Reggie Fleming hated the piece I wrote on him. For years afterwards he let people know that if he ever ran into me, I’d be the next victim of his fists that destroyed so many opponents in his long NHL career as the most-feared of goons.
It seemed he was not able to accept reading the truths.
Now neuropathologists at Boston University say tests on the brain of Fleming, who died this past summer at 73, revealed chronic encephalopathy, a disease mostly related to boxers, football players; athletes vulnerable to head injuries. Reggie Fleming, who played before helmets, not only delivered thousands of punches to the head, but absorbed a great many.
The national article I wrote on Fleming was for The Canadian magazine in 1975. It was the cover, and titled
Requiem For Reggie. It would also become the title of my first book that carried the piece.
The dean of American hockey writers/authors Stan Fischler said it was “the greatest hockey story ever written.” Writer Roy MacGregor called it “a true classic in Canadian journalism.” These accolades for what it said about human exploitation and cruelty in the world of hockey. The full story can be accessed by going to Google and typing in “Requiem For Reggie.”
Fleming was 39 and five years out of the NHL when I hooked up with him in Chicago. He was selling souvenir trinkets for a living. And playing hockey one night a week with a rag-tag team called the Kenosha Flyers in tank towns and small arenas beneath dim lights throwing long shadows.
Fleming anguished about how when his aging, hurting, fists weren’t so effective anymore, he was kissed off by the potentates who once embraced him, refusing to even take his phone calls or answer his letters pleading for another chance, pleading for work of some kind. When his fists and the attitude that drove them were diminished, Reggie Fleming was nothing more to them than useless, decaying meat.
He grew up an only child in a tough part of Montreal, his father a packaging inspector, his mother a cigarette girl at Delorimier Stadium. Fighting, he said, was not his true nature. His true nature, he said, was that of his little dog Mickey.
“Mickey didn’t go looking for trouble, but he’d never back down. He looked scary, but he really wasn’t. He’d only fight to protect me. He was a real friend, maybe the best I ever had.”
Fleming’s widowed mother told me: “Reggie was taught to respect his elders. In those days, you did as you were told. I’d come home from work and he’d have the potatoes and vegetables ready. He got into fights, yes, but what boy didn’t.”
On my last night with Fleming, I drove with him to his game, the Kenosha Flyers playing the Madison Blues before 415 fans. Fleming was by far the oldest player on the ice, trying hard to be effective as a player, not, anymore, looking to get into fights.
The tall, skinny, black kid on the Blues had other ideas. Cal Harris was 23. He didn’t see Reggie Fleming as he was then. He saw his NHL reputation. He saw a chance to make himself a bar-room hero.
“C’mon Fleming, drop your stick, drop it you chicken and we’ll see how tough you are.” Not too many years earlier Fleming would have demolished him. “Screw off,” said Fleming, turning away.
“Fight you coward, fight you fat slob,” screamed Harris. “Chicken,” the crowd yelled at Fleming. “Chicken. Chicken. Chicken.”
A minute later, it was over. Harris gave him a brutal beating, raining punches into his 39-year-old head. A bloody Fleming collapsed to the ice.
He left for the empty dressing room. Photographer Brian Willer and I followed him. He sat alone on a bench. His face was red, swollen, blood pouring down. He put his face in his battered hands. He was silent for a long time. And then from behind his hands he said softly, haltingly: “Sometimes...sometimes I wish I could control myself just once. It’s...it’s the kids. I go home and they see the cuts and the bruises and...”
Reggie Fleming, whose brain this week revealed all the damage from all the wars, let out a shuddering sigh, unable to finish the sentence.
Reggie Fleming, goon, whose dead brain this week, not his destructive fists, became his greatest legacy for good in the league that once would have nothing to do with him anymore.