under review: writing the good fight

 

A version of this review appeared in the December, 2021 edition of the Literary Review of Canada.

Why did a couple of Zacks feel the need to shed their gloves that October evening in Edmonton in early October to fling fists at each other’s heads? Could be, I guess, that Zack Kassian, a winger for the NHL Oilers, disparaged Zack McEwen’s manhood, mother, or mien. It was the NHL’s pre-season still, so maybe McEwen, then a Vancouver Canuck, wanting to audition for his own coach, asked his rival for the pleasure of the punch in the time-honoured way of these things: “You wanna go?”

Was this a warning we were seeing, or maybe a dose of vengeance? Was it fulfillment of an arcane rite only understood by Zacks? There was some suggestion that Vancouver’s forwards had sinned by skating too close to Oiler goaltender Mike Smith, and so there was (in the parlance) a price to be paid, which required (as laid out, possibly, in the game’s opaque Code) a message to be delivered.

It’s easy to make light of hockey’s theatre of the brutally absurd, but in the quick chaos, Kassian lost his helmet, then his footing, fell, headfirst, to the ice, was knocked out. He revived, eventually, and left the ice under his own power, a towel pressed to his right temple. It was all over, then, except for the talking. “He’s got a pretty good bump on his head,” said Kassian’s coach, Dave Tippett. “It’s one of those ones that upsets you when that happens.”

“It’s scary, it’s terrible, it’s not cool,” said a young Vancouver defenceman, Quinn Hughes. “It probably didn’t need to happen.”

And that was mostly it, so far as further reckoning went. There was nothing, certainly, forthcoming from the NHL, which maintains both a rulebook and a Department of Player Safety.

According to the website hockeyfights.com, where these things are reverently logged and parsed, that Zack-on-Zack fight was the 39th (and counting) of Kassian’s 12-year NHL career, the 13th in four years for McEwen. Nowhere is there such a ready archive where you can look into the motives of any given hockey fight, no register of messages sent and received, no docket of damages done. In Canada, we’re so generally socialized to hockey’s culture of on-ice assault that October’s clash of Zacks made no more impression within the sport, the culture, or the Edmonton Police Department than the last time one hockey player punched another in the head. Will the next time be any different?

•••

Questions, questions, questions.

They hang in a haze over the NHL’s ice that never quite dissipates, though the fighting goes on.

Are hockey fights a good idea? Is the difference between a brawl on the street outside Edmonton’s Rogers Place and one that breaks out inside, on the ice, still sufficient to accommodate hockey’s proud exceptionalism? Do angry physical attacks really deserve a place in a game that purports to be for everybody? What do they say about our civil society? What about the potential for harm? Why use them to market the product you’re selling? Could it possibly be true that the blows that the punches that hockey players punch are (actually) a marvelous safety measure without which the game would teach us all the true meaning of mayhem?

Madison Mayhem: “The fight was a honey,” the New York Daily News reported in November of 1937 after New York’s Phil Watson collided with Dave Trottier of Montreal’s Maroons. “They ditched sticks in a hurry and began throwing punches.”

You don’t have to be especially timid or a paragon of moral rectitude to interrogate hockey violence, despite what some fighting enthusiasts in the public square might suggest. You should know that the search for answers might take you in unexpected destinations. The bookshelf, for example, as old-fashioned a resource as that might seem in the digital present.

And yet it is true that the sport’s library has added, over the years, a positive melee of memoirs by former — I was going to say goons, but won’t, since that’s considered a dire insult to the honest folk who put in the time to do the dirty work that others won’t, the keeping of the peace, the protecting of the honour, the delivering of the messages, the doing of time in the penalty box. You’d know this if you’d come across Don’t Call Me Goon: Hockey’s Greatest Enforcers, Gunslingers, and Bad Boys, an actual book, from 2013, by Greg Oliver and Richard Kamchen, or if you’d spent weeks immersed in the prose of hockey’s rowdies, ruffians, heavyweights, tough guys, and policemen. Take note: the term of art preferred by the artisans themselves seems to be enforcer.

