Username Post: Reggie Fleming passes away at 73...
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07-11-09 05:57 PM - Post#1087208    
    In response to Vile79

Reggie was one of my early favorites. I recall him having a tremendous fight with John Ferguson - one in which I thought Reggie got the better of.

RIP to one of original warriors.

Some of you may have read this before, but it as an award winning article written in 1975 by Earl McRae about Reggie Fleming. Stan Fischler called it "the greatest hockey story ever written". Figured it's as good a time as any to repost it:

The title is "Requiem for Reggie".

The storm howls over the dark and empty fields of the American Midwest, ragged clouds of snow sweep blindly across the headlights. The storm is getting worse as the night deepens. Reggie Fleming hunches over the steering wheel, silent, his eyes unblinking as they squint into the blizzard. Slowly his right foot presses down until the car is charging wildly into the night at 75 miles an hour, 20 over the speed limit. In the green reflection from the dashboard, Reggie Fleming's face is almost grotesque, the lumps and furrows from 18 seasons of violent warfare in pro hockey casting their own proud shadows. Fleetingly, his face is illuminated by the headlights of passing vehicles, the effect that of the horror face that jumps out of the darkness at the carnival. Fleming drives on in silence, the only sound the erratic rush of the wind along the windows.

He's 39 now, Fleming, but looks older; his hair, once a thick and golden brushcut, running thin and wispy, his stomach fat and soft. It's hard to believe he was once, and not so long ago, 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. He was a fighter and a good one and as long as he was that, the czars of hockey embraced him. When he wasn't, when he couldn't fight anymore, when he wouldn't fight anymore, the czars of hockey kissed him off and forgot about him. It was as if he had never existed. And the hurt was more than any he had ever felt on the ice. It hurt because he fought, he says, not for pleasure or profit but out of duty. His was the role of the good cop, always reflecting on his own special station in life, loyally serving the czars, nurturing his loyalty to friends and, above all, dedicating himself to the cause, the fine and honorable cause. It was the only way he knew, the only way asked until, in the end, the realization dawned on the czars that, in the words of Shakespeare, the heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble. The good cop was no more. The body could no longer serve the mind. The mind could no longer serve the body.

But Reggie Fleming, driving through the long night to Madison, Wisconsin to play hockey for a fifth-rate team of nobodies in a league few have heard of and few ever will, Reggie Fleming refuses to believe-or accept-that the end, for him, has come. It is a tragic story and an old one. Maybe it’s because Reggie Fleming's gift was his fists. Fighters always seem the most reluctant of athletes to bow out. Joe Louis for example. Louis went out to the sound of trumpets, came back, and went out a last time to a funeral dirge. Sugar Ray was a long time in believing. Floyd Patterson still doesn't know. Marciano was smart, one of the few. They should all have listened to Marciano. He said he knew it was time to go when he would hesitate in finishing off an opponent he had in trouble instead of doing it fast like he used to. He worried that maybe he couldn't do it. He worried that he would tire trying and get knocked out himself. Marciano reflected on this and came to a conclusion. Age. Growing old. Growing old takes the confidence and slowly dissolves it and when the confidence is no longer there, neither is what it was that made you good in the first place. Marciano went out to trumpets. But most fighters don't, or can't, and maybe it's because they are fighters. Traditionally, fighting is the manly art, the essence of machismo, manhood itself. Most fighters, schooled in the streets, believe this. Not being able to fight is not being a man anymore. So they tell themselves lies and keep on trying.

Reggie Fleming keeps on trying.

He laughs at my question, a short, nervous laugh and gives me a quick sideways glance. "A lot of people must be wondering that," he says in his high, raspy voice. "Look, I just love hockey, that's all, I love hockey. I think I can still play hockey the way I always played it, does there have to be a damn reason? Embarrassed, I’m supposed to be embarrassed or something because this is a nothing league, a bunch-a bunch of bums they say. I don’t give a damn what people think of me, I don’t care, I can still play hockey and that's what I'm doing, okay?"

For 16 years Fleming played and fought in the National Hockey League, first with Montreal, then Chicago, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Buffalo. Then he went to the WHA, where he spent two years with the Chicago Cougars. He played and fought, he'll tell you often, when the NHL was the best hockey in the world, before expansion in 1967. He never did score 20 goals in a season, the figure that historically separates the haves from the have-nots, although he did manage 23 his first season with the Cougars. But he wasn't expected to score goals. He was expected to fight. He did get penalties, plenty of them, and his ability to beat people up was always the root of his ego. In one season, 1965-66, he had more penalty minutes than any other player in the NHL. Today, he ranks seventh on the all-time list for penalty minutes, 1,468 minutes, more than 24 hours in the box. But he ranks first for getting those penalty minutes for fighting. He had a ferocious left hook, a decent right and a beautiful head butt. 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.

