hockey’s mr. clean

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

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

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

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

(Image: HockeyMedia & The Want List)

tijuana brash

Jean Béliveau, thoroughbreding through centre!

Frank Mahovlich, moosing down the wing past the Montreal blueline!

I don’t what it is about Blades and Brass, but it makes sense. If you’ve screened William Canning’s short film from back in bygone 1967, maybe you know this already. The old technicoloured hockey is fascinating in its own, though without the soundtrack, it just wouldn’t be the classic it is. Don Douglas wrote that, and Ken Campbell orchestrated it. Just what kind of sense the pairing of the hockey and the music makes, the how, and the why of it — that’s a whole other parcel of questions that might be better off left to itself, over there, in the shade, where maybe is it best if we just leave it unopened? The National Film Board’s catalogue copy has an understated charm that  surprises even as it fails to convey the near-perfect oddity of what you’re about to watch. “This short documentary showcases the best of the 1967 National Hockey League season, set to music in the Tijuana Brass style.”

Well, why not?

Jacques Laperriere!

Bobby Hull!

John Ferguson!

Forgive all the exclaiming, but I’m not sure there’s any other way to translate the footage to the page.

Terry Sawchuk! Eddie Giacomin! Gump Worsley in full flop!

Toronto’s Bob Pulford looking downcast! Béliveau wailing on Reggie Fleming of the New York Rangers! Phil Goyette, not seeing the shot that hits him amidships and drops him to the ice in painful anguish that causes you to shift in your seat, especially if you happen to be male! J.C. Tremblay carried off on a stretcher! One lonesome overshoe on the ice! The rink crew scraping up bloody slush! Toe Blake in a porkpie hat, chewing his chaw! Béliveau pressing a towel to a cut! Great goal, Claude Provost!

Blades And Brass is a masterpiece. Is there any doubting this? Watch it, the whole thing. It’s not long. Me, now — watching these 50-year-old scenes, I’m just not sure how I’m going to be able to endure the plain old modern non-mariachi NHL.

 

enemy bombers arriving in howell’s territory are rarely shot down

Baseball’s Opening Day yesterday, which is all the reason as I need to invoke the venerable name and prose virtues of Roger Angell who, at 96, remains the finest, most exacting of the game’s expressionists. I trust he watched the New York Yankees succumb on Sunday, 7-3 to the Tampa Bay Rays, and that he’ll be soon be weighing in at The New Yorker on Masahiro Tanaka and the flaws in his fastball.

Baseball, it’s true, has been Angell’s bread and … batter. But he knows his hockey, too. He’d tell you so himself, and there’s plenty of evidence in The New Yorker’s archives. Around this time of year in 1967, for instance, he penned a long “Sporting Scene” review of the up-and- down season of the New York Rangers as the team prepared to depart the third Madison Square Garden in favour of the brand-new fourth. “The Last Flowers in the Garden” finds Angell in a mood for nostalgia, recalling the heroes of good old days (Don Raleigh + the Gumper), even as he coddles hopes for the future (maybe they can hang on to second place as the playoffs loomed).

In the here-and-now of late-season ’67, Angell likes the team that GM Emile Francis has wrought, muscled as it is with Reg Fleming and Orland Kurtenbach, sped by forwards Rod Gilbert, Bob Nevin, and Phil Goyette, veteran’d with a 36-year-old Boom-Boom Geoffrion. Maybe the Rangers’ recent history has been one of failing at the finish, but Angell is feeling good: Francis, he feels, has “rebuilt their quaint, four-cylinder interior engine that used to poop out on every winter hillock.” The Rangers have been healthy and playing well: who knows what might happen once the Stanley Cup is in play?

It’s in this spirit that Angell keys in on another veteran, a 34-year-old son of Hamilton, Ontario, pictured here above. “The sudden and absolute apotheosis of Harry Howell, the handsome gray-haired defenseman who has been with the team since 1952 and has played in more Ranger games than anyone else in club history” is, in Angell’s eye, one of the best stories of the season. As he says, memorably:

Over the years, Harry’s sincere, fatherly competence had won him more admiration from the ladies at the Garden than from the sportswriters, but early this season it became apparent to everybody that at last, at the age of thirty-four, he had developed into the best defenceman in the league. Enemy bombers arriving in Howell’s territory are rarely shot down; they seem, rather, to fly into a wall of wet Kleenex and stick there, kicking. When carrying the puck through a cloud of opposing forecheckers and up to the safety of center ice, Howell has the reassuring, mistake-proof elegance of a veteran waiter managing a loaded tray in heavy dinner traffic. This year, relieved by better defense and goaltending, he is no longer burdened with the notion that he must hurry back instantly, and help out at the steam tables, and his low, accurate shots from the blue line have brought him more goals and assists than most of the team’s forwards. In the midseason balloting, Howell was a unanimous choice for the league’s all-star team.

born with a black eye: one more requiem for reggie fleming

reggie-f-helm

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.

•••

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.

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, 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.”

reggie-f-egg

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

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see change: did bob nevin ever find his contact?

contacts

Readers write and what they want to know, many of them, has to do with the scene depicted here. Just this: did Bob Nevin ever find his contact lens that night in Chicago in 1962?

No, never did.

And it wasn’t Jack Evans who knocked it out, either. Time, then, for an update.