What exactly do hockey enforcers enforce? That’s not always easy to glean, whether you’re watching the game or reading about it. Not the rules, obviously. John Ferguson (52 fights) offers an explanation in his 1989 memoir Thunder and Lightning, in which he makes the case that he was the league’s original enforcer. His remit, as he understood it: beyond his regular workaday within-the-rules duties, he was to intervene “to maintain decorum if anyone tried to trifle” with Jean Béliveau (7 fights), or Bernie Geoffrion (6), or with “any of our other stars.”

Uh-huh. Of course, Ferguson is here using “maintain decorum” in the hockey sense, where it more commonly means “commit assault.” But if you pay any attention to the NHL at all, you’re used to the ways in which language abstracts the game’s violent tendencies.

There’s nothing particularly insidious in a broadcaster, rinkside reporter, Twitterer, or NHL executive resorting to arcane terms (donnybrook, fisticuffs) or euphemisms (dropping the gloves i.e. the mitts, squaring off, going at it, chucking the knuckles, in a boutthat may also be a tussle, scrap, scuffle, or maybe just someone was taking liberties, that’s what the extra-curriculars are all about, other than showing emotion, sending messages, & etc.). It’s normal, natural enough — but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t downplay and normalize the bone-hard brutality of hockey fights, the injuries that result, the examples they set.

They’re a conservative bunch, the enforcers, until, sometimes, they’re not. Dave Schultz was the primary puncher for the Philadelphia Flyers when they ran roughshod to a pair of Stanley Cup championships in the 1970s. The Hammer they called him in the unruly years when he was bashing out new records for penalty minutes, throwing his weight into 164 fights. In 1981, a year after he retired from all that, Schultz enlisted Stan Fischler as his co-writer and published a memoir in which he all but renounced the life he’d been living, pondering withal what might be done to change the culture in which he and his Flyers thrived. He also accused his former captain, Bobby Clarke, of cowardice.

Clarke (36 fights) happens to have led a call for the NHL to abolish fighting in 1976, when he was head of the players’ association. (It wasn’t heard.) Champions of bellicose hockey like to point out that the game has always been violent, how can you possibly engineer it otherwise at this late date? Chris Nilan played 13 NHL seasons, helped Montreal win a Stanley Cup championship; the nearly 60 hours he spent in penalty boxes count as the fifth most ever to be accumulated in NHL history, and they include sanctions for 196 career fights. What would hockey be without fighting? “It is simply part of the game, deeply embedded in it, and at its core,” he wrote in his 2013 book Fighting Back, “and it provides hockey with so much of the emotion, spirit, and energy that make it special.”

•••

The first rule of the NHL’s fight club is that no-one in the league’s corporate structure really wants to talk too much about all the punching or its consequences. The worry is, I believe, that all those wolfish lawsuits that roam the land might hear, and circle closer, which just puts everybody in danger.

When someone like the league’s Commissioner, Gary Bettman, does speak up, the message to reporters and legislators and sundry detractors tends to come in same frame that Clarence Campbell carpentered in the 1970s, towards the end of his 31-year reign as league president. When he wasn’t telling critics to mind their own business, Campbell would settle back on his long expertise, advising (as he did in 1975) that, “I feel that the safest and most satisfactory reaction to being fouled is by retaliating with a punch in the nose.”

It was Campbell, too, who may have first come up with the formulation of hockey as some kind of steam-powered 19th-century industrial sporting locomotive whose machinery, which is ever in danger of overheating, has never been upgraded. With temperatures running so hot, of course you need a regulator. “Fighting on the ice is a safety valve,” Campbell explained in 1969. “Stop it and players would no doubt develop more subtle forms of viciousness.