The dreaded inevitable happened last May on a flight back from Houston. "We're coming back after the finals, we got beaten out by Houston, and Stapleton and Demers, Jacques Demers, he's the director of player personnel with the Cougars, they called me over and told me they wanted me to retire, just like that. They wanted me to have a press conference and say I'm quitting. Stapleton said there was a job for me with the club after I quit. My mind was all confused, just throwing it at me like that. I didn't want to quit and Stapleton said it was a nice way out for me because the club wasn't going to protect me in the draft coming up next week. I asked why and he wouldn't give me a straight answer, something about the numbers game. I told him, that's fine, I'll take my chances in the draft. Whitey said, well, if nobody wants me, there's a job for me in the organization."

Pat (Whitey) Stapleton, coach and general manager of the Cougars (and now part owner), felt Fleming, in his second year with the club and with only two goals, 12 assists and 49 minutes in penalties to show for the 45 games he'd played in, had lost much of his ability; the little he had as a player and, now, as a policeman too. Stapleton used Fleming sparingly because he was overweight and slow.

"The year before," says Fleming, "I had those 23 goals. And I got 93 minutes in penalties. That was second best minutes on the team. I was still aggressive but, goddam it, he wouldn't use me enough, wouldn't let me show it."

Fleming took his chances in the draft. He lost. Not one team wanted him. He waited a few days. Nobody phoned. So he decided to phone. He called Harry Howell, coach of the San Diego Mariners. Howell was a good friend. They'd played together once for three years. Howell wasn't in. Fleming left a message to return the call. Howell never did. Fleming talked to Ron Ingram, director of player personnel for San Diego. "I tried San Diego because I thought they could use a good policeman." Ingram said rosters were already completed. Fleming phoned Buck Houle, general manager of the Toronto Toros, and left a message. Houle didn't phone back. Fleming quit phoning around.

He got a job selling beer to bars and restaurants. It paid $12,000 a year plus mileage for the used van provided. The comedown was hard. He has a wife and two small kids, a big mortgage on a big house in Chicago and high payments on his 1974 Thunderbird. With the Cougars, he earned $35,000 his last season. Not much by today's hockey standards-but the most money Reggie Fleming ever made in his life. His wife is a part-time airline stewardess. She makes $9,000 a year. It helps, but she thinks maybe she should start trying to become a full-time stewardess.

Throughout the summer, Reggie Fleming tried to get in touch with Stapleton about the promised job. He had difficulty reaching Stapleton. He did reach Demers. Demers said talk to Stapleton. He finally reached him. Stapleton said he was busy with Team Canada 74, wait a bit. Fleming did. All summer. In the meantime, he sold his beer. He'd get up late, help get the kids, Kelly, 5, and Chris, 7,off to school then watch cartoons on TV all morning. He was waiting for the phone to ring. It sometimes did but not with the call he wanted. At noon, he'd get into the van and drive 200 miles or more around Chicago selling his beer. The job had a built-in hazard for Fleming. He had to drink beer to be sociable. His weight ballooned. Soon he weighed 220 pounds-35 over his playing weight. He ate a lot too because that's what he does when he's bored and restless and it didn't help. It's hard to adjust when the only thing you did for 18 years is no longer there.

In late August, the mailman came with a letter from the Cougars. It was a try-out form, the kind given rookies and free agents. Fleming had never asked for a try-out form. It said he could come to training camp but would only be paid $25 an exhibition game, and if he got hurt he'd have to pay himself. There were other equally humiliating, clauses. He threw the form into the garbage.

"Eighteen years I played pro hockey and they send me something like that," says Fleming, "If they don't know what I can do after 18 years then they can go to hell." But the worst was yet to come. On Sept. 3, he got another letter from the Cougars. It started "Dear Mr. Fleming" and was signed "Jacques Demers." It told him that he'd cleared waivers in early summer, was a free agent and should start looking elsewhere for a job. That was it. Nothing else.

"I was going to try and get in touch with Demers and Stapleton and ask what the hell happened to the job promise but then I thought why should I, people like that don't deserve to hear from me."

