs went to Philadelphia to play the unruly Flyers two games into the season, losing by two goals to none. “I don’t think they like Swedish boys,” Salming said after a game in which he was lustily speared by Flyers defenceman Ed Van Impe. “They don’t play hard, they play dirty.” Philadelphia winger Bill Flett told the Daily News that he’d chatted with Hammarstrom early on in the first period. “I told him that the first time he touched the puck, I’d break his arm.”

The Swedes showed no signs of intimidation. Hammarstrom finished his rookie season with a respectable 20 goals and 43 points; Salming, for his part, came in third in voting for the Calder Trophy that New York Islanders’ defenceman Denis Potvin won.

The Leafs fell to Boston’s Bruins in the first round of the playoffs that year. When in the fall of the following season they stumbled out of the gate, winning just five of their first 16 games, Leaf president and 70-year-old miserable curmudgeon Harold Ballard announced that the players should be ashamed to walk the streets of Toronto.

Coach Red Kelly wasn’t driving the team hard enough, Ballard told the Globe and Mail’s Lawrence Martin, and captain Dave Keon was derelict in his duty as Leafs’ leader. (Asked if he thought any of his Leafs were showing captainly qualities, Ballard singled out a winger the team had acquired in the off-season: Bill Flett.) On went Ballard’s rant, and on. “Things are too damned serene around here,” he griped. “That’s the trouble. I think we’re too fat.” No-one on the team was hitting. It was here that he (famously) picked on one of his second-year Swedes: “You could send Hammarstrom into the corner with six eggs in his pocket,” he sneered, “and he wouldn’t break any of them.”

If Ballard was hoping to jolt his team back to the win column, the bluster didn’t immediately do the job: the Pittsburgh Penguins beat them 8-5 next game out, and it took them five more outings before they eked out a victory. The Leafs did find eventually find their way into the playoffs the following spring, lasting two rounds before they were ousted by Philadelphia, the eventual champions.

Hammarstrom almost matched his rookie numbers that year, scoring 21 goals and 41 points. He’d skate for the Leafs in parts of three further seasons before a trade sent him to St. Louis in 1977. He played two seasons with the Blues before returning to finish his career at home in Sweden.

jack attacks

On The Fly: Defenceman Jack McIlhargey started his NHL career with the Philadelphia Flyers in 1974. Along with Larry Goodenough, McIlhargey and his moustache arrived  in Vancouver in 1977 by way of a trade that sent Bob Dailey to Philadelphia. McIlhargey worked the Canucks’ blueline for parts of four seasons before finishing his career with the Hartford Whalers. Today, aged 67, McIlhargey works an amateur scout back where he started out, with Philadelphia’s Flyers.

fred the fog

Born in Winnipeg on a Friday of this date in 1925, Fred Shero was a stout defenceman for the New York Rangers in the late 1940s long before he made his name (and won two Stanley Cups) as coach of the unforgiving Philadelphia Flyers in the early 1970s. Shero, who was inducted into hockey’s Hall of Fame in 2013, later went on to serve as coach and GM of the Rangers. He died at the age of 65 in 1990. “There must be something more to life than hockey,” he told Trent Frayne in 1974. “I look around and I see brainy men, people I went to school with, contributing to society in important ways. A friend of mine is a chest surgeon on the west coast and another is a defence attorney. I was smarter than they were in school and look what they’ve done and what I’m doing. I feel maybe I could have been the same thing, and I wonder sometimes what the hell I’m doing in hockey.”

(Image: Ken Bell)

flin flon’s flyer

Dressed For Success: Born on a Saturday of this date in 1949 in Flin Flon, Manitoba, Bobby Clarke is 70 today. The Philadelphia Flyers he captained in the early 1970s raised two Stanley Cups, of course, and he won a Masterton and a Selke Trophy for himself, along with (three times) the Hart Memorial Trophy he’s brandishing here in his best duds. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1987. Is this not the time or place to mention that he broke Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle with a craven slash in the sixth game of the 1972 Summit Series? Probably not.

once a blueshirt

“I haven’t stopped the puck this well in years,” a 29-year-old John Davidson was saying in the fall of 1982 as he prepared to for his return to the New York Rangers’ crease after months of injury. “It’s a combination of hard work and experience. Starting off again is kind of new to me, and it feels good. It feels good to get out with the guys and contribute.” Davidson lost his first start of the season 3-2 to the New Jersey Devils, but five days later he helped the Rangers beat the Philadelphia Flyers by a score of 5-2 at Madison Square Garden. “The Flyers are a back-alley team,” he enthused after that one. “They come to play the game and work hard. This was a good, old-fashioned, hard-fought, knee-crawling hockey game. Whether you play in Philadelphia or here, you know you’re going to be in a battle and you look forward to it — you look forward to just going to war … and it was a war tonight.”

It also happened to be the last game of Davidson’s 10-year NHL career.

A few days after the Flyers’ game, at practice, Rangers’ assistant coach Walt Tkaczuk came in on a breakaway, deked, and — Davidson felt his back go. “When it went, it went,” he said later. “I felt a kind of jolt, like an electric shock.” Disc surgery ended his season before October was out, and though he focussed on making a return to the ice, by the summer of 1983 he was ready to call it quits. For all the trouble his back had given him, it took a knee to force him out, finally — the left one. “It’s full of arthritis and calcium,” he said. “I’m 30 years old and I guess my knee is 45 or 50.”

Davidson went into broadcasting and then, in 2006, hockey management. After six years as president of the St. Louis Blues, he took the helm of the Columbus Blue Jackets, a job he kept until he resigned last week. Now 66, Davidson made his return to the Rangers as the team’s new president. “New York’s special. There’s only one New York,” is what he told reporters who gathered today at MSG. “Once you figure it out, and it gets in your blood, it’s there forever. It’s a special place to win and that’s what we plan on doing.’’

damage report

The Costs of Doing Business: Artist LeRoy Neiman’s 1974 portrait of pain shows some of the damage André “Moose” Dupont sustained playing defence. Drafted by the New York Rangers, Dupont made his name in Philadelphia, where as a feisty Flyer he helped win two Stanley Cups in the mid-1970s. He also served time with St. Louis and Quebec before retiring in 1983.