Gloves Off: “The fight, or rather fights, were swell and snapped 5,000 dozing customers erect in their seats,” the New York Daily News advised after this Manhattan meeting between the local Americans and the Toronto Maple Leafs in March of 1940. Wearing #2 is Eddie Shore, along with (#6) teammate Charlie Conacher. Leafs’ Bob Davidson is their quarry.

The NHL has, it’s true, been beset by legal challenges in recent years. In 2018, the NHL arranged a US$18.9-million settlement with 318 former players who felt that the league has minimized the long-term risks of brain trauma. Hockey’s concussion crisis is separate from, if not unrelated to, the issue of fighting’s place in the game. The NHL doesn’t really want to talk about concussions, either, so that’s one area of overlap; another relates to what medical science has been steadily revealing about what can happen to brains that are battered in sports like hockey.

The brains of boxers have been showing signs of deep damage, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, going back to the 1920s. While post-mortem studies of the brains of football players confirmed the presence of CTE in 2006, the first hockey case wasn’t confirmed until 2009, following the death of a furious NHL enforcer from the 1960s and ’70s, Reggie Fleming (73 fights).

I’d contend that since then — post-Fleming — many of the default rationalizations that hockey leaders reach for when it comes to arguing that fighting is a necessity feel increasingly unconvincing. Less than plausible. Derek Boogaard (66 fights) died in 2011, followed by an appalling succession of other, too-young former fighters, some by suicide, other by “natural” causes: Wade Belak (136), Rick Rypien (38), Steve Montador (69), Todd Ewen (150).

Checking back in on Gary Bettman, he has at least updated the technological metaphor that his league uses to help stall on the status quo. “The threat of fighting,” he earnestly told a parliamentary committee in Ottawa in 2019, “has people believe it’s an important thermostat in the game.”

•••

Is there another sport with a literature so swollen with the memoirs of so many of its lesser talents? Can you name any other game that takes such serious interest in players whose main role and renown is in straying beyond the rules of play? Hockey’s goons are often, of course, beloved as teammates, fêted by fans. Tie Domi (278), Georges Laraque (142), John Scott (44), Bob Probert (242): all of them were celebrities in skates and out. Fans chanted their names, wore sweaters bearing their names and numbers; why wouldn’t they now buy the autobiographies the hockey fighters publish?

That they do is not surprising, or controversial. It’s not news that fans revere role players like Shawn Thornton, the latest heavily penalized NHLer, a puncher in 168 fights, to publish an autobiography. As Terry Ryan, an experienced hockey combatant in his own right (4 NHL fights) as well as a vivid storyteller, has written that hockey players who make a business of punching are “some of the most interesting, funny, charismatic players you’ll ever come across in sports,” as well as “the most genuine and charitable.” Do you have to deny that to wonder why it’s an argument in favour of keeping fighting in the game? You don’t.

•••

In his cocksure 2017 memoir Offside, Sean Avery (83 fights) tells how he once smoked a joint with actress Scarlett Johansson, also kissed her, and “gave her a bit of unexpected sass.” Tie Domi’s Shift Work (2015) explores the author’s views on manscaping, and divulges that he was the very first NHLer to own a Blackberry.

The literature of hockey enforcement, it’s fair to say, contains multitudes.

Some memoirs are livelier than others, more insightful, forthright, better-written. Georges Laraque’s self-titled 2011 foray, for instance. The son of Haitian immigrants, the former Edmonton Oiler winger reflects on the violence he faced from his own father and the racism that poisoned his childhood in Montreal. No-one he knew as a boy believed it was possible that he’d grow up to play in the NHL, “because of the colour of my skin, a colour that would never be suitable for the whiteness of the ice.” Hockeyfights.com tallies Laraque’s NHL combats at 142, and he spends plenty of time talking about those — when he’s not weighing in on why he’s vegan, his commitment to animal rights, or his time as deputy leader of the Green Party of Canada.

In The Grim Reaper: The Life and Career of a Reluctant Warrior (2019), Stu Grimson (207 NHL fights) offers a thoughtful and often surprising accounting of hockey violence — and of his Christian faith and the peace it’s brought him. “Not everyone could reconcile that I was a Christian whose job involved hurting others,” he writes. He never saw a contradiction: “Who better than Christian to take on the role of protector?”