Instead, he phoned around again. He phoned Indianapolis. He heard they were looking for a coach. They promised to phone back. They didn't. He phoned an old friend, Jean-Guy Gendron, coach of the Quebec Nordiques. Gendron invited him to training camp. He went-and was soon cut. Too fat. Too slow. "And," says general manager Maurice Filion, "not the fighter he once was." Fleming went back home to Chicago. He phoned Emile Francis, coach and general manager of the New York Rangers. Francis had always treated him well and told him, when he was traded, to call should he ever be out of work. Francis listened and sympathized-but it was now November and all the jobs were filled.

Eighteen years, thought Fleming over and over, 18 years and you go out like this. But the ego refused to wither. He listened to an offer to play left wing for a team called the Kenosha (Wisconsin) Flyers in something called the Continental League. Travel is by car or however you can, the rinks resemble barns and fans seldom number more than a few hundred. The level of play is industrial league in Canada. The players aren't paid but Fleming would be-$100 a game; $3,600 a season. He accepted. And found out fast that the Flyers can't fly and the league isn't continental. But grandeur is often made of dreams.

"You know, I had this dog once," says Reggie Fleming. "His name was Mickey and, oh, he was beautiful. Part husky. He'd follow me everywhere and nobody would try to fight me if Mickey was with me. He'd go to school with me, meet me at noon, walk back to school with me and be there when I get out. Just like magic. Mickey didn't go looking for trouble but he'd never back down. He'd do anything I told him, anything. He looked scary but he really wasn't. He'd only fight to protect me. I remember when he died. I guess I was about 11. I held his paw in my hand and watched him die. I really loved Mickey. He was a real friend, maybe the best I ever had."

Reggie Fleming's survival ethic was spawned in the big red brick house in east-end Montreal where, as an only child, he lived with his parents, grandparents and nine uncles and aunts, some not much older than him. His father, Alex, was a government packaging inspector, a big raw-boned man who once played pro football in Montreal. His mother, Julie, worked as a cigarette girl at Delormier Stadium in the summer and a counter girl at the Forum in the winter. In those years, before the war, it was a culture that demanded youthful subservience to authority and Fleming's dad demanded more than most. Fleming lived in the big, old house for his first 13 years while his parents saved to buy a home of their own.

"We were a good Catholic family," says his widowed mother today, "we went to church every Sunday. Reggie was an altar boy. He was taught to respect his elders. In those days you did as you were told. It's the way it was. Reggie was a good boy. When we finally moved into our own home, I'd come home from work and he'd have the potatoes and vegetables ready. On Saturdays, he'd wash and mop the floors.

He got into fights, yes, but what boy didn't? But he didn't go haywire like some kids when they got older. He was too busy playing baseball and hockey and football. He was always out playing. He loved sports. He always tried his best."

Reggie Fleming remembers: "It was a tough neighborhood, English and French, mostly French and they were always attacking the English guys, right? You had to fight. I learned with my uncles, there were five of them, all older than me, that you didn't back down. I was sort of an outsider, being an only child and they'd pick on me. I wanted to prove I was better than them. I had to fight better. I got a reputation as a fighter, a tough guy. Only time they'd leave me alone was when I was with Mickey." He laughs. "But I only fought if challenged. You couldn't be a chicken."

He remembers high school, D'Arcy McGee, where he got to grade 11, never a very good student. "They made me protector of the cafeteria once. The girls would get out five minutes before the boys so they could buy stuff in the cafeteria without the boys bugging them. My job was to stand at the door and make sure none of the guys got in, right? Well, this guy, this tough guy, he got by me. I threw him out, smashed his head on the floor. Sure I felt bad but he should have listened to me. The teachers didn't want him in. I was just following orders. Same when the teacher would leave the room. Some guys would always fool around and I'd tell them to shut up. Nobody told me to do it, I just would. I felt it was unfair on the kids trying to get an education. It wasn't fair on the teachers. They had a job to do, right?"
"Me, I was a dummy, it didn't matter, but some kids were trying to learn. I'd feel sorry for the teachers, you were supposed to listen to them, do what they said. I remember this one kid, fooling around, I busted his nose. He wouldn't stop fooling around. I could never understand it. All you had to do was what you were told and there'd be no problems."

Fleming played high school hockey and was invited to the training camp of the Montreal Junior Canadiens, coached by Sam Pollock, now general manager of the Canadiens of the NHL. He didn't make it his first year. He did his second. He made it on his ability and desire to fight to help his team. His mother: "Father and I would go to the games and Reggie would never be used unless Pollock wanted something stirred up. Then, out he'd come. It sickened me, I was crying inside. I'd see him all cut and bleeding. I was going to tell Pollock to stop using my child this way but Reggie told me 'Mother, don’t, it's my job, what I'm supposed to do, it's the only way I'll make it.'"