It was March and Toronto was at the old Chicago Stadium to play the Black Hawks. The game that ensued was “brisk, boisterous” (The Globe and Mail) and/or “tough, nasty” (Toronto Daily Star). On his way to scoring 50 goals for the first time in his career, Chicago winger Bobby Hull put away his 44th on the night. A teammate, meanwhile, defenseman Reggie Fleming, got into a post-game fight with three already-fighting fans, which led to the rest of the rest of the Hawks joining in to help. For the Leafs, winger Bert Olmstead was knocked out just before that when, to quote a Globe and Mail account, he “plunged into the boards, head first, near the end of the game after firing a shot at the Chicago goal.” Revived, he went to the hospital for x-rays of his head and shoulder, which revealed that he’d cracked his acromion. (“Ed. note,” advised the Globe’s Rex MacLeod — “everybody has one.”) He’d be back in two weeks, for the playoffs.

The Leafs won the game, 3-2. First to score was Nevin, in the third minute of the opening period. Six minutes into the second, he was detached from the contact lens he was wearing in his left eye. That’s according to the Star; The Chicago Tribune thought it was both lenses (and that there should have been a penalty):  

Dollard St. Laurent, Hawk defenseman, first caught Mr. Nevin in the corner, lined him up, and then gave him a body slam. As Nevin started to collapse, Dolly landed a short left hook that Referee Eddie Powers didn’t see, and then collapsed on the prone Nevin — knees first.

Play continued after Nevin arose, but the swift Toronto right winger just stood in one spot motionless, yelling for help. Time was called and players from both teams dropped to hands and knees searching for the lenses. They never were found, and Nevin groped thru the remainder of the game.

The Star would commemorate the moment in cartoon a few days later, while also noting that Nevin was one of the NHL’s most improved players of late. “Bob’s improvement,” Red Burnett wrote, “goes back to the time that general manager and coach Punch Imlach started to use him as a penalty killer with Bob Pulford and moved him on the line with Pulford and the injured Bert Olmstead. It seems Nevin thrives on extra ice time.”

For his part, Harold Ballard, Leafs’ VP and chair of the team’s hockey committee, mourned the cost of Nevin’s lost eyewear. “There goes another $100,” he said.

nevin contact

Update: Another search for a contact lost on Chicago ice in 1965 looked like this.

In other sundry NHL contact news from the 1960s:

• Centreman Eddie Joyal was leading the Los Angeles Kings in scoring in January of 1969 when he collided with an Oakland Seals’ defenseman, Bryan Watson, and the contact in his left eye “shattered.” The Associated Press reported that while Joyal suffered a corneal laceration, “a medical doctor said there is no permanent damage.”

Dr. Robert Kerlan said Joyal will wear a heavy bandage over the left eye and miss four games or more.

How he’d play without his lenses was a question Joyal was asked back in ’62 when he was playing in the minors. “If I lose ’em,” he said, “there’d better be a seeing-eye dog that can wear skates.” For the Kings, he did return, finishing the season with 52 points. That was well back of Phil Esposito’s Art Ross-winning total of 126, but still good enough to lead Los Angeles. 

• Also in 1969, Ottawa Citizen columnist Jim Coleman wrote about 40-year-old Leaf defender Tim Horton, who just happened to have scored the second goal in that game in Chicago in 1962:

When admiring team-mates are discussing Horton’s physical distinctions, the conversation smacks of a menagerie because, when they speak of Horton, they say: “he’s as strong as a buffalo and he’s as blind as a bat.”

Horton is notorious in the NHL for his allegedly poor eyesight. Ever since he was a youngster, he has worn spectacles off the ice. When he went to [in 1949, AHL] Pittsburgh, his employers insisted that he should equip himself with contact lenses so he could see the puck.

Twelve years ago when the Leafs were training at Sudbury, Tim forgot to take his contact lenses to camp.

“I’ve been playing without them for the last 12 years,” Horton says. “I’ve been hoping that no one would notice.”

For a 40-year-old with allegedly weak eyesight, Horton is doing okay. Gordie Howe and Horton probably will be the first two men to play regularly in the NHL at the age of 50.

fine, then

Montreal defenceman Ken Reardon at home with his gun collection, circa 1950.

His New York Rangers won the game, beating the Philadelphia Flyers 3-2, but coach John Tortorella didn’t like the work of referees Ian Walsh and Dennis LaRue in last week’s NHL Winter Classic. Especially galling, I guess, was the penalty shot awarded to the Flyers with 19.6 seconds remaining. “I’m not sure if NBC got together with the refs or what to turn this into an overtime game,” Tortorella said after it was all over. “For two good refs, I thought the game was reffed horribly. I’m not sure what happened there.”

“Maybe they wanted to get into overtime. I’m not sure if they had meetings about that or what. But we stood in there. I don’t want to … because they are good guys. I just thought it was, in that third period, it was disgusting.”

By Wednesday, Tortorella was on the phone apologizing to the Flyers and — well, for the refs, he wanted to wait and do it in person. He did say sorry to the league’s Colin Campbell, too, though that didn’t keep the NHL from fining him $30,000.

A quick look back, then, through hockey’s annals of paying the price: Continue reading

reading earl mcrae

With the death of Ottawa Sun columnist Earl McRae at 69 on Saturday, this week’s required reading is going to have to be Requiem For Reggie (Chimo). I have to say I haven’t seen anything of McRae’s more recent than that 1977 collection of his sportswriting, but I’ll be happy to exalt his memory based on re-reading his 1970 profile of NHL goal judge Eddie Mepham alone. In his spry introduction, Trent Frayne measures McRae’s acuity as a writer by how many of his subjects — including Derek Sanderson, Reggie Fleming, and Phil Esposito — were so startled by his perception in what he’d written about them, they refused to talk to him ever again. Continue reading