Pain Killer: A Memory of Big League Addiction (2021) is a harrowing chronicle of the toll that hockey fighting took on Brantt Myhres (58 fights). He survived his addictions and built back a life, he tells us, which makes his book something of a companion to Boy On Ice, John Branch’s devastating 2014 account of the life of Derek Boogaard’s tragic trajectory that ended with his death, in 2011, from an overdose of painkillers and alcohol.

Sean Avery’s is as frank as any of the hockey-fighter memoirs, but if that’s a solace, it’s a sour one. Avery has many titillating tales to share in Offside, lots of disdain to distpense, scores to settle; what’s not entirely clear is what it was — ego? arrogance? — that curdled his personality and left him wandering the world as Not A Nice Person.

The further you trail back with these memoirists, the less defensive they are on the page. “Hockey’s a fast game and tempers flare real quickly,” the late Dave Semenko (73) explains in Looking Out For Number One (1989). “That’s when the fighting comes in. It only lasts a little while. You don’t see a lot of guys getting hurt from it. The majority of times you’ll get your equipment messed up and that’s about it.”

Other than Dave Schultz, these are authors without regrets. “If I could, I’d do it all over again,” Chris Nilan declares in Fighting Back. “Wouldn’t change a thing.” That’s right before he talks about “swimming in alcohol and burying myself in pills” to deal with the pain he still suffers, 29 years after he last played in the NHL.”

The enforcers don’t generally lash out at fighting critics, either. Rob Ray (248 fights) is one of the few to come out whingeing about people who don’t (as he writes) “get it.”

Ray punched people for a living, but he didn’t just punch people. How was it his fault if people watching NHL games didn’t bother to learn that hockey’s “intangibles don’t get printed on the scoresheet.” And hey, parents: it wasn’t his job to be a role model, or to teach kids the difference between right and wrong.

As might be seen to befit his blue-collar roots as an Irish kid from Oshawa, Ontario, Shawn Thornton isn’t blaming anyone, or shifting his focus too far beyond his own understanding of the value (and values) of hard work and personal responsibility. Thornton, who’s 44, played 14 NHL seasons, winning two Stanley Cup championships along the way. He seems like a stand-up guy, a stout family man, a good friend, great teammate. It’s easy to cheer for him, if only because, well, everybody’s doing it, all through the book. Plumped by fond tributes from many former colleagues Fighting My Way To The Top, published in the fall of 2021, often has the feel of a going-away card that’s made its way around the office ahead of the retirement of a cherished co-worker — supposing that at your office you now and then bare your knuckles over by the copier.

“I knew full well the job I signed up to do,” Thornton writes. “I did what I had to do.” Why? Because “the game is a pressure cooker, and fighting helps remove the lid and relieve some of that pressure.” Being a sous-chef in charge of crockpots wasn’t easy, Thornton explains in his entirely affable way. It was actually hard, kind of like being a cop, or working in a steel factory, sometimes the anxiety made it hard to sleep at night, sometimes a teammate got hurt, which meant Thornton had a duty to do, that he did, even if sometimes that meant fighting friends who played for other teams, who then got hurt, he hurt them, unfortunately, nobody wanted that, but, hey: “It was just part of the job.”

The reward? Well, Thornton was, of course, paid well, a handsome US$3-million for his last three seasons in the NHL, though that doesn’t come up in the book. Respect is the currency that he seems to value over most others, and he sounds satisfied that he earned his share as an NHLer.

Thornton doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to tutor the next generation, which, I guess, counts as some kind of progress. Because whether you’re an eager student or not, these books do, taken together, amount to some of kind of masterclass in hockey fighting. John Ferguson: “When I fought, I liked to keep my hands moving and get my legs set wide apart.” Bob Probert: “The fights I did best in were the ones I was truly mad and upset.” Dave Schultz: “My technique was predicated on getting my right arm free to swing at my opponent.” Sean Avery: “My strategy is to be tactical and to not actually get hit, but to show patience until BOOM you can catch your opponent with a solid punch after he’s thrown four or five wild ones and is starting to get tired.”