"My first game in Chicago," says Fleming, "there was a brawl and I just sort of watched. In the dressing room Rudy Pilous, he was our coach, he said 'Fleming, if your buddies are in trouble don't just stand there. Your job is to help them out, fight for them. If you don't, you might as well pack your bag, you're no use to us.' So I went out and fought. That was always my job, eh? I didn't do it to be cruel, I was just following orders."

There are many hockey experts, NHL referee-in-chief Scotty Morrison for one, who think the policeman in hockey is fast becoming obsolete. "The best way to spark your team is with a goal. As hockey schools get better, the skills get better and you don't need the rough stuff to accomplish something. In the old days of six teams, the rivalry was fierce. It was war. The policeman never talked to players on other teams off the ice. But today, you got players on different teams running the same hockey school, in the same golf tournament, with the same lawyer. It's hard to hate and fight your business partner and friend." Plus, it's a whole new culture today. The culture that gave us a Reggie Fleming is no more. Today's player is better educated and more passive, Watergate and Vietnam having taught all of us that leaders do not necessarily sit on the right hand of God, their commands to be blindly served."

"I still think you need the cop," says Fleming "it's the tough teams that win the Stanley Cup. Take this team I'm on now. I get respect. Why? Because they know I'm Reggie Fleming. Somebody's always taking a run at me so he can say he fought Reggie Fleming. It means something. Usually, though, I just push them off now. Hell, they're just kids and old men, eh? What have I got to prove?"

The Kenosha Flyers, playing before 415 fans in a cold, cheerless Madison arena that can seat 8,000, are trailing the Madison Blues 10-7 in the third period when it happens. A kid on the Blues named John Gill trips the Flyers' Steve Anderson. Anderson gets up, skates over to Gill, says something. Gill says something back. Anderson punches him in the face. The crowd roars. Gill brings his stick down on Anderson's head. Anderson collapses to the ice, and now the crowd is going wild. Across the ice charges Reggie Fleming. He lifts his stick and smashes Gill across the back of the neck, sending him to the ice. The benches empty, the fans scream, rush down from their seats to the boards, throw cups and papers on the ice. "You rotten bastard, Fleming," a voice yells. "Kill him, Kill Fleming."

A tall, skinny black kid with the Blues, Cal Harris, 23, who weighs 170 pounds, turns on Fleming. "C'mon, Fleming, drop your stick, drop it you chicken and we'll see how tough you are."

"Screw off," says Fleming, and turns away.

"Fight you coward," screams Harris, fists clenched. "Fight, you fat slob." The crowd howls for blood. Fleming skates over to the penalty box. He's shouting at the referee but it can't be heard over the noise. A fan leans over the rail and spits on Fleming's head. A half-filled cup of Coke hits Fleming on the shoulder and he turns, curses the fan and waves his stick blade in his face. "Fight, c'mon, fight," Harris is yelling in the background. "Chicken," the fans chant. "Chicken! Chicken! Chicken!"

All the wars of all the nights of the past suddenly rage through Reggie Fleming's mind and, spinning, he attacks Harris, fists up and swinging, the crowd shrieking. Fleming misses with a wild right hook. Harris slams him in the face with a right, a left, drives a right deep in to Fleming's belly. Fleming gasps, doubles over and Harris slams his head back with an uppercut. The crowd screams with delight. The other players watch. Fleming swings blindly at Harris but Harris moves in, punches him furiously in the face and head and hurls him against the boards. Harris pulls Fleming's jersey over his head, tosses him to the ice, jumps on him and flails away. Blood appears on Fleming's jersey, spreading fast like ink on a blotter. Harris doesn't let up and Fleming is helpless. It's brutal and sickening to watch and finally it's broken up. To boos and thrown debris, Fleming leaves the ice, gasping for breath, blood pouring down his battered face. He heads to the dressing room, alone, closes the door softly behind him, and sits on the bench. From far away come the crowd noises. He says nothing, takes off his jersey, throws it in a corner. He turns back, closes his eyes for a few seconds. He opens them and looks at his hands, turning them slowly. They're trembling.

"Sometimes," he says softly and haltingly, "Sometimes I wish ... I wish I could control myself just once. It's ... it's the kids. I go home and they see the cuts and bruises and--" He doesn't finish the sentence. He lifts his hands to his face. For a long time he's quiet and then, from behind the red swollen hands, a long, shuddering sigh. In the morning, the children will see him. He knows what they will ask. And he knows, as always, he won’t have an answer.
When you have bacon and eggs for breakfast, the chicken makes a contribution, but the pig makes a committment

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