If it isn’t outlandish enough that sentences like those are a recurring feature of Canadian letters, wait until you get into what the fighters are writing about their own breakages and the prospects of what the future might hold.

“My situation went from bad to nightmarish when he connected with three left-hand jackhammer punches to my face,” Stu Grimson confides. Rob Ray: “I broke my knuckles fighting against Ottawa’s Dennis Vial in 1994. I had my jaw broken, and all the disks in my jaw are gone.” (Vial’s fight total, since we’re keeping score: 87.)

In some of the memoirs published since signs of CTE were discovered  in Reggie Fleming’s brain,  the enforcers gaze grimly into the future. “Getting hit repeatedly in the head is a bad thing that happens repeatedly,” Chris Nilan allows in the opening chapter of his Fighting Back. “The trauma has to do lasting damage.”

Tie Domi bustles by, quick as he can. “I am not one of those people who can weigh in on concussions or the other health issues that some guys in hockey are going through.” That’s Shawn Thornton’s line, too, more or less: “I see that some people express concerns about head trauma, concussions, CTE … But as I said earlier, we all sign up for this and we all get the benefits of being NHL players.”

Saddest of all might be Rob Ray, who published Rayzor’s Edge in 2007, when he was 39: “I try to hope that medical technology will have improved enough in the future so that they’ll be able to fix me up when I’m older.”

•••

Questions, questions.

If hockey’s fighting is so dreadful, why has it endured so long? Aren’t the fighters consenting adults? How come fans all leap to their feet every time the fists flurry? Doesn’t the violence sometimes enliven a team that’s lost its mojo; can’t a punch-up change the energy of a game?

I’ve heard the answers, mulled them. Do they contain compelling arguments for maintaining the status quo when it comes to fighting? I don’t see them. Any of those, for me, are superseded by the potential for harm that every bare-knuckle fight presents. No matter what messages need sending, there has to be a better way.

Does the NHL’s own Department of Player Safety have an opinion on this? Not to mention (may I just mention) the official NHL rulebook. If you’re dipping into the statutes contained therein at all, I’d suggest you bypass the five pages of hows and wherefores relating to Rule 46, the league’s official ordinance on fighting. Instead, I’d direct you to Rule 21, which governs match penalties. The latter is much more succinct in stipulating the fate of any player who attempts to injure another — out of the game, gone. Intent doesn’t figure in; you only need to be attempting to do harm. What is a punch in the head if not an attempt to injure? But no NHL fight, Zacks-only or otherwise, ends with match penalties, and no-one is surprised by — or even discusses — the league’s ongoing willful flouting of its own explicit regulations.

Earlier this year, in another NHL season, Zack Kassian missed 17 games after breaking a hand punching an Ottawa defenceman. In the aftermath of his more recent October fight, he was ready to ready to return to Edmonton’s line-up just a week after hitting his head on the ice.

“It’s an unfortunate injury,” shrugged his coach, Dave Tippett (1 NHL fight as a player). “You can get hurt with by a shot, you can get hurt in a fight. Injuries happen in hockey. Always, all different ways, not just fighting.”

Kassian himself was just grateful. “It’s an emotional game and things boil over,” he told reporters. “Obviously when you see pictures of my situation, first thing that comes to mind is stop fighting. But fighting’s been in the game a very long time, it’s what makes hockey unique.”

He owed so much to punching and being punched, Kassian said. “It’s one of my attributes that made me a unique player. It’s given my family a great life and it’s something I enjoy doing.”

Why.

Emptied Benches: A meeting of Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden during the 1977-78 NHL season.

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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 know what it is about Blades and Brass that makes sense where, really, there should be none, but it does make